Bernard Pivot & Les Mots de ma vie

Bernard Pivot & Les Mots de ma vie

Bernard Pivot was the literary face of French television for thirty years, chiefly on the long-running shows Apostrophes and Bouillon de culture. On p. 38 of his lexical memoir, Les Mots de ma vie (2011) there is a quote describing the author (“un concentré de Français”) that suggests his book will reflect both sides of the French coin – bittersweet romance and meaningless abstraction – but coins have three dimensions and here there are also many passages of wit and comedy.

Pivot seems to have been especially amused by Vladimir Nabokov. Marguerite Duras turns up a couple of times too, such as when he didn’t want to encourage her after she rang him at two in the morning to read some newly written text over the phone, but the account of Nabokov’s studio demands is perhaps the funniest.

nabokov

That Nabokov’s teapot contained whiskey was well known but on Apostrophes the great man didn’t want to present the French public with the spectacle of a man drinking on live television. Therefore a verbal formula was devised to enable him to tipple away discreetly on set. Encore un peu de thé, monsieur Nabokov?

The novelist also insisted, on the basis of some prostate trouble, that an emergency urinoir be installed behind the studio decor but this demand was quietly ignored and of course Nabokov forgot all about it. He kept talking long after the final credits and then used the regular toilets like everyone else.

Such a happy ending did not ensue the last time someone was allowed smoke on Bouillon de culture. An unfortunately placed camera made it look like a female guest – Jacqueline de Romilly, already nearly blind – was engulfed by the cigarette smoke of Philippe Sollers. This led to the switchboard being inundated by protest calls and a snowstorm of letters accused Pivot of complicity in such boorishness and barbarity.

Invited by RAI to watch an episode of an Italian programme he was told was inspired by his own, he emerged horrified after an hour of shouting – fuelled by a noisy presenter – in which the guests brandished books like the Red Guards waved the thoughts of Chairman Mao. Though he never learned English properly, Pivot also mentions he was reliably informed that English political and literary talk shows, in contrast, were just boring. A wild guess.

He claims that foreign writers, especially Americans, were surprised to be able to talk about their books on French TV with a host who had actually read them. This happened without being interrupted by ads or having a minister, a stripper or a golf champion on as fellow guests. Pivot then likens the differences in talk shows to different national styles of playing soccer. His love of le foot is a recurrent theme that helps put a more regular face on the writer.

In other passages he is an anorak, not least about food. Only a Frenchman could be an anorak about food, though his exploration of its impact on French slang and idiom is instructive. There is also a pair of funny food stories, as in the time Pivot, as a young journalist sent to report on a theatre, was nabbed trafficking spuds into Belgium.

On his way to Brussels he stopped off to see his wife’s family in the Pas-de-Calais, where a thirty-kilo sack of potatoes was placed in his car boot by his father-in-law. A Belgian customs officer demanded that he open the same boot, whereupon a bunch of them converged to accuse him of smuggling potatoes. They asked if he didn’t know Belgium was already a great producer and consumer of chips / fries and if the sack was a present for the director of the theatre he was about to visit. In the end he had to turn the car around and give the potatoes back to his beau-père.

In the entry on freeloaders and gatecrashers, Pivot distinguishes between those who come just for the show and those literary ones who come to eat and drink, wolfing glasses of wine and sandwiches in the morning and champagne and petits-fours in the afternoon. Always located very near the table or the bar and sometimes shoved aside by impatient publishers, without ever protesting they give way just enough to regain their strategic position with minimum delay.

Not all Pivot’s comedy is intentional, though, as in the classic line, Certains couples lisent au lit, puis mettent un marque-page, referment le livre, éteignent et font l’amour (‘Certain couples read in bed, then place a bookmark, close the book, switch off the light and make love’). Only a Frenchman could solemnly sketch that scene that in the English-speaking world would always be played for laughs.

