Literature, History and Factidiversiality
Walker, David H., Journal of European Studies
The twentieth century is commonly held to be an era when the existence of the individual is invaded by or subsumed under the wider collective adventure - or calamity. Helene in Simone de Beauvoir's Le Sang des autres exemplifies the experience as she contemplates the occupation of France by the Nazis: 'Comme si je n'existais pas [. . .] Je ne compte pas [. . .] Je regardais passer l'Histoire! C'etait mon histoire. Tout ca m'arrive a moi.' However, despite the advantage of hindsight, the lived experience of historical forces swamping the individual often eludes our retrospective grasp. This is in part because even as history is being lived, it is encountered in mediated forms, chiefly through the news: soldiers who have fought on the battlefields, when interrogated for first-hand testimony, as often as not quote the news reports back at the investigator.
Meanwhile, for those not directly involved in great cataclysms there is another arena where private experience is transfigured by being expropriated and projected into the public domain. Turandot, in Raymond Queneau's Zazie dans le metro, becomes aware of it when, having come close to being accused of indecent assault, he trembles at his narrow escape - not from 'l'histoire', but from 'la factidiversialite. For ordinary French mortals, the fait divers is notoriety enough. It does not normally entail appearances on the front page, in due deference to the march of history which has its place reserved there. In fact one of the features of the fait divers is systematically to commemorate the recurrent, rather than ongoing, patterns in current affairs: the crime passionnel, varieties of other crimes and scandals, the curious accidents and paradoxes of everyday life, all are reported in their stark challenge to commonsense and ordinariness, so as to reassure us nonetheless by confirming our belief that 'there's nowt so queer as folk' or 'it's a funny old world'. It is through this material that people relate to their own existences as much as, if not more than, through representations of history on the march.
Thus for Foucault, in Surveiller et punir, the rise of the inquisitorial apparatus policing, anticipating and punishing deviants, which is a dominant achievement of nineteenth-century society in the period following the Industrial Revolution, is manifest in the omnipresence of the fait divers propagating a view of criminality that corresponds to this evolution. For Baudrillard, the fait divers is the cardinal category of thought in the consumer society: it is the form, at once anodyne and miraculous, which articulates political, historical and cultural information in terms which accord with our fantasms of involvement in the dramas of reality.
French cultural history provides many examples that vindicate the views of both Foucault and Baudrillard. Social and ideological undercurrents and tensions frequently find in the fait divers a pretext for expression. The process can be recognized at work when a fait divers becomes an affaire and draws the attention of artists and intellectuals as well as journalists and the judiciary. It seems to occur most readily when explicit socio-historical pressures as such are not at their most acute. For example, the early 1930s have been characterized as a period of historico-political stagnation: the unions were divided, the Communist Party ghettoized through the 'mots d'ordre suicidaires' imposed on it by the VIth Internationale in 1928, and Hitler was not yet perceived as the threat he would soon become. These years saw an intense interest in faits divers. It is as if the rubric provides a framework within which socio-political disquiet can be articulated in displaced forms during a time of political transition and uncertainty. In 1933-4, when Violette Nozieres was arrested and tried for poisoning her parents, the ensuing coverage articulated a complex of ideological anxieties about the family, female sexuality and the corruption of youth. The Papin sisters, the notorious maids who murdered their mistress and her daughter and featured in the news during the same period, similarly generated much public soul-searching on questions such as social hierarchies, criminal responsibility and the involvement of psychiatrists in the judicial process. These women became a focus of attention, admiration and inspiration for the surrealists as well as for Jean-Paul Sartre, Colette and Jean Genet, among others. In this article, I wish to consider literary responses of writers to the interaction between history and fait divers at moments such as these.
The points at which an 'affaire' emerges from inside the newspaper to occupy the front page are worthy of scrutiny. Certainly, foreign and domestic politics and international tensions following Hitler's seizure of power in 1933 visibly reduced the prominence accorded to the Papin trial and in the latter part of the Thirties tended to keep the fait divers firmly within its allotted place, as ideological debate crystallized around more explicitly political material. But the commentator who remarked in Le Temps of 8 October 1933 that dictators arise in households where people do not know how to give orders to the maid was signalling an important and abiding link between the two types of news item.
As we have seen, it was in the slide to World War II that people experienced with particular acuteness the invasion of their lives by politics and history. To enable us to understand a little of what this means in practice, we might pay attention to the actual layout of the pages of the newspapers which reported this process. Certainly there is evidence that some writers of fiction approach the question in this way. As an illustrative example we might consider the case of Eugen Weidmann, the serial killer who was arrested near Paris in December 1937 along with his accomplices and confessed to having murdered six people. The first wave of interest following Weidmann's arrest coincides with another period of political disorientation, as the Front Populaire went through its agonies. This and the run-up to the Christmas holidays perhaps account in part for the huge amount of front-page news space the story was accorded. It dominated the papers from 10 December 1937, when the arrest was first reported, through to the New Year.
