Haddock blows his top

Christopher Tayler

  • Hergé: The Man who Created Tintin by Pierre Assouline, translated by Charles Ruas
    Oxford, 276 pp, £9.99, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 983727 4
  • Hergé, Son of Tintin by Benoît Peeters, translated by Tina Kover
    Johns Hopkins, 394 pp, £15.50, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 4214 0454 7

By the ends of their lives, two great 20th-century stylists had for decades been the heads of their respective trades, monitoring and publishing the younger talent, attracting unmatched levels of scholarly interest and being admired with a special vehemence by conservatives who would once have sneered at the kinds of stuff they turned out. Each man stood for an idea of European culture, preferred cats to children – for whom each wrote successfully all the same – and took an interest in prewar comedy, Eastern philosophy and the Church. In each case a studiedly colourless public persona half-concealed a turbulent inner life: running a magazine while trying to do his own work and undergoing a crisis in his first marriage, each had a nervous breakdown at the height of his creative powers and went to Switzerland to recuperate. Much younger second wives, first met in the workplace, would go on to control their estates with great care, which was needed thanks in part to both men’s youthful connections to various Francophone anti-democrats. Their early ideas about fascism were notoriously slippery; also quite well known were their unfriendly depictions of Levantine Greeks and, in particular, Jews.

Unlike T.S. Eliot, however, Georges Remi, aka Hergé, was very certain of his nationality. He was, according to Pierre Assouline, ‘the personification of Belgium’, and it’s true that he created, in Tintin, one of the few national emblems his squabbling country can agree on. Born in 1907 in Etterbeek, outside Brussels, to a Walloon father and a Flemish mother, he straddled Belgium’s divided language communities, being a French speaker who was also comfortable in Dutch and Marols, a Franco-Dutch dialect associated with Brussels street life. (The made-up exotic languages in the Tintin books are filled with plays on Marols: Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab, a comic Arab potentate introduced in Land of Black Gold, gets his name from ‘kalichesap’, liquorice water.) Conquering the Dutch-language market – as Tintin did in the 1940s under the name Kuifje, cognate with ‘quiff’ – was an important objective for him. It was the editor of the Dutch-language version of Tintin magazine who coined its famous slogan, ‘for young people from 7 to 77’.

There were other divides he couldn’t cross. From the age of 13, when he was moved from a secular to a religious school at the insistence of his father’s employer, he was closely tied to the institutions and networks of the Catholic right. Though not devout and, with one or two areas excepted, not much of a reactionary in his later years, he was hemmed in by his society’s ‘pillarisation’, as it’s called in the Low Countries, under which each politico-denominational ‘pillar’ – Catholic, Socialist and Liberal, replicated in each language group – has its own university, trade unions, newspapers, hospitals and so on. Throughout his life his friends and professional contacts had a conservative cast, a situation that led to – and was afterwards reinforced by – his decision to let the Tintin strip share space with pro-New Order editorials and advertisements for Jud Süss in collaborationist newspapers during the German occupation of 1940-44. The treatment doled out after the liberation to ‘patriotic’ collaborators such as himself was one topic on which he kept up a bitterly right-wing stance. Even so, he spent the rest of his career doing his best to clean up the strip’s politics, while weathering intermittent attacks from the left.

On the whole, he did a good job. There was little he could do about Tintin in the Congo, and he made only superficial changes to The Shooting Star, switching the chief baddie’s name from Blumenstein to Bohlwinkel and his base of operations from New York to ‘Sao Rico’. (He maintained that he hadn’t known that Blumenstein might be construed as a Jewish name when he attached it to an unscrupulous, hook-nosed financier in 1941.) Otherwise, most of the dubious material, as he and his publishers understood it, was expunged. The postwar adventures took up the anti-imperialist, anti-racist and even anti-fascist themes that he’d dabbled with here and there in the 1930s. By the 1960s, increasingly bored of both Tintin and thriller plots, he was using the vivid secondary figures who’d accumulated around his hero for character comedies and narrative experiments. He acquired a cultish readership among younger intellectuals, and he pored over Barthes and Lévi-Strauss with an art critic he’d met. He also cultivated Warhol and Lichtenstein. After his death in 1983, Libération ran a memorial issue illustrated entirely with frames from the Tintin books. At worst, it was felt, he’d been impressionable and unquestioning when starting out, and he’d paid a price for what he called his ‘youthful sins’.

That feeling hasn’t really been dispelled by the discreditable material dug up since then, and the Tintin industry still ticks over nicely. (The licensing is overseen – to sporadic controversy – by Nick Rodwell, co-founder of the Tintin Shop in Covent Garden, who married Hergé’s widow, Fanny Vlamynck, in 1993.) It helps that few researchers have it in for the books, which are intricate feats of visual storytelling. The pictures are clear enough for a four-year-old to follow, and classy-looking to adult eyes, with spare yet expressive figures, tasteful colouring, endearingly stylised graphic conventions – like the beads of sweat that halo surprised characters’ heads – and obsessively considered layouts: Hergé aimed to have tension rise and fall across each double-page spread. It also helps that Tintin himself, designed as a focus for identification, doesn’t have much of a personality beyond his narrative function as a goodie. And readers – as Tom McCarthy points out in Tintin and the Secret of Literature – have felt possessive towards the supporting cast from early on.[*] Captain Haddock, Tintin’s insult-hurling best friend, showed up in 1944 in a vengeful newspaper strip done ‘in the manner of M. Hergé, who is indisposed because of the Liberation’. Clasping a bottle, as he often does, Haddock says: ‘Hergé is a landlubber, a bashi-bazouk, a Kanak. At bottom, I’ve always been an Anglophile.’

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[*] McCarthy’s book, published in 2006, praises Hergé for his ‘mastery of plot and symbol, theme and subtext’, and extracts from his work much the same set of tropes – involving transmission, reception, codes, machines, tombs etc – that McCarthy went on to use in his novel C.