Tribute.  Bernard Pivot “I am an enlightened ignoramus”

Tribute. Bernard Pivot “I am an enlightened ignoramus”

The French journalist and writer Bernard Pivot died on May 6, 2024, at the age of 89. Catherine Lalanne, editor-in-chief of Le Pèlerin, had the chance to meet him several times, over the publication of his works and his commitments to our weekly. She pays homage to him.

The first time I met him was in April 2011. He arranged to meet me at his Parisian home and I was in my little shoes. I was going to interview the famous creator and presenter of Apostrophes, the one who spoke, every Friday evening, about books, with such jubilation that he made me want to share, in his wake, my passion for words with the most large number.

My heart was racing on the stairs. It almost came loose on the landing when I came face to face with the white bookcase from the Apostrophes set. The first bars of Rachmaninov's Concerto No. 1 – the show's theme song – rang in my ears when Bernard Pivot opened the door. In a lavender blue sweater, without his tie and half-moon glasses, his eyes lively and sparkling.

Sitting on her large sofa, I was at a loss for words to begin the interview. How to question the fabulous interviewer? “My book didn’t surprise you too much?” asked my host, who had become a presenter again. I stammered a yes, then a no, and returned the question to him. “Why should his work The Words of My Life have surprised me?” Because the famous journalist revealed himself there, a little, a lot, passionately. With a chiseled pen and great delicacy of feelings. He was so modest, Bernard Pivot, that he seemed to regret having changed seats and taken, to his own amazement, the place of the author who was being questioned.

As the interview progressed, the ice melted and we parted, promising to see each other again. I regularly returned to his house as his works were published and his commitments to our weekly. He was the godfather of our Grand Prix Pèlerin du Patrimoine in 2011. We continued to exchange wishes and news for a long time even when he disappeared from the screens and the media. “Only God could answer all my questions,” the eternal questioner had declared to me, both joking and serious at the same time. “I would like to interview him in Paradise.” If there is a paradise for smugglers of knowledge, I am certain that Bernard Pivot sits there in majesty.

Catherine Lalanne

Published on April 7, 2011. In 2011, Bernard Pivot published Les mots de ma vie*, a biographical dictionary mixing intimate memories and professional anecdotes. Meeting with the best writer interviewer in the history of the small screen.

You write, in the preface to your book, The Words of My Life: “I loved words before loving books.” Did you delve into dictionaries before getting into literature?

Bernard Pivot: Until the age of 10, I only had two books: La Fontaine's fables and Le petit Larousse, an illustrated edition from the 1930s. It was war, my father was a prisoner. We were refugees in the village of Quincié-en-Beaujolais. My mother saved what little money she had to buy milk and vegetables. So I fell in love with the words in Larousse. One definition referring to another, I invented rallies between the expressions. I wrote down the prettiest ones in a notebook. It amuses me to have started my life by creating this mini dictionary and to return to this first passion to tell my memories.

This craving for words has never left you.

When I say that I don't go a day without consulting the dictionary, no one believes me, but it's true. Words are living beings. To write this book, I let them come back to my memory, in disorder, with relish. At the slightest doubt about their spelling or their nuances, I ran to check. It is a passion to learn, to compare, to rectify. I am an enlightened ignoramus.

To prepare for the 724 broadcasts of Apostrophes, you immersed yourself in the books of writers as you immersed yourself in Larousse as a child.

Apostrophes made me a reading convict. For fifteen years, I read twelve hours a day, including weekends. I didn't take the time to tell stories to my daughters in the evening. I had to read and read again for the insatiable Friday evening viewer who I had to satisfy before he went to bed! My social life was very thin. I never went to the cinema, the theater or concerts. Sometimes I escaped for a football match in Saint-Étienne or a dinner with friends, but the rest of the time I lived like a monk, focused on the Friday evening show.

What satisfaction to have introduced, from 1975 to 1990, a generation to literature! Are you aware of having put great writers within the reach of thousands of viewers?