Pivot retired as a regular TV host in 2005. The day after the maiden broadcast of his first programme, Ouvrez les guillemets, back in the early Seventies, the channel boss Jacqueline Baudrier phoned him to tell him the show had not been good but that was normal, as it was his first time out.

Ne remettez cette veste : vous aviez l’air d’un garçon de café. Je suis sûre d’une chose : vous êtes fait pour la télévision.

(‘Don’t wear that jacket again, you looked like a waiter. I’m sure of one thing. You were made for television.’)

BIO DURAS-TELEVISION SHOW-PIVOT-APOSTROPHES

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Maureen

Maureen

1989

Living in London but in Dublin for a weekend for a quiz show…

13th November, Monday

There were plenty of f*ck-ups in the programme preparations but in the end of the day I pulled off a clean sweep of the show. The unexpected stoppage I caused by giving two answers to one question must have helped. With flights having been cancelled due to fog, J. wanted to keep going so we hit Bad Bob’s and Leeson Street again. In a wine bar maybe I fell in love with a blonde called Maureen. She’s from Leitrim and she teaches English to Spaniards. She’s cynical and witty but I got the better of her on Eurovision trivia. She gave up on Paris. Why?

“Parisians.”

20th November, Monday

I started as a chain boy on J’s site near Tower Hill. It’s all right. It’s better than labouring. I can cope with heights.

21st November, Tuesday

It was in a wine bar called Suesy Street, at the end of the night of the quiz, that J. and I ran into Maureen, who was sitting on her own at the counter. Her friend was in the process of getting off with a guy, nearby. Soon J. told her that there was something strange about her.

“Maybe it’s because I don’t simper.”

I was hooked. Description: fairly tall; slim but solid; hair clasped up none too carefully; a fine-looking woman without being stunning; an earthy laugh. In the short time I spent with her, maybe two hours, she impressed me more than any girl I’d met before.

“Come on boys, walk me home.”

She gave us a cup of tea. I asked if I could see her again, at Christmas.

22nd November, Wednesday

This could prove to be the best job I’ve been on. I can stand the cold, taking measurements. I don’t like using a sledgehammer but it helped me stay warm. Steel work seems more manly than being a donkey.

25th November, Saturday

Up on the steel girders of the seventh floor I sang Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne to myself to help me stay calm. As somebody wrote on a girder – erectors get you high. There is a rush of adrenaline all right. I went to Harlesden to collect a typewriter. It was too cold to get mugged.

26th November, Sunday

The sun these mornings is dazzling as you feel the cold steel under your arse.

29th November, Wednesday

The docklands: sandy brick in the morning sun and frost, yellowy-brown like a painting. It turned out I was glad to have gone to work. Breakfast sorted me out. Am I getting more used to the cold? The warm office is a sanctuary.

30th November, Thursday

I got paid. It feels calming to have money again. Some of the lads watched a man and woman bonking in an office across the street.

The psychology of steel: fear keeps you careful. I climbed up on the ninth floor this evening, partly to keep in practice and challenge myself to the test. To stay up too long brings on stiffness and that needs to be avoided. On the steel always keep two limbs firmly fixed. It’s pointless looking down. Your world must only be the few feet of space in your immediate vicinity. I tie my glasses around my head. I don’t need my concentration to be upset by the worry that they’ll fall off. After a spell up on the steel and the resultant buzz, the ground can feel unreal. I get flashes of the feelings of newness from when I first came to London. The strange red buses.

1st December, Friday

I was thinking a lot about Maureen. I was freezing. On a foggy evening Tower Bridge and its lights remind me of a Whistler painting.

3rd December, Sunday

“If you f*ck this one up I’ll never speak to you again,” J. said (re Maureen).

4th December, Monday

After work I called the number Maureen gave me and was told she’d been killed two weeks ago when she was knocked down in Killiney. A hit and run. The rest of the night I was waiting to wake up from this unbelievable dream.