The position this story occupied in the following year is fairly precisely noted by Sartre in L'Age de raison, the first volume of Les Chemins de la liberte, which alludes to events in mid-June 1938. The hero Mathieu, conscious of hovering on the brink of the historical maelstrom and tormented by the social and political responsibilities that his freedom entails, buys a copy of the newspaper L'Excelsior, and finds it emblazoned with front-page headlines about the fascist bombing of Valencia. 'Mathieu tourna la page, il n'avait pas envie d'en savoir plus long,' we are told. What does he come across? 'Du nouveau sur l'affaire Weldmann', among other things. Here the texture of immediate experience, including the recoil from history towards the fait divers even while the former shoulders the latter aside in the news, is explicitly bound up with turning the pages of a newspaper; the process becomes the very stuff of the literary narrative.
Weidmann again occupied the front pages at the time of his trial, in March and April 1939, and once more on 17 and 18 June 1939, marking his execution. But by the time Weidmann came to trial, Hitler had annexed Austria and there was increasingly little doubt about his intentions. During the trial Franco defeated the Republicans in Spain and Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. These events did not eclipse the fait divers, however. The cataclysms of history and the drama of the courtroom were actually reported side by side on the front pages. In the newspaper L'Oeuvre the second day's court proceedings appeared on 12 March alongside the headline 'La revolte communiste serait enfin vaincue a Madrid'. On 16 March the headlines read 'Quatrieme episode de l'affaire Weidmann: l'assassinat du chauffeur Couffy' and 'Hitler a fait son entree a Prague. Fin de la Tchecoslovaquie'. On 17 March it was 'La Slovaquie a son tour subit le sort de la Boheme. Elle est pratiquement rattachee au Reich'; and 'Weidmann l'assassin et Million le fossoyeur de Jeanine Keller'. The sentence of death was passed on Weidmann and Million on 1 April, two days after Poland rejected German demands and the day after Britain guaranteed its support of the country against the Nazi threat. The reasons why the fait divers remained on page one despite the urgency of the broader political situation are complex, but it seems clear that while the international situation seemed increasingly beyond the control of ordinary French people (and even of French politicians), at home here was a German who could be dealt with. It is of course quite possible to see a parallel between the two sets of reports. The story of how the German psychopath - 'le monstre allemand' as Detective called him - crossed the frontier into France and massacred a number of French citizens (as well as a German and an American) might have been read as a fable for what the German war-machine was doing (would do) across Europe. It is true that at the outset, the reporter in L'Oeuvre of 16 March comments, 'On a un peu honte a parler longuement de cette affaire Weidmann, quand d'autres drames plus angoissants, qui se deroulent en Europe, occupent les esprits.' But the fait divers forces itself into the limelight regardless of this acknowledged inappropriateness, and the connection between the two sets of events was not lost on the defence lawyer. Maitre Maro-Giafferri also apologized for pleading on behalf of Weidmann while terrible crimes were being perpetrated in Spain and Central Europe: but in so doing he was acknowledging the hostility felt towards the German as a perceived representative of the fascist aggressors. Moreover, he exploited this perception when he sought to explain Weidmann's barbaric instincts by referring to the history of the German people. In the event his remarks came close to sparking an international incident, since German radio took the barrister violently to task for suggesting that Weidmann's German origins explained his murderous conduct.
The Weidmann case took on a literary dimension independently of intervention by the litterateurs. Maitre Renee Jardin, reports Paris-Soir of 30 March 1939, 'chercha avec beaucoup d'emotion la "verite psychologique" de Weidmann. Elle emprunta la voix de Ludmilla Pitoeff pour faire des remarques qui evoquaient tantot Mauriac, tantot Dostoievsky, quelquefois Eugene Sue.' But this was not the only instance of its kind, since Colette had been commissioned to write 'les impressions d'audience du proces' for Paris-Soir. Parts of these reports, in modified form, were later published in her Oeuvres completes under the title 'Monstres'. Among other remarks, she refers to Weidmann's physical appearance as having the allure of the vampire in Le Docteur Caligari. But in Paris-Soir of 2 April, in a text printed after the death sentence had been pronounced and not subsequently reproduced, she explores in more telling detail the nature of this monster's charm. This text, which merits extensive quotation because of its intrinsic interest as well as its comparative inaccessibility, is the more audacious and significant for being written against a background of intense anti-German feeling:
Delivrons-nous d'abord d'un malaise qui allait grandissant. Malaise qui n'etait point la nausee banale, la banale horreur qu'inspire un criminel rebutant, mais un etrange vacillement, dangereux pour l'equilibre de notre raison. Notre sens du social et du moral qui luttait contre un parti pris favorable forme, fortifie en nous au cours du tres long proces. Nous n'acceptions pas sans nous debattre qu'un assassin hideux ait, d'un bout a l'autre des audiences, conserve la dignite corporelle, la mesure dans les mots, le refus de s'apitoyer sur lui-meme, qu'il ait pris soin de ne jamais en appeler a notre compassion, voire a notre interet; mais, en nous debattant, nous l'acceptions. Un accablant dossier, la repetition du geste homicide, ses motifs bas, nous retenaient - j'allais ecrire: heureusement - dans ce glissement vers la faveur, que nieront, seuls, ceux qui n'ont pas assiste a l'affaire Weidmann.
