A bas les chefs!

John Sturrock

Of all the pre-textual bits and pieces lying like speed humps in the road of an impatient reader – epigraphs, ‘author’s notes’, prefaces, expansive acknowledgments to a full address-book of expert peers, talented editors and fond next of kin – the one we are least likely to slow down for is the book’s dedication, a kind thought directed offstage that has nothing to tell us about the contents ahead. This is not the case with Jules Vallès. The dedications to the three books by which he’s mainly known are not meant kindly, are hard to avoid because they are printed directly underneath the title, convey the gist of what is coming and set the tone for the language it comes in. They are addressed not to some admired individual – Vallès did not go in for admiration – but to all the many in 19th-century French society who might have had the same bad experiences as he had. Into his dedications can be read the resentment he felt towards the ideological apparatus that he saw as working to suppress liberty in France while purporting to secure it: the family, schools, the army, bourgeois culture, society as a whole, in fact, and the political arrangements, whether monarchical or republican, that sustained it.

The Child is the first volume of what was to stretch into a largely autobiographical trilogy, a memoir, give or take occasional escalations into fiction and enjoyable slides into farce, that is also a memorable work of literature. The dedication to The Child reads: ‘To all those who were bored stiff at school or reduced to tears at home, who in childhood were bullied by their teachers or thrashed by their parents.’ So even before we have arrived at page one we as good as know that the child whose story this is had the kind of start in life that no child ought to have, but which cohorts of French boys no doubt did have.

The bad times did not end soon, or ever, for this writer, once he’d made his escape from being beaten at home and bullied in school after school. The second volume in the trilogy, Le Bachelier (‘The Graduate’ in English, although Vallès himself never got beyond the baccalauréat, which he passed at the third or fourth attempt), is dedicated ‘To those who, fed on Greek and Latin, died of hunger.’ Which sarcastic link between the glories of Greece and Rome and the starvation that followed on the punitive years spent having them forced on you had already been brought out in The Child, where the schoolteacher father, who for years earns practically nothing as he slowly makes his way up in the professoriat, is cruelly set on turning his son into a teacher after him. But this bloody-minded boy is set on throwing in his lot with the proletariat; he sees social climbing as a betrayal of those for whom the prospect of social mobility is a mirage. ‘I want to be a worker,’ he tells his father, and why not a charcutier, just the sort of mucky trade to upset a parent desperately aspiring to the clean hands of the professional classes.

The dedication to the last of Vallès’s three volumes again strikes a bitter note but a moving note too, commemorating as it does real deaths this time, brought about not by immiseration but by the savagery with which those who exercised power in France had set about punishing the efforts of the powerless to remove it from them. L’Insurgé is dedicated ‘To the dead of 1871. To all those victims of social injustice who took up arms against a crooked world and formed the great federation of sorrow beneath the flag of the Commune.’ This third volume in fact serves as a memorial to the ultimate and most terrible of the defeats Vallès had met with in his life, when the Paris Commune collapsed in the slaughter and then the sustained persecution of the dispersed insurgents, one of whose most impassioned leaders and publicists he had been.

The trilogy was published between 1879 and 1886, the final volume appearing in the year following Vallès’s death. It could not to start with be published with his real name on it. The year before it came out as a book, The Child had been serialised in a French paper, as the first instalment of a work purporting to be the life story of Jacques Vingtras, who had his initials in common with the actual author, along with a closely similar, if less than identical childhood and adolescence behind him. (Modern French editions preserve the impersonation by subtitling the volumes ‘Jacques Vingtras I’ etc; this new, very welcome English translation has for some reason dropped the subtitle.) The serialisation was signed with the name La Chaussade, but by the time it appeared in book form the following year, the author had become Jean La Rue. Both pseudonyms – Chaussade is close to chaussée, the French word for ‘a roadway’ – were the semi-disguise of a man who had long opposed, to its advantage, the loud, promiscuous life of the streets to the hushed and careful life lived indoors by the propertied classes.