5th December, Tuesday

Life is never dull, is it? I collected the rest of the script notes from R. Two silent Japanese girls were making breakfast in the kitchen in Harlesden. They served tea without a word. When I got home I put on Vesti la Giubba and then I cried. It was only the beginning. There is no future with Maureen, because she’s dead. The conversation on the phone with the girl who told me was like something out of a film.

“Could I speak to Maureen please?”
Silence.
“Am, who is this?’
“My name is John.”
“Am, are you a friend of hers?”
“Yes.”
Pause.
“Where are you calling from?”
“London.”
Silence.
“Am, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Maureen had an accident two weeks ago. She’s dead.”

There I have been, feeling death close at hand every day up on the steel and this unbelievable turn of events happens. I really don’t know how I feel. Kind of numb with the shock. Angel it doesn’t matter who took your life that night. You’re gone but your face will haunt me. It makes everything else look trivial doesn’t it?

I used to think these things don’t happen to me. After all, I was twice hit by cars and walked away both times. Now, it just seems that the way something unforeseen and bizarre often gets between me and women has taken a seriously unfunny turn.

I realize I’m missing the agony of her close friends and relatives. This circumstance is truly bizarre. A lot of the time I can only think in terms of black humour. You win some, you lose some. Passing strangers in the night. Life is never dull, is it? This kind of thing makes everything seem pointless, worthless. Maybe there’s a tarot card for it. An evil eye watching over those around me. Make a grave for the unknown lover. Just think of it, she was already dead when I wrote about her in earlier pages. You in truth were the unknown lover, the Other, maybe you were, to a man who doesn’t want a whole sex at his feet, who never wanted that, but if you can be taken away, just like that?

When I heard over the phone I instinctively felt I knew it would happen, like some dream, like I once wrote: lucky to have achieved creative fulfilment and a preparation for death at such an early age, I just missed out on a partner and economic viability. It’s as if my written moans over the years have now come into their own, that I was right all along, as if I understood all along. It’s just beyond belief, it’s mind-boggling that all I should have had of her were those few hours. That she had only a few days to live. It must have been a tearful, very emotional occasion, her funeral. I was told she was never conscious again so she didn’t feel any pain. Here I sit upstairs, writing, drinking, listening to music and crying from time to time. Maybe it’s things like this that make a man of a man. A queer twist of fate. My eyes are stinging from the tears.

6th December, Wednesday

I haven’t cried like that since I was a child.

14th December, Thursday

I got a doctor’s cert around the corner from the flat on North Pole Road. He told me I had the flu. Then he started talking about the IRA (“Why don’t they hang them?”).

Have I yet described the way Maureen used to throw her head back between her shoulders when she was laughing? Or how at first she was stiffening her lips trying not to laugh (her raised eyebrows – like ‘Are you speaking to moi?’). Weren’t the first impressions brilliant? By the end of the night I had her attention in the palm of my hand. J. can always vouch for that. He described it as a brilliant performance when we left her place, saying it had never been done to him before, being blown out of the water like that. She was the spark.

She was twenty-three.

The Irish Fight Clubs

The Irish Fight Clubs

The first credit on Na Chéad Fight Clubs means ‘Based on an idea by Michael McMahon and research by John Flynn’ (see above). In late 2007 I submitted a written proposal for a TV history documentary to an Irish production company that took it up with enthusiasm.

For a year or so it seemed I was in the loop. Then silence descended again, due to funding issues, I thought, until I discovered by accident in April 2010 that the thing had been commissioned by the Irish-language channel TG4 and was already in production. My father happened to be visiting an old friend who had whitewashed buildings in his yard when a location scout knocked on the door.