Que devons-nous appeler un crirninel horrible? Celui qui nous remplit d'effroi, non par ce qu'il nous presente de bestial et de grossierement terrifique, mais par ce qui le rapproche de nous, nous rend sensible sa ressemblance avec nous. Quoi, ce 'monstre' qui a saute la barriere, mis entre lui et nous un espace aussi incalculable que la fallacieuse etendue repercutee par deux miroirs en face l'un de l'autre, il etait hier notre semblable? Bien plus, il est encore aujourd'hui, sur le banc de chine tout pare des doux dehors humains, de l'humaine chaleur persuasive? Quoi, il dependait d'un moment effrene, d'une ivresse, d'une erreur, que nous nous precipitions vers une ressemblance avec lui plus profonde? Cela fair trembler - et nous avons tremble.
Colette's insights cut through the highly-charged atmosphere to actualize the physical magnetism of the man and convey something of the unsettling experience of confronting a monster who was so patently a human being too. They lay the foundations for subsequent literary identifications with Weidmann, as we shall see.
The time and date of Weidmann's execution were announced on the radio and published in the press, with the result that an unruly crowd gathered round the guillotine in the course of the night, and police and troops had to drive them back at dawn for the execution to take place. So repugnant was the spectacle, reported (with copious photographs) in the papers on 18 June 1939, that on 26 June it was decreed that executions would no longer be carried out in public. This was thus the last execution at which the condemned man could, if he felt so inclined, 'souhaiter qu'il y ait beaucoup de spectateurs le jour de [s]on execution et qu'ils [l]'accueillent avec des cris de haine', as Meursault puts it at the end of L'Etranger. Camus had sketched this ending as early as 1938 - thus before the Weidmann trial though he did not complete the novel till 1940, to see it published in 1942. Its concluding lines had thus already been overtaken by events at the time they appeared in print, and represented an anachronism. We know that Camus had an almost obsessive interest in the death sentence, having been haunted from an early age by a story his mother told about his father's reactions after having attended a public execution. He has Meursault recall such a story and regret that he had not taken more interest in capital punishment when he had the opportunity: 'rien n'etait plus important qu'une execution capitale', Meursault realizes, and he tells how he resolved that 'Si jamais je sortais de cette prison, j'irais voir toutes les executions capitales'. Of course this will not be possible for him: he has himself been condemned to death and it is part of Camus's purpose to denounce capital punishment by stressing its irrevocable nature. But now we see that even if this had not been the case the option was not available to anyone, let alone Meursault, after 18 June 1939. Of course when the novel was published in 1942, under the German Occupation, such quibbles would have appeared inappropriate, even unseemly: perhaps this is one reason why Camus felt he could maintain the conclusion despite the fact that he knew as well as anyone how its significance had altered. It is also of interest to consider how Meursault attempts to rectify the general ignorance about what happens at a beheading. He had been the victim of a popular misconception, he points out, stemming from the iconography of the French Revolution which tends to suggest that the condemned person climbs to the guillotine up steps to a platform (from which, for example, s/he can make noble speeches to the crowd). 'Mais un matin, je me suis souvenu d'une photographie publiee par les journaux a l'occasion d'une execution retentissante. En realite, la machine etait posse a meme le sol, le plus simplement du monde. Elle etait beaucoup plus etroite que je ne le pensais. C'etait assez drole que je ne m'en fusse pas avise plus tot. Cette machine sur le cliche m'avait frappe par son aspect d'ouvrage de precision, fini et etincelant ... la machine est au meme niveau que l'homme qui marche vers elle. Il la rejoint comme on marche a la rencontre d'une personne.'
Here Meursault highlights the way in which the glamour of historical representations falsities the physical reality. The perception works in the same way that Colette's remarks do, and will be ratified by Tarrou's denunciation in La Peste of the images that travesty the brutal facts of political and judicial execution: 'vous en etes reste aux estampes et aux livres.' The photograph Meursault refers to is almost certainly one taken at the execution of Weidmann. It was published widely in the newspapers and in particular in Alger-Republicain, on which Camus was a reporter, in June 1939. In his Reflexions sur la guillotine of 1957, Camus actually recalls the tasteless press coverage of the execution in Paris-Soir, indicating that the photographs enabled the 'bon peuple parisien' to 'se rendre compte que la legere machine de precision dont l'executeur se servait etait aussi differente de l'echafaud historique qu'une Jaguar peut l'etre de nos vieilles de Dion-Bouton'. 'Ouvrage de precision', 'machine de precision'; the echo, though perhaps unconscious, is telling, as is the common nature of the revelation involved. By the time he wrote this latter essay, however, Camus could complain that the reasons for the 'mesure relativement recente' making this the last public execution had been wiped from people's memories by the intervening years. Perhaps a part of his irritation stemmed from the irrevocable effect this now forgotten measure was to have on the significance of L'Etranger. What is certain is that the immediacy of the fait divers and the accompanying photograph impressed themselves enduringly upon Camus even while the greater forces of history were overtaking him and millions like him with dizzying speed.
