Saturday, November 7, 2009

Childhood challenges

I watch French TV regularly, since I often find it entertaining and enriching, indeed excellent. For me, the ultimate luxury is the possibility of being advised to watch a particular program through a positive review written by my daughter Emmanuelle, published in her Télérama weekly. Lately, an additional luxury has appeared: the thrill of watching the one-hour travel documentaries signed by my son François, moving around in exotic foreign environments on his moped. (He has just returned from Vietnam, and his forthcoming TV moped mission will be in Australia.)

Last night, I watched a splendid one-hour documentary about the 75-year-old French comedian Guy Bedos.

Inventing a play on words for this funny man whose personality and disposition are profoundly serious, Emmanuelle described Bedos as "the gayest of French melancomics". A childhood memory, at the age of two or three, consisted of seeing his mother striking his handicapped father with a hammer. On the surface, Guy might be describing a witch, rather than his physically-attractive and forceful mother... but there is no trace of hatred in his calm words, merely a constant and immense despondency. "I try not to shame the young man, indeed the child, that I once was. That's one of my golden rules: Never destroy that child that was once inside me." His method, as a stand-up comic, consists of creating humor out of sad stuff. Often, his words are violent, but he explains: "I only attack powerful individuals such as the pope, the president of the republic, or members of government who happen to be important, unpleasant and dangerous."

Yesterday, by chance, I also encountered the wonderful words of another Frenchman who evokes his childhood. I'm referring to a small autobiographical book by 69-year-old JMG Le Clézio (Nobel prize for literature in 2008), who describes his father. Just as Bedos was faced with a wall of misunderstanding on his mother's side, Le Clézio discovered comparable obstacles on the side of his father, who had developed a detestable armor-plated character through toiling for decades as a medical doctor in French colonial Africa.

Guy Bedos is a pure specimen of the Mediterranean, brought up in Algeria, and settled now in Corsica. As for JMG Le Clézio, he's often presented as a native of Nice, but his ancestral soul is pure Breton. Few observers would be tempted to evoke these two French celebrities (what a silly word!) in the same breath, as I am doing now, for there doesn't seem to be much in common between them. But what struck me yesterday, when I was confronted by both of them in the space of a few hours, was the way in which they appear to have exploited their artistry (another silly portmanteau term), not so much to seduce an audience, but rather to handle vast purely personal challenges that arose during their childhood. This corresponds to my own belief that many writers often work primarily, if not exclusively, for themselves.

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