Legal advisers were then called in – a single letter from ours had the production company meekly offering to settle – and happily the project soon got put back on the rails, contractually. Plus we got paid. As did their very expensive lawyer. The legal lesson for all concerned was that copyright isn’t just about plagiarism, it also covers adaptation. Méaracha dóite is the Irish phrase for burnt fingers.

fight club beach

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Der Herr Karl, a begrudger’s guide

Der Herr Karl, a begrudger’s guide

On 15 November 1961 Austrian television broadcast an hour-long dramatic monologue set in the basement store room of a Viennese delicatessen. Therein a middle-aged character called Karl talked to an unseen younger colleague while intermittently replying to the voice of his female boss upstairs and helping himself to samples of the stock. The public response to the play was uproar but the hour had made the performer – Helmut Qualtinger – immortal.

Der Herr Karl was no invention from scratch. Another actor, Nikolaus Haenel, had worked in such a deli and with such a character just after the war. The establishment stood on the corner of Führichgasse and Tegetthofstrasse and the chap was called Max, though Haenel forgot his surname. Nevertheless he later drew a picture of a bespectacled and rather thin-faced figure, aged about fifty, with a moustache a little wider than Hitler’s. While going through the motions at work, stocking shelves and mopping the floor, this Man of the Crowd had told Haenel his life story.

Years later, Haenel became aware that Qualtinger was in search of a character with a Nazi past so he approached him with the idea of Max. Though Qualtinger was still in his early thirties and much heavier than the original, he was intrigued and the pair met in a restaurant over three or four days, wherein Haenel told him all he remembered and Qualtinger took copious notes, which he later turned into a script with his writing partner, Carl Merz.

Karl’s voice seems to have been based on that of Hannes Hoffmann, from 1947 to 1969 the owner of Qualtinger’s favourite bar, the Gutruf. Hoffmann was an interesting figure in his own right and the transcript of a lengthy interview with him from not long before his death in 1988 is included in Georg Biron’s book Quasi Herr Karl (2011).

Married three times, Der Herr Karl seems amiable at first but bit by bit, in a mixture of Viennese dialect (what he really thinks) and imperfect standard German (for what he thinks his audience wants to hear), he reveals himself to be a Mitläufer (a camp follower) and opportunist who rode each wave as it came.

Until 1934 he was a socialist but it didn’t pay. He demonstrated for rent-a-crowd right-wing groups because there was a bit of money going (fünf Schilling). Karl then vividly describes the arrival of Hitler in Vienna, the rapture of the multitude on the Ring and Heldenplatz and the police all wearing swastika armbands. To Karl the intoxicating atmosphere felt like the buzz of a wine tavern. Qualtinger’s impression of the blue-eyed Führer passing close to where Karl stood and simply grunting Jaja! at him is blackly comic. Da hab i alles g’wusst, wir haben uns verstanden (‘Then I knew everything, we understood each other’).

A Jewish neighbour in his apartment block – sonst a netter Mensch (‘otherwise a nice guy’) is forced to wash the pavements. Karl describes the block’s Hausmeister laughing at this, though, as a Nazi party member, it is Karl himself who supervises the cleaning. When the neighbour (somehow) returns after the war, Karl raises his hat and greets him in a simpering fashion but the neighbour won’t even look at him. This hurts Karl’s feelings. He argues that someone had to clean the pavement. I war ein Opfer. Andere san reich worden, i war a Idealist (‘I was a victim. Others got rich, I was an idealist’).

When the Russians came, people rushed to throw their Hitler portraits on the nearest dung heap but Karl kept his on the wall and deliberately encouraged some Russian soldiers into his apartment. He tore down the picture and trampled on it and then, satisfied with this gesture, they left him alone. Karl subsequently got the chance to suck up to the Americans, whom, he notes, had good food. Wangling a job as a civilian guard, he had ample opportunity to chase away hungry compatriots now that he was a self-styled defender of the West.

An excellent introduction to Qualtinger and Der Herr Karl is available in Georg Markus’ Wenn man trotzdem lacht – Geschichten und Geschichte des österreichischen Humors (2012), which has Quasi, as he was known, as the main figure on the cover.