It is the great happiness of my life. When I proposed, at the end of 1974, to Marcel Jullian, CEO of the 2nd channel, to call Apostrophes a literary program which would be broadcast on Friday evenings, I had no idea that this meeting would become emblematic of a certain television . Like The Great Chessboard by Jacques Chancel. The public subscribed to Apostrophes, like one subscribes to a weekly newspaper. In these times of zapping viewers, this loyalty is a dream.

You had a lot to do with this Friday night fever!

I am in no position to answer you. And if I tried to do so, I would make uncomfortable a quality attributed to me: modesty! Let's say that I was lucky to arrive on television when it was a mass media. Today, with the fragmentation of the audience, we have to give viewers the illusion that things are going quickly in order to retain them. So the hosts get impatient, interrupt the guests… But look at François Busnel! Every Thursday on France 5, he succeeds in keeping up the challenge of quality, in La Grande Bibliothèque. And at 8:30 p.m., too!

Back to you. Your contagious love of books has contributed greatly to the success of Apostrophes.

Jorge Semprun told me that the success of my show came from the fact that I did not have a degree in literature. I therefore did not take the position of an intellectual journalist, who knows as much as his guests. According to him, I brought a stimulating freshness. I really like the word freshness. It was one of the words most uttered by my grocer father when selling his fruits and vegetables. Yes, I discovered the authors and was surprised by the viewers. The historian Pierre Nora came as close as possible to what I was: “A concentration of French people who managed to satisfy two audiences, the popular and the sophisticated.”

Everyone dreamed of moving to Apostrophes. Did you receive a lot of pressure from publishers?

Very little. It's in my character to be honest and you knew that in the profession. I was reading at home, phone cut off. My assistant Anne-Marie Bourgnon stood in the way. My mission was to buy books and not to sell them.

Who is the guest you are most proud to have hosted?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The Russian writer, survivor of the gulag, did not speak French and barely knew television. He was very contested by the intelligentsia but I refused to destabilize him by inviting a left-wing intellectual. He was grateful and welcomed me to his home in Vermont for other shows. An exceptional favor, because wasting a day not writing was unbearable for him. I remember a giant. The power of his work and his spiritual force had a profound impact on me.

You yourself received a solid religious education.

Yes, I was a boarder at the Saint-Louis school in Lyon, with the Brothers of the Sacré-Coeur. They did not make me a pious man but they gave me the passion for playing, the pleasure of belonging to a team, of being part of an adventure. Without these football missionaries, I would never have scored so many goals on television.

And God in all this?

Nothing is more intimate than faith or doubt. We can talk about everything, his ulcers, his money problems, his psychoanalysis. But God is unspeakable. The subject is too serious, the debate too personal, for us to spread the word.

In P for prayer, you ask those you will join underground, if “God is a chimera or the proven Almighty”.

This is the real question of existence. Only those who have left this life have the privilege of knowing the answer. But I'm in no hurry to get to know her. Of all the verbs, to live has the most beautiful present participle: alive.

You say that the prettiest word in the French language is “today”.

For a journalist, this word contains the essential, the present. It's live, as they say on TV. “Today” is the word to which we open our eyes. He smells like coffee and toast. We are on board with him from the first second. Have you noticed that little thing that flutters between the wall of “d” and the fence of “h”? This butterfly of writing is, I give it to you in a thousand… an apostrophe! But there’s another word that I love, and that’s “text.”

However, a text message is not very literary…

I am addicted. I like to send and receive text messages on my cell phone. It's the quickest and most tender way to say “I'm here, I'm thinking of you.” At the risk of damaging my reputation as a defender of spelling, I admit that, in the heat of the exchange, I neglect accents and commas. But I am delighted that young people have brought back into fashion an expression that has fallen into disuse: “A1dc4”. See you around! It's beautiful, isn't it, these written words which reach out to others at the speed of speech!

The words of life, by Bernard Pivot, Ed. Albin Michel, 320 p. ; €20.

Similar Posts