Vallès could not at that time be published under his own name, because he was an outlaw. When the Commune was suppressed in the spring of 1871, he went into hiding in Paris before, later in the year, taking the wanted man’s traditional escape route out of France, by way of Brussels to London, where he lived on and off for the next ten years, as one of an ex-Communard population in the city of some five hundred. (They seem to have lodged for the most part north of the river: Vallès’s recorded addresses were in Kentish Town, off Oxford Street and in Bloomsbury, all plaque-less to this day no doubt, though Red Ken, before he faded to a more electable off pink, might have thought of honouring this most ragingly anti-authoritarian of London’s asylum seekers.) In 1872 Vallès was sentenced to death in absentia by the courts of the new and as yet insecure Third Republic, on charges of ‘looting, complicity in the murder of hostages and complicity in acts of arson’, though he was guilty of none of these offences, having done what he could, by his own account, to cool the fury of the Communards as their desperate insurgency began to fall apart. The French police kept watch on his movements during his long exile, afraid he might be plotting against the government with other proscripts. But rather than planning any violent form of reprisal on a regime he despised, or even associating with his fellow exiles, Vallès was planning to turn himself into a writer.

This was something he had earlier refused to become. He had been a journalist under the Second Empire, a prolific, committed and wonderfully emphatic one, but to be identified as a ‘writer’ would be different: it would mean that he had sold out, had become a subscriber to an exclusively bourgeois literary institution and deserted the class for whom books were a luxury. That class needed to be fired up, not entertained. Vallès was able to offer himself for an example of how you could be sedated by reading. In a striking article that he published in the Figaro in the mid-1860s, under the headline ‘Les victimes du livre’, he spoke of the ‘tyranny’ exercised, not just by books, but by all forms of printed matter, recalling how he had been made as a child to ‘eat paper’ and ‘drink ink’. He came down hardest on novels, a form he condemned for giving its readers made-up versions of reality that blocked out the real reality around them, a real reality they ought to be kicking against. There is a symbolic episode in The Child that makes the point, when Jacques gets locked accidentally in the detention room in his lycée for a night and finds a copy of Robinson Crusoe, a story he starts on then and later rereads over and over: ‘I wasn’t alone anymore! From that time on, there was a corner of my imagination that – in the prose of my life, full of beatings – was blue and a dream of poetry, and my heart would sail away to lands where you suffer and you work but where you’re free.’

Yet if all printed matter is ‘tyrannical’, one might well ask how Vallès could justify his own thirty years of journalism, and campaigning journalism at that, which could hardly not ‘tyrannise’ over the minds of its readers. He could justify it by arguing that this was tyranny in the right cause, that far from putting people’s minds to sleep, in the way that novels did, he was arousing them. This, too, is brought out in The Child, quite near the end, when Jacques, aged 17 now, is in Paris, a student as yet, supposedly working to get a place at the academically exclusive Ecole Normale in vicarious fulfilment of his father’s ambitions. He goes to call on his friend Matoussaint in his cramped and miserable room in the Latin Quarter, which Matoussaint is obliged to share with an older man, described as a ‘jacobin’, a journalist who writes for a republican paper and is working on a history of the Convention (the legislative body that oversaw the bloodiest period of the French Revolution):

I arrived in the middle of a serious discussion. They made me welcome but continued their conversation.

Their words sounded to me like the jingling of spurs.

‘A journalist must be like a soldier – the sword must never be far from the pen. And be ready to let blood drip on your desk – there are times in the life of nations . . . ’

Perhaps Vallès really did have an encounter of this sort, perhaps he didn’t; either way, the visit to Matoussaint marks the point at which young Vingtras’s future is decided, and it won’t be the future his father has had in mind for him. He is lent books that aren’t at all the sort of thing he’d been encouraged or allowed to read up until now, books that the ‘jacobin’ journalist has been using for his researches into the Convention. Jacques is carried away: ‘I had entered the history of the Revolution.’

This highly significant moment is dated in The Child to 1849, and it reads as though Jacques has hitherto had little or no interest in politics. But if that’s true of Jacques Vingtras, it certainly wasn’t true of Jules Vallès. In the previous year there had occurred two mighty political events in France which, extraordinarily, go unmentioned in The Child: 1848 was a year of contagious revolution in Europe. In France there were two. In February, a relatively benign one, which brought to a sudden end the reign of the last king, Louis-Philippe, and sent him into exile (by cab, so rumour had it). Then, in June, the new republican administration having quickly proved too pussy-footing in its reforms for those on the left, a more violent and widespread workers’ uprising occurred. The government sent in troops and some ten thousand demonstrators and soldiers were killed. The Child passes over all this, leaving what Vallès’s editor and admirable biographer, Roger Bellet, calls ‘a large and peculiar hole’ in the story the book is telling.