At the height of the German Occupation of France, Camus wrote a series of articles entitled Lettres a un ami allemand, addressed to an anonymous misguided German who had given way to nihilism to the extent of furthering the Nazi cause. It is unlikely, however, that Camus had Weidmann in mind, given that he is clearly not susceptible to the glamour of the criminal de droit commun. In his specific reference to Weidmann of 1957, Camus calls him slightingly the 'auteur de plusieurs meurtres, que ses exploits avaient mis a la mode'. His detachment is perhaps partly explained by the fact that being a newspaper man himself, he is more conscious than most of the way in which such glamour is manufactured by the press. A journalist will tell Meursault, 'Vous savez, nous avons un peu monte votre affaire'. But it is equally well worth pointing out that by 1957 Camus had built on the thesis of the Lettres a un ami allemand by completing that critical scrutiny of the criminal impulse and its intellectual apologists which is an important feature of L'Homme revolte. He had done this quite deliberately in an effort to free himself as well as his contemporaries from the spell of such individuals as Weidmann. An important theme of L'Homme revolte is that the distorted construction of history by which the twentieth century has been blighted is in no small measure due to the misplaced sympathy for the criminal that inspired early rebels. In other words, Camus's purpose was to purge history of its contamination by the fait divers. Thus the detachment he shows towards Weidmann twenty years after the case has perhaps been hard won.
Be that as it may, an aspect of Meursault's trial appears to link it to another notable feature of the Weidmann affair. Both Colette and the Paris-Soir staff reporter remarked on the detachment from the proceedings which the defendant showed at his trial: '. . . il s'eloigne de nous', she wrote; and her colleague noted: 'Feint ou sincere, son detachement paraissait absolu. Il etait impossible de n'en etre point frappe'. After the announcement of the sentence, when his lawyer mentioned the possibility of an appeal, Weidmann is reported as saying: 'Merci, maitre, mais je suis deja plus loin que cela.'
Meursault evokes this process from the point of view of the defendant. Particularly in chapter IV of the second part of the novel, he indicates how his involvement in matters wanes as the court procedures seem to acquire their own momentum and exclude him. In fact, Camus derives considerable satirical effect from Meursault's indirect presentation of the barristers' rhetoric. When this culminates in the defence lawyer's usurping Meursault's own first person pronoun to speak on his client's behalf, the hero is briefly surprised, but accepts the situation with the comment, 'J'etais deja tres loin de cette salle d'audience' - an echo, perhaps, of Weidmann's phrase (which as we shall see drew the attention of at least one other novelist of note).
We have seen that Sartre evokes the Weidmann case as an ingredient in the history of the period. Another significant if less obvious reference occurs in Les Mouches. This play, which was of course staged under the German occupation, contains a piece of tongue-in-cheek social criticism by Jupiter which seems to refer back to the impact on the populace of the suspension of public executions following the guillotining of Weidmann. The King of Mount Olympus explains that this was how Agamemnon lost his grip over the people of Thebes, allowing them to decline into a state where they stood by and welcomed his assassination by Egisthe: 'Agamemnon etait bon homme, mais il eut un grand tort, voyez-vous. Il n'avait pas permis que les executions capitales eussent lieu en public. C'est dommage. Une bonne pendaison, cela distrait, en province, et cela blase un peu les gens sur la mort. Les gens d'ici n'ont rien dit, parce qu'ils s'ennuyaient et qu'ils voulaient voir une mort violente.' An allusion to the guillotine here would have been too anachronistic, but the wry implication is nonetheless evident, and fits appropriately with the play's allegorical concern for resistance in the face of oppression and Occupation: had public executions been maintained, the cynic suggests, the French people would not have accepted so passively the defeat of their rulers by the Germans.
In the light of the evidence so far assembled, we can better appreciate the impact of the opening lines of Notre-Dame-des-fleurs, which make it clear that Jean Genet was especially struck by the case:
Weidmann vous apparut dans une edition de cinq heures, la tete emmaillotee de bandelettes blanches, religieuse et encore aviateur blesse, tombe dans les seigles, un jour de septembre pareil a celui ou fut connu le nom de Notre-Dame des Fleurs.