Markus

Both a history and compendium of Austrian humour, this book begins with a chapter on Wiener Schmäh, which Markus links to Vienna’s ethnic mix and then defines as including melancholy, sarcasm and a little malice. Nevertheless, in the very first paragraph the author makes a rather dubious claim. Das Lachen ist hierzulande von geradezu existenzieller Bedeutung und die Heiterkeit mit der anderer Völker nicht vergleichbar (‘Laughter is, in this sense, of an almost existential importance and the amusement is not comparable with that of other peoples’).

The Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics (1986) is a book by Breandán Ó hEithir (1930-90) that traces the political evolution – even thirty years on from publication, development may still be too strong a word – of the Irish state and its adjoining northern statelet over sixty years, from the early 1920s to the mid-1980s. The writer defines the begrudger of the title as the most common type of Irish character. Such a person is usually cynical, snide and hungry for the next unflattering story about an official role model or public event that won’t bore anyone else in the retelling.

Image Ref. No. 0161/085

Ó hEithir describes most Irish people as time-serving sycophants but, to be fair, the begrudger is often justifiably cynical, as the author also points out. One may easily be short of a job, a house, regular sex, drink (rarely) or food in Ireland: one is rarely short of a bitter belly laugh.

The book begins with an anecdote from the morning after the signing of the Treaty (1921) that partitioned the island and created the Irish Free State. A passing priest asks a blacksmith why he looks so glum.

It was the gentry that kept me going and what’s left of them will leave the country now. I’m ruined.

The priest assures him that freedom will mean the Irish will have their own gentry but this only causes the blacksmith to mutter darkly in his wake.

Our own gentry!? We will in our arse have our own gentry.

The blacksmith was right. Instead, we got opportunists, the post-colonial class whose innermost vocation Frantz Fanon saw as remaining part of the racket. The success of the Irish in America magnifies the awareness – learnt from the Brits – that electoral politics is the safest form of organised crime, where privileged access to the trough of opportunity is tolerated thanks to successful patronage. Incidentally, charity-sector fiddling has emerged in recent years as a type of scam at which the Irish in-crowd have proved themselves world-class.

In a nation of embezzlers, though, this phenomenon of camp-following and opportunism isn’t just restricted to politics and those with political connections. To give a simple example, there was a party for the elderly in one rural parish at Christmas in 1999, the year the Irish prime minister had issued a national apology in the wake of the States of Fear TV series, which had documented our children’s gulag. Just imagine, the number of children in institutional ‘care’ in the Irish state between the 1930s and 1970s had been, in absolute terms, greater than that in Britain, while our population had been little more than 5% of that across the water.

Of course it became fashionable and convenient to blame the Church alone for such horrors but what of the society that gave the Church such power? In 2017 the latest such scandal is that of the mother-and-baby homes, those institutions where unwed mothers were put and where their babies – if they didn’t die and get thrown into unmarked graves – were often secretly sold for adoption. These places were never secret, the people knew the score, that’s how things were done. 2017 is also the year that Brunhilde Pomsel died. She was Goebbels’ secretary and lived to be 106.

‘The people who today say they would have done more for those poor, persecuted Jews… I really believe that they sincerely mean it,’ she said in interviews for A German Life. ‘But they wouldn’t have done it either.’

On a lighter note, the Christmas party committee had asked a relative of mine to help out at the event. The members had already gathered a lot of good food and drink in the form of donations. At the party in the parish hall, a retired nurse advised that some hot whiskey punch would be the best drink for the old people in the winter but that suggestion was shot down. Instead, the committee gave them sherry. They had plenty of sherry. Soon there was a crash. An old lady had keeled over. After that the guests only got tea and sandwiches. The wine, the chocolates, the brandy and whiskey bottles and the beautiful cakes remained untouched. Soon the old people were packed off on a bus.

What happened to the goodies? The cars reversed in, loaded up and drove away. “Never again,” said my relative. What happened to Max? According to Markus, all is known is that he got fired from the delicatessen after he was caught trying to take home some bottles of vermouth in a small case.

Quasi Falco