Vallès may not have been in Paris in 1848, but he had followed the events with much excitement as a lycéen in Nantes, where his father was now teaching, and he wrote elsewhere that he had greeted the February revolution by declaring he was ready ‘to offer my arm to the Republic’ and regretting that the townspeople had failed to dance the Revolutionary carmagnole round the newly planted Tree of Liberty. And when the June insurrection broke out he left no one in any doubt that he was on the side of the workers who had taken to the streets and was outraged by the way they were then shot down, in what turned out to be a rehearsal for the suppression of the Commune twenty years later.

Vallès moved permanently to Paris only in 1852, by which time he had been outraged for a second time by Louis Napoleon’s coup of December 1851, which he referred to not as a coup d’état but as a coup de maillet, or ‘mallet-blow’. The growing illiberalism of the imperial regime was just the inspiration he might have asked for as he found more and more outlets for his journalism, which was always testing the tolerance of the censors. He practised it brilliantly and almost to excess in the years leading up to the Commune (and managed to go on practising it even from London, by courtesy of his old reputation, his undimmed wish to be heard from, and the sympathies of some Parisian editors at least, who were not well disposed towards the new Republic). Given the store Vallès could but lay on the ephemerality of journalism, as the quality that marked it safely off from literature and thereby made it more defensible as a form of printed matter, it’s quite a paradox that the two volumes of his work included in the – highly literary – Pléiade collection contain hundreds of pages of what by rights should have gone for ever. The variety of the sources from which they have been drawn is itself revealing of the agitated history of the French newspaper and periodical press over these years, the ephemerality of the publications reinforcing the ephemerality of the contents, some dying almost as soon as they were launched, either because they fell foul of the censors or because they never found enough subscribers to keep them alive.

The great moment of Vallès’s career as a journalist lasted only a few weeks. In late February 1871, a month before he was elected to serve on the Commune de Paris and then became involved in the street fighting that followed, he launched, ran and helped to fill a paper called Le Cri du peuple, a stentorian title well deserving of its high standing in the annals of insurrectional journalism. Three weeks into its short life, the Cri du peuple was banned by the authorities, and Vallès was sentenced to six months in jail by a military court. Not many days later, the paper reappeared, the alarmed government having now evacuated Paris and re-established itself in Versailles. ‘Citizen Jules Vallès, freed from his sentence by the peaceful victory of the people’ could resume his daily contributions. These were a tremendous mixture of exhortation and invective, oratorical calls to the people in the finest 1789 tradition to rise up finally against a bourgeois government and a bourgeois ruling class and replace them, by peaceful means and with a proletarian form of government whose exact nature Vallès was not the man to spell out. His incantations are bound to read hollowly today, in the light of the disaster that quickly overtook the Commune, whose means did not remain peaceful for long and whose factionalism caused the high-minded Vallès to lose heart. There could be no more urgent, close-up or painful account of its few short weeks of existence than that which he provides in the later sections of L’Insurgé.

Where Vallès has departed from the facts of his own life in the Vingtras books we have no way of knowing, but that he did so we know from him. Even as he was writing the trilogy, he drafted and then got serialised two other accounts of his life, or short periods of it. To the second of these, entitled Souvenirs d’un étudiant pauvre, which covers no more than about twelve months of his time as a student in Paris in 1850-51, he gave the subtitle ‘Mémoires vrais’, as if he were cautioning readers of the trilogy not to take everything that they read there as being about him. There are things in The Child that no one is likely to believe really happened, when realism makes way for melodrama. Towards the end, to take the most glaring example, Jacques fights a duel with a slightly older boy, a cadet from the officer school of St Cyr no less, who has insulted his father. Not surprisingly, romantic act that this is for a boy with no known aptitude for swordplay, he is wounded. There is no evidence that Vallès, vituperative though he could be in print, ever fought a duel at any stage, let alone when he was still a schoolboy. As a fiction, the duel’s effect is to elevate a son who refuses to put up with the insult above a father prepared to put up with anything, so fearful is he of upsetting those on whose acceptance he depends. It’s an action made all the more anomalous by the fact that the father for whose honour Jacques risks being spitted, is the man who has all along done nothing but antagonise him.