In fact the whole book is summed up here. The novel's climax when Notre Dame achieves notoriety as hero of the fait divers is exactly prefigured and exemplified in the serial murderer. The allusion is to a famous photograph, published in Paris-Soir on 10 December 1937, of Weidmann's appearance before the examining magistrate after having sustained head wounds during his arrest. That Genet is precisely recalling Paris-Soir's coverage of the arrest is made explicit when he indicates that 'Sous son image, eclataient d'aurore ses crimes: meurtre 1, meurtre 2, meurtre 3 et jusqu'a six'. A noteworthy feature in Genet's presentation of the photograph is that though it predates the outbreak of the war, Genet, evoking it in 1942, can retrospectively read into it an expression of the hostility between France and Germany that as we have seen was latent in 1937-9, but existed for real as he wrote (and glorified in it, especially in Pompes funebres). Hence Weidmann's bandaged head gives him the appearance of an aviator and produces in Genet 'une ferveur comparable a celle qui me tordit, et me laissa quelques minutes grotesquement crispe, quand j'entendis au-dessus de la prison l'avion allemand passer et l'eclatement de la bombe qu'il lacha tout pres.' What Camus appears to have shied away from is made manifest here: Weidmann is associated with the Nazi invasion of France - which Genet welcomed as retribution visited on the society that had condemned Genet himself.
At the outset of his novel, Genet catalogues the sources from which he culled clippings and photographs of his criminal idols' exploits and stuck them to the cell wall; he then integrates their notoriety into his autobiography, as he announces his intention to 'ecrire une histoire . . . ma propre histoire' of which they and he will be the heroes. In contrast to Queneau's Turandot, and as an alternative to the fate of Beauvoir's Helene, Genet seeks precisely to project his life not into 'l'histoire' with a capital H, but into 'la factidiversialite'. Certainly, as he concludes his book and appears to accept the prospect of a life in prison, Genet quotes verbatim a second time, and makes his own, a sentence he has highlighted in the opening pages of the novel: he reproduces those words Weidmann spoke to his lawyer after receiving his sentence: 'J'ai resigne mes desirs. Moi aussi, je suis "deja plus loin que cela" (Weidmann)'. Both Genet's biographer, and the most recent chronicler of the Weidmann case on whom he relies, cast unjustified doubt on the authenticity of this quotation, mistakenly seeing it as a distorted citation from a different source: but the evidence of the fait divers report is clear enough.
Genet's prose work is a spiritual autobiography modelled on the lives of the criminals who have inspired him. 'J'envie ta gloire', he says in Notre-Dame-des-fleurs, apostrophizing the murderer Pilorge to whom the book is dedicated. 'J'irais bien facilement a la guillotine, puisque d'autres y sont alles, et surtout Pilorge, Weidmann, Ange Soleil, Soclay . . . ces creations forment tout mon concert spirituel passe.' Elsewhere he refers to himself as 'moi qui recree ces hommes, Weidmann, Pilorge, Soclay, dans mon desir d'etre eux-memes'. His fascination for Weidmann is a constant of this perverse enterprise. Perhaps finding inspiration and authorization in Colette's reports on the powerful charisma of the murderer, Genet identifies closely with him. Indeed, it is probably not by chance that he gives the date of Weidmann's first appearance in the papers, erroneously, as September rather than December 1937: that was the date when he himself made his debut in the fait divers rubric of Le Petit Parisien on receiving his first prison sentence. Nor would it have escaped his notice that Weidmann was executed on the same day Genet was jailed in Chalon-sur-Saone.
As late as the Journal du voleur Genet returns to the photograph of Weidmann alluded to at the start of his first book, and analyses its qualities. Second-rate villains whose photos he compares this with look unimpressive, and not just because of the nature of the print, the angle of the photograph: 'Ils avaient la mine de gens pris au piege, mais a celui qu'ils se sont tendu, au piege interieur.' Weidmann is a different case altogether, since he defies the image-appropriating machinery of the media: 'Sur la tres belle photo qui le montre dans ses bandes Velpeau Weidmann blesse par le flic qui l'arreta, c'est aussi une bete prise au piege, mais a celui des hommes. Contre lui, sa propre verite ne se retourne pas pour enlaidir sa gueule.' As Colette had put it, despite their notoriety and personal magnetism criminals like Weidmann remain essentially elusive since they are 'pour notre esprit, hors de portee'. For this reason, Weidmann has a fundamentally aesthetic, timeless value for Genet, standing as a precursor of Said in Les Paravents. On the copy of the photograph cut from Paris-Soir which Genet dedicated to Olga Kechelievitch in November 1944, he wrote: 'j'offre eternellement l'image d'un archange ensanglante pris au piege de la police des hommes.'
Genet therefore begins by glorifying in Weidmann the bloodthirsty invader who wreaks havoc among the French people and in the imagination of those respectable bourgeois whom Genet hated because their society excluded him. Through the establishment of chronological and other correspondences, the hero of the fait divers becomes the embodiment of a personal vengeance which takes on historic dimensions. Ultimately, however, he progresses even beyond history to become a constellation in Genet's poetic heaven.
