Jean-Pierre Guéno, writer and historian: “I am a smuggler of memory”

Jean-Pierre Guéno, writer and historian: “I am a smuggler of memory”

Le Pèlerin: Where does this passion for letters and manuscripts come from?

Jean-Pierre Guéno: First of all, a shock, felt a few years ago, when I headed the cultural affairs department at the National Library. In the reserve of old, rare and precious books, one day I came across a leaflet placed on a table. I started to read: “Under the Mirabeau bridge flows the Seine…” It was Apollinaire’s writing! The draft of his poem! I fell backwards. Even when they are not addressed to us, we are always the recipients of the letter or manuscript that we read. With my heart pounding, I said to myself: we must share this, such gems cannot be reserved for an elite of researchers or wealthy people. So, having become a publisher, I published a book entitled The memory of Grand Meaulnes , with the letters from Alain Fournier that his family had entrusted to me. Then, I created “The Memory of Ink”, a collection of the most beautiful manuscripts in the French language. And today I direct the culture section of the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, in Paris. Everything fits together… since the first shock.

You also published, Paroles de poilus, which sold more than three million copies…

Yes, because I feel very close to these soldiers. I belong to the Jules Ferry school which allowed me, a little Parisian from a modest background, to pursue higher education. This principle of the same school for all caused a revolution before 1914: for the first time, a people knew how to read and write. This is why tens of millions of letters came out of the trenches. They are proof that the people who make History are not only the headliners but also the unknown, the low-ranking. They sometimes have more value than a thesis: their trace, at the source, reveals to us real life.” For the first time, a people knew how to read and write. (…) tens of millions of letters came out trenches.” Leaning against their parapets or sitting in shell holes, the poilus created the first social network in France. And we were going to forget them as we changed centuries? No way. So I launched Hairy words , in 1998, with the idea, also, of repairing a great injustice. When I was a kid, the elders of 1914 were called harlots, old razors. I wanted to give them a voice and pay tribute, in passing, to those who, cut down by grapeshot, did not have time to write. “It is the words they did not say that make the dead so heavy in their coffins,” wrote Henry de Montherlant.

The Great War, another of your passions! When she was born ?

At the end of my childhood. In 1966, I was in sixth grade when my grandfather lost his wife. This Breton, sent to Newfoundland at the age of 12, enlisted in the African battalions at the age of 17, had served throughout the First World War. Wounded twice, he, like so many others, came back as an alcoholic. It took him six years to wean himself off. His wife died, he came to live in our HLM, where there were only two rooms. One for my parents, the other for my two sisters. He slept with me in the dining room. And there he told me about his years in the trenches. I was fascinated. I forgot my homework. So much so that I repeated my sixth grade! Fortunately I was a year early…

How do you view this great conflict, a century after its outbreak?

I feel immense revolt at the contempt of the army’s hierarchs towards the men they commanded. One poilu in three was killed during the first nine months of the war. This shows the terrible waste during the senseless offensives. But why did a large number of generals neglect human life to this extent? The answer lies in a hidden period of our history: the colonial conquests. From 1870 to 1914, France created the second world empire through terrible wars. The worst took place in Algeria, a country which lost a third of its population between 1830 and 1850, due to abuses and especially famines organized by a number of future generals of 1914. Returning to France after having put down “the indigenous”, they will subdue “the rabble” during popular revolts of workers or winegrowers. During the summer of 1914, they will invent acts of desertion or indiscipline, in order to terrorize the troops with exemplary punishments.” I feel an immense revolt in the face of the contempt of the hierarchs of the army towards the men they commanded.” On the battlefields, they authorized mass graves containing up to a hundred bodies, while the English and Germans were reluctant to do so out of respect for their dead. And when the war is over, they will distort the statistics to hide their incompetence, initially mentioning only 900,000 killed, when the toll, now proven, is 1.5 million dead. Not content with disdaining men, they will neglect their memory.

In the assessment of this conflict, you also include women. For what ?

Because they are the other major victims of the war. From the day a soldier dies at the front, the trials begin for his mother, his wife, his daughter. Crushed by grief, they would have to wait until 1922 or 1923 to receive their first pension money. Fortunately, mayors will come to their aid in many municipalities! Because poverty lurks, lives are turned upside down and the women’s letters are edifying in this regard. One of them is the wife of a Solognot innkeeper. Their business was going well before 1914, but they still had some debts. The war causes doldrums and creditors begin to fall on the family as soon as the father dies in combat. His widow must sell and go to the factory. That won’t be enough! His eldest son will have to work in an unsanitary factory and will die very young. And his mother will do housework in addition to the factory to finally pay for her youngest son’s education. A destiny like so many others.

Back to the furry ones. Why did they write so much?

To give news to their family, of course. But not only. To survive too. The letter is a relief from physical and psychological pressure. If they don’t express some of the horror they’re struggling with, they go crazy. So they write incredible things of violence and realism. Their mothers, their wives become twenty years older reading them. Censorship lurks, but they brave it. Life expectancy is so short in the trenches that dying in front of a firing squad does not dissuade them from telling the truth in their letters.” The poilus also wrote to survive. The letter is a relief, in the face of physical and psychological.” Above all, many of their letters go “between the lines”: they tell us how the war, which could have made them brutes and barbarians, in fact awakened their souls. When you go through such trials, you become capable of discerning the essential from the accessory, that is to say the true values! There is a very thin line between hell and heaven. And when, on the edge of the abyss, sentient beings find the means to express themselves, then we end up hearing, through their words, what I have been searching for for so long: the little music of the soul.

You yourself express great sensitivity to the human condition. This sense of life that you evoke in your texts, where do you look for it?

Like Saint-Exupéry, I believe that our life only begins to have meaning when we turn towards others. Listening to others is everything for me. My job is that of a ferryman, on memory paths. A century after 1914, they lead me to never forget the sacrifice of millions of young men of all nationalities who, according to Jean Giono, “were living men and who died because they were killed at the great moment when they were looking for their happiness. »

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