Once he gave in and turned writer in his exile, Vallès wanted to write about more of the past than his own private share in it. His bête noire as a memorialist was Rousseau, that pisse-froid, or ‘wet blanket’, who had cared only about what went on inside himself or in his close vicinity, to the extent that the Confessions hardly count as history. Vallès meant to do differently, to produce a memoir that might also stand as a history of the years he had lived through: ‘I have taken bits of my life and sewn them onto bits of the lives of others,’ was how he described his method. The story of Jacques Vingtras is thus made deliberately to extend beyond that of Jules Vallès and there is no richer, more readable and in the end more humane source than the trilogy if what one wants is 19th-century social history as written from below.

There is something classically Balzacian about The Child, read as the story of a boy born in a province which is as backward as they come, Auvergne in his case, to a mother from a peasant family and a father slightly higher up the social scale. He’s a clever boy and is never going to settle for the mediocrity, or worse, of provincial life, in Le Puy or later in Brittany. Paris it has to be. When he moves there for good, without any clear idea of how he will get by, Jacques takes a room in the selfsame cheap Left Bank hotel where Lucien de Rubempré first lodges, when he too is fresh from the provinces. (In L’Insurgé, Vallès writes of Balzac’s young provincials on the make as having been his ‘brothers in ambition and in anxiety’.) Unlike Lucien, however, Jacques doesn’t have the looks, the cynicism or the sinister patronage of a Vautrin to propel him upwards socially; instead, he earns what and where he can, in literary hackwork, clerking at the local town hall (having to sex newborn babies when registering their birth) and tutoring. What Vallès wanted was to portray the vie de bohème as he had experienced it himself, hard, undernourished, leading nowhere, not at all like the prettified version of it put about by the littérateurs.

In the summer of 1880, an amnesty was declared for those who had been sentenced for their part in the Commune. Vallès was one of the first to return to Paris, arriving at the Gare St Lazare from Brussels three days later. He had hated being in London, and wrote a whole, dreadfully monotonous book – La Rue à Londres – to explain why: it was all money-grubbers, ugly women, killjoys of one kind or another, its sole advantage over Paris being the policemen, who weren’t so quick to rough you up. He resumed his old life, his authorship of the Vingtras books no longer a secret, and in 1883, he even relaunched Le Cri du peuple. But his health was going, and early in 1885 he died, aged 53. His death was announced in the black-edged pages of the paper he had re-created: ‘The Revolution has lost a soldier, literature a master. Jules Vallès is dead.’

It’s certainly the case that no one in the French 19th century brought politics and literature as close or as powerfully together as Vallès. The literary mastery is real, and a warning to readers of the trilogy not to take too seriously Jacques’s refusal to play the academic game: Vallès was a highly literate man. As for the revolutionary side, ‘soldier’ is not the best description. He loathed militarism and was sickened when, during the Commune – which broke out only days after the victorious Prussian army had entered Paris and then immediately evacuated it, by agreement with the Thiers government – he found that many Communards were if anything more anti-Prussian than anti-bourgeois. He wanted the uprising to be as nearly bloodless as possible, February 1848 all over again, not June 1848, and during the time it lasted, he refused to be given a rank among the insurgents, true to the slogan he was only too happy to shout: ‘A bas les chefs!’

Had the Communards succeeded and formed a government, Vallès would surely have backed away, if not to do so meant his taking office; Jules de Goncourt, who described him as ‘the man with the most talent and the least malice’, thought that he should have become, of all things, minister of education. But office of any kind would have been anathema to Vallès, for whom rebellion was an instinct, not a political means, a matter ‘of persons, not of philosophy’, as he put it. He was an anarchist of the sentimental school, believing that, do away with all institutions, from the government on down, and you have the conditions in which autonomous individuals can live happily and at peace. His own autonomy mattered to him absolutely, to the point where he was quite unfitted to play any genuine political role in which compromise and a principled association with others was called for. The experience of the Commune proved that to him, leading him to exclaim years later, when he came to write L’Insurgé: ‘Oh, great god, how well I did not to belong to any coterie, any church, any clan or any conspiracy!’