While Genet relished the French public's inability to comprehend, appropriate or assimilate this irredeemable monster, Michel Tournier also invokes Weidmann, in Le Roi des aulnes - but makes of him more a victim of the mediocre society he terrorized. Abel Tiffauges, the narrator-hero whose 'Ecrits sinistres' constitute the first part of the novel, sets the Weidmann affair against a background of the disreputable politics of the dying days of the Third Republic. His personal narrative is interspersed with allusions to both the historical information and the fait divers he reads concurrently in the newspapers. He is thus a clear example of the phenomenon of interaction between the two which we are concerned with.
In all likelihood taking his inspiration from Genet, Tournier structures this part of his novel around an identification that develops between Abel Tiffauges and Eugen Weidmann. Furthermore, in order to establish a close connection between this process and the historic decline into war, Tournier alters the chronology, for example having Tiffauges read of Weidmann's arrest on 9 December 1938. This is precisely a year later than in reality: but it locates the whole affair in the period following Munich and Ribbentrop's visit to Paris on 6 December 1938 and presents it thereby as an integral part of that inglorious phase of history. (Tournier also increases the number of murders from six to seven, in keeping perhaps with the pseudo-cabbalistic patterning which Tiffauges will increasingly perceive at work in his existence.) At a practical narrative level, however, this chronological alteration entails the compression of allusions to the instruction into the period between December 1938 and March 1939; the trial is said to be in progress on 3 June 1939, whereas in fact it began in March and was over by 2 April. President Lebrun's refusal of clemency and the subsequent execution, reported on their true dates of 16 and 17 June, thereby seem to come with unseemly speed: but this has the effect of underlining Tiffauges's view that Weidmann is being ignobly treated by a regime whose characteristics amounted to 'ce tour de force: allier l'insignifiance a l'abjection'.
Tiffauges lives out the identification with Weidmann that Genet's novels are built on. He records a series of coincidences that make this identification seem fateful: 'on dirait que le destin s'acharne a le rapprocher de moi', he says on discovering that Weidmann is left-handed like himself, that the murderer's crimes are sinistres like Tiffauges's writings. He has noted earlier that the German's height and weight are precisely the same as his own, and elsewhere that they were both born on the same date: 'Ce sont des rencontres qui me blessent plus que je ne saurais le dire', he writes. This is because he feels immense sympathy for the accused, as he says, in the face of 'le spectacle du corps social tout entier attache a la perte de cet homme seul, accable de crimes'. Weidmann is seen to be a victim insofar as the forces ranged against him, and particularly the institution of capital punishment, are even more despicable than his crimes, however numerous these latter are. Having read that 'l'abject Lebrun' has refused to commute Weidmann's death sentence, Tiffauges declares. indignantly: 'y a-t-il un crime plus abominable que celui de cet homme chamarre, assis derriere son bureau monumental, libre de toute pression, qui refuse d'accomplir le petit geste qui arreterait la perpetration de l'assassinat legal?'
Tournier has carefully prepared the ground for this prise de position. Tiffauges's intimate interest in the subject has been prefigured by an earlier reflexion on capital punishment and by a passage referring to a jet of cold water which 'comme un couperet de guillotine m'est tombee sur la nuque'. Tournier has previously had his hero attack the moral basis of the judicial system in 'la societe effrayante ou nous vivons'. Prompted by statistics he reads in the press for the number of people who disappear without trace, and assuming that so-called 'normal' deaths conceal a fair proportion of disguised murders, Tiffauges concludes that the vast majority of murders go undetected and the cases that come to court are purely symbolic, intimating a respect for life which is quite spurious. Moreover, echoing Benjamin Peret's notorious denunciation of 'l'assassin Foch', Tiffauges notes the 'culte des assassins qui fleurit a la lettre a chaque coin de rue, sur les plaques bleues ou sont proposes a l'admiration publique les noms des hommes de guerre les plus illustres, c'est-a-dire des tueurs professionnels les plus sanguinaires de notre histoire'. He concludes: 'notre societe a la justice qu'elle merite.'
The epitome of this morally bankrupt society and judicial system is the account of Weidmann's execution which Tournier/Tiffauges chronicles at length and with notable fidelity to the facts as set out in contemporary reports. The climate of 'ignoble febrilite' hanging over the crowds and the atmosphere of 'c6mplicite crapuleuse' in which the grotesque deed is carried out leave Tiffauges nauseated. However, his companion Mme Eugenie cries out at the striking physical resemblance she sees between Weidmann and Tiffauges himself: 'Ma parole, on dirait votre frere! Mais c'est vous, Monsieur Tiffauges, c'est tout a fait vous!' As the culmination of allusions previously indicated, the overall effect of the experience is to leave Tiffauges unable, as he puts it, to 'recouvrer l'equilibre que m'a fait perdre l'assassinat de Weidmann'.
