The Exile of Capri
The Prince’s Person
Though Gallic wit will always continue to flourish even if it is driven underground, it has become increasingly hard to seek in modern French literature. Possibly this may be due to the last war: a heavy pall of bleak pretentious boredom has descended—one hopes only temporarily—on the purveyors of contemporary fiction. The recent winners of prominent French literary prizes reinforce a suspicion that these are allotted by masonic agreement between publishers and critics. Politics may also play its deleterious part, and the personal magnetism of such avantgarde exponents as M. Robbe-Grillet and M. Le Clézio, but the Muses are seldom present at the coronation. The prizes insure a large sale, if not an enduring reputation. The crowned novels are read, or rather skimmed, in a spirit of curiosity by a public eager to keep abreast of the times. How many readers are doomed to disillusion! Surely never before has there been such a spate of pompous drivel parading as creative literature. Let us then be all the more grateful to M. Roger Peyrefitte, who upholds the virtues of crystaline lucidity, barbed wit, subtle insight, observation, and elegance of style which have distinguished the best French writers in the past. These virtues even percolate through translation, though le mot juste is most difficult to render.
M. Peyrefitte is a peculiarly French phenomenon, for one can think of no parallel in other countries. In England he would become involved in endless lawsuits; behind the Iron Curtain he would be liquidated. He collects violent protests instead of literary prizes, in fact he thrives on them. His books, which grow longer, bulkier, and more expensive, continue to sell like hot cakes in spite of being so well written. Their subject may be scandalous, but not his treatment of it. His language is never coarse. Schoolboy passions have seldom been described with such delicate sympathy and understanding as in his Special Friendships. His Death of a Mother is another haunting document which all psychologists should read. In these earlier novels M. Peyrefitte’s seriousness is more apparent than his wit. Diplomatic Diversions, on the other hand, is a rollicking satire on the antics of certain pre-war diplomats. Here his wit is paramount, but I confess I have not read it in translation. Several of his older colleagues still turn purple when Les Ambassades and La Fin des Ambassades are mentioned, but in strict confidence they are bound to admit the underlying truth of his observations. Greece strengthened his devotion to Hellenic culture during his fruitful period in the diplomatic service. His translation of The Loves of Lucian of Samosata reminds one of his kinship with that pioneer satirist, who wrote that the historian should be “fearless and incorruptible, independent, a lover of frankness and truth…indulging neither hate nor affection, unsparing and unpitying, not shy nor shamefast, an impartial judge….”
In middle age he remains an enfant terrible who delights in provoking the Establishment. Sometimes he suggests a learned Jesuit; at others (as …