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30 Jun 2014 - 05:06:53 pm


Consider Léon Deubel. Haven't heard of him? He would find that unsurprising, even though his home town now sports a monument to him and , God help us, he has his own Facebook page and festival. A new anthology of his work, edited by Eric Dussert, 'Une Arche de Clarté' (the title is a line from one of his poems) has just been published by Archives Karéline, Paris. At the age of 34 he burned his manuscripts of poems, all of his correspondence, and threw himself into the river Marne. It was 1913 and soon enough that very river was to become a slaughterhouse of the Great War. 

Born in Belfort in 1897, son of a restaurant owner, he never attained popularity in his day, though many of his literary acquaintances and friends found his work good. He was working with his Romantic poetry in an age of great change for the art. Although he published several collections in his lifetime, one of which was suitably enough called 'Détresse,' what Jean Cocteau described as 'The Difficulty of Being' weighed him down constantly; years in Paris, visits to Italy - he scraped a living as a Latin teacher, a shop-worker, editorial assistant to some small magazines and even scribed at writing letters for a friend, Fernand Gregh. His own poetry, which occupied itself with the love of women, the City (Paris, we may presume) the countryside and so on, nevertheless was overlaid with a feeling of encroaching doom. At one time he wrote of possibly starving to death in Paris. He lived on the decency of friends. 

When I first read of Deubel's life and work in Pierre Mironer's excellent journal Menu Fretin No 50, to which I am indebted, what struck me most was the realisation that, in some ghostly way, Deubel stood for the many, many writers and poets who did not 'make it,' did not earn or wheedle their way to the glittering prizes, or into the media lime-light; yet whose work that remains is testament to the terrible duality of the solitary writer, whose fate it is to face life without a safety-net and try to write and compose at the same time. Would we now describe Duebel as suffering from depression? It would at least appear that some of his friends were only too aware that the vagabond poet was, in many ways - socially, as well as psychiatrically - unbalanced. And one might argue that a good poet should always be at least socially unbalanced. Perhaps, one reads in Menu Fretin, Deubel is better described as 'un poète malheureux,' rather than as 'maudit.'

Sad and unfortunate he certainly was, and the photo on the front of Dussert's book shows an almost comical, bowler-hatted man carrying an attaché case, a figure out of Beckett, waiting for something that never comes along. Yet behind the lightly hooded eyes, does not one also sense a degree of dark humour? It's hard not to imagine that Deubel, since his suicide more favoured and celebrated than ever he was in life, was not aware of the part he was playing; that being a poet-on-the-fringes-of-life was a stark but, for the art, necessary role. And there could only be one right end. I would urge interested readers to learn more about this man and to read his work - it's not in translation into English, so far as I am aware. But surely no assessment of modern French poetry would be complete without reference to him? It's the least that can be done. 

It's curious to learn that when his body was pulled from the water, he possessed only six sous in his pocket and his Army identity card. Our own shunned and unfortunate poet, Pádraic Ó Conaire, with whom Deubel shares certain resemblances, was found in a Dublin street with a single penny in his pocket and a notebook.

- Léon Deubel: waiting man.

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