Soon after, Tiffauges is arrested on a charge of raping the young girl Martine he has been attracted to. Like Meursault, he finds that his previous innocuous existence is reconstructed in a judicial perspective to prove 'avec une rigueur implacable' that he is necessarily a criminal. Though he begins by disputing the facts, one thing does emerge: Tiffauges, with his 'vraie tete d'assassin' - a reminder of the Weidmann parallel - is about to fulfil his 'destin' as an object of the hatred of the mob, earlier hinted at when he mentioned his fear of being lynched. 'Le Destin etait en marche, et il avait pris en charge ma pauvre petite destinee personnelle', he says. However, this destiny, encompassing the connections with Weidmann as we have seen, from being a projection into 'la factidiversialite' quickly becomes a matter for 'l'histoire': Tiffauges's fate is bound up with 'l'Histoire' with a capital H, which he is convinced is also 'en marche'. It is therefore with considerable serenity that he reads the Code penal in prison, confirming and reiterating his view that the judicial system is a 'pesant magma de betise, de haine et de cynique lachete'. The declaration of war leads to the release he has come confidently to expect, and in the confusion of mobilization he sees the fulfilment of a hidden purpose only he understands.
Sure enough, some twelve months later, Tiffauges is able to witness the fall of France and to indicate that this 'cauchemar de fin du monde', occurring 'une annee jour pour jour apres l'assassinat de Weidmann a Versailles' is in effect 'le chatiment prevu et merite de la plebe veule et cruelle'.
Like Genet, Tiffauges's story exploits retrospectively the historic confrontation of two nations implicit in the Weidmann affair. Maitre Maro-Giafferri had sought to explain Weidmann's crimes with reference to the history of the German people. Tiffauges, alienated from France by the hostility he experienced there towards those of his kind, and identifying in his feelings of persecution with the victimized Weidmann, lives out a compulsion to explore the mentality and mythology of the murderer's nation.
Tournier's novel is a complex and subtle work and I am considering merely a small corner of it. But it seems reasonable to suggest, on the basis of this evidence, that the dynamic of the narrative, seeking as it does to espouse and illuminate the broader sweep of history itself, achieves this end in part at least by constructing an imaginative discourse midway between 'l'histoire' and 'la factidiversialite'. In so doing it continues a dialogue which seems in turn to be a significant part of literary history, as our consideration of the fortunes of this one news item has sought to indicate.
1. I gratefully acknowledge financial support from the British Academy for the research project on which this paper draws.
2. Le Sang des autres (Paris: Gallimard-Folio), 296-7.
3. Gide makes the point after interviewing survivors from the First World War: see Journal 1889-1939 (Paris: Pleiade, 1951), 913-4. Camus reports a similar situation in respect of soldiers from World War II: 'Ils repetent les journaux. Ce qu'ils y ont lu les a bien plus frappes que ce qu'ils ont vu de leurs yeux.' Carnets I (Paris: Gallimard, 1962), 234.
4. See Raymond Queneau, Zazie dans le metro (Paris: Gallimard-Folio), 36.
5. See Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 292.
6. See Jean Baudrillard, La Societe de consommation (Paris: Gallimard-Folio-Essais), 30-35.
7. See Dominique Borne, Henri Dubief, La Crise des annees 30, 1929-1938 (Nouvelle Histoire de la France contemporaine, 13) (Paris: Seuil-Points, 1989), 86-7.
8. See my 'Cultivating the fair divers: Detective, Nottingham French Studies, vol.31 no.2 (Autumn 1992), 71-83.
9. Le Temps, dimanche 8 octobre 1933, p.1. The line is in fact a quotation attributed to Montherlant, applied to the current situation.
10. See Borne and Dubief, op.cit., 186-7.
11. This is the date arrived at on the basis of textual evidence by Contat and Rybalka, in their edition of Sartre, Oeuvres romanesques (Paris: Pleiade, 1981), 1940.
12. L'Age de raison (Paris: Gallimard-Folio), 140-141.
13. Detective (mars 1939), no.540, 8.
14. L'Oeuvre (30 mars 1939), 5.
15. Paris-Soir (1 avril 1939), 3.
16. Paris-Soir (30 mars 1939), 3.
17. Oeuvres completes de Colette, Vol.XIII (Paris: Le Fleuron, chez Flammarion, 1950), 435-41.
18. Ibid., 440.
19. Paris-Soir (2 avril 1939), 3, cols 4 & 5: 'Le dernier jour, Weidmann a souri a la mort.' This item is omitted from the bibliography in the latest volume of the Pleiade edition: Colette, Oeuvres, III, sous la direction de Claude Pichois (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, 1991). According to chronology, it should appear in the forthcoming volume IV in the series. It would appear that Colette was not the only woman to acknowledge such sentiments. Detective, no. 540, 2 mars 1939, has a report that refers to 'Ce monstre, que certaines "piquees" ne craignent pas de declarer non antipathique (elles n'osent pas encore dire sympathique) . . .' Colette's comments on Weidmann assume their full significance when read as part of her remarkable ongoing, long-standing meditation on the criminal in articles such as those she devoted to Landru and Mahon.
20. See Camus, Carriers I, op.cit., 143-4.
21. Albert Camus, Theatre, recits, nouvelles (Paris: Pleiade, 1962), 1203.
23. Ibid, 1204.
24. Ibid., 1422, 1424.
25. This is indicated by Jacqueline Levi-Valensi in a review of a thesis by Andre Abbou: Albert Camus 14, Revue des Lettres Modernes (1991), 202.
26. Albert Camus, Essais (Paris, Pleiade, 1965), 1025.
28. Theatre, recits, nouvelles, op.cit., 1185. See my 'Albert Camus and the fait divers', in french Cultural Studies, iii (1992), 8.
29.Similarly, Camus appears to have had little time for the cult that surrounded Genet. See my 'Le criminel chez Camus', in Albert Camus, les extremes et l'equilibre, acres du colloque de Keele, reunis et presentes par David H. Walker (Amsterdam: Rodopi, coll. 'Faux Titre', 1994), 17-32.
30. Paris-Soir (19 mars 1939), 4.
31. Paris-Soir (1 avril 1939), 3.
32. Paris-Soir (2 avril 1939), 3.
33. Theatre, recits, nouvelles, op.cit., 1199.
34. Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis Clos suivi de Les Mouches (Paris: Livre de Poche), 86.
35. The photo is referred to in similar terms later in the novel. See Notre-Dame-desfleurs, in Oeuvres completes de Jean Genet, vol. II (Paris: Gallimard, 1951), 67.
36. Edmund White neglects to mention this, drawing instead, for his assessment of Weidmann's presence in the text, exclusively on the coverage in Detective which appeared almost a week later: see Genet (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993), 181-2.
37. Op.cit., 10.
38. See my 'Antecedents for Genet's persona', in Existentialist Autobiography, ed. T. Keefe and E. Smyth (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 1995).
39. Op.cit., 174: the initial, full quotation is on p. 12. The source, as indicated above, is Paris-Soir (2 April 1939), 3.
40. See White, op. cit., 182-3, and 748, note 49. The erroneous supposition which White gives credence to is in Roger Colombani, L'Affaire Weidmann (Paris: Albin Michel, 1989), 259.
41. Op.cit., 54.
42. Ibid., 141.
43. See Harry E. Stewart and Rob Roy McGregor, Jean Genet: a Biography of Deceit (New York: Peter Lang, 1989), 93-4; Albert Dichy and Pascal Fouche, Jean Genet, essai de chronologie 1910-1944 (Paris: Bibliotheque de litterature francaise contemporaine, 1988), 159-160.
44. Journal du voleur (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), 159-60.
45. Oeuvres completes vol. XIII, op.cit., 438.
46. See 'Antecedents for Genet's persona', loc. cit. White, op. cit., 294, 368, provides evidence to show that the picture of Weldmann was transformed into a veritable icon: Genet gave copies to his friends and hung it in rooms he inhabited.
47. White, op. cit., photographs between pp.372 and 373. White's translation of this text on p. 294 is inaccurate: he appears to have misread the handwriting.
48. I shall be considering only 'Les Ecrits sinistres' in my discussion of Le Roi des aulnes. In effect, the material covered in this section constituted the whole of the novel in an initial version written by Tournier some ten years before the final full text. See Le Vent Paraclet (Paris: Gallimard-Folio), 193-4.
49. Le Roi des aulnes (Paris: Gallimard-Folio), 151.
50. Ibid., 155, 162, 164.
51. Ibid., 183.
52. Ibid., 166.
53. Ibid., 184.
54. Ibid., 155.
55. Ibid., 164.
56. Ibid., 183-4.
57. Ibid., 185.
58. Ibid., 65.
59. Ibid., 75.
60. Ibid., 82-3.
62. Ibid., 185.
63. Ibid., 186.
64. Ibid., 190.
65. Ibid., 192.
66. Ibid., 199.
67. Ibid., 200. The severed head links Weidmann and Tiffauges with the headless child referred to later in the novel, and with a significant series of allusions to wounded flesh: see Emma Wilson, 'Tournier, the body and the reader', French Studies, xlvii, no. 1 (January 1993), 43-56, esp. 45 and 54 n. 7.
68. Ibid., 127; 202.
69. Ibid., 200.
70. Ibid., 201.
71. Ibid., 203.
72. Ibid., 234.…
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Publication information: Article title: Literature, History and Factidiversiality. Contributors: Walker, David H. - Author. Journal title: Journal of European Studies. Volume: 25. Issue: 97 Publication date: March 1995. Page number: 35+. © 1999 Alpha Academic. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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