Home      About Dan      News      Books      Forum      Art      Writing Well
<back

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

The dinner had been wonderful, and the restaurant was more than worthy of its reputation. It had been a brilliant idea to spend a weekend in the Aubrac country, where my girlfriend and I alternated day-long hikes with good restaurants. Yesterday, we’d dinned in the city of Laguiole, where three friends had joined us for the evening, and tonight we were in Espalion.

As I paid the bill and got up, I went to the next table, where a group of people, who’d come up a bit later than we did, where still enjoying their food and their conversation.

“Well, for everything.”

* * *

The first time I met Philippe Meyer, it was as a voice coming out of the radio every morning, at the ungodly hour of 7:45 AM. This man was a kind of jack of all trades: with a PhD in sociology, he’d written a few books about various subjects (including one, The Child and the State, that was translated into English), a traveler’s guide to Quebec, and produced a weekly radio broadcast about the vagaries of French TV. His new job was to write and narrate a daily column about—well, about everything.

Still, the tone of his column was no surprise to those who’d read and enjoyed one of his books (written in collaboration with his brother, Antoine Meyer). Le communisme est-il soluble dans l’alcool? (“Can Communism Be Dissolved in Alcohol?”) was a collection of the most popular jokes in then Communist countries—the kind of jokes people tell to make more bearable a reality that isn’t. (One of my favorites: “An empty car drives into the Kremlin. Gromyko steps out.”) The book was published in 1979, at a time when things like this were Simply Not Done—at least, according to French intellectuals.

Philippe Meyer’s morning columns (his “chroniques matutinales,” as he called them—“matutinal” meaning “at matins’ time”) encompassed a lot of subjects, from daily life in France to various odd stories from the world over. From time to time, when France Inter, the public radio station where he worked, had a politician as a morning guest, he was asked to devote his column to his or her portrait, and this is where he truly shined.

Some time later, he was asked to do the same job on a TV talk show, “L’Heure de vérité” (“Time for Truth”), where things were a bit more shaky. As he revealed later on, he was deemed too impertinent by then president François Mitterrand, who had him removed from the show.

Meanwhile, his radio columns proved so popular that he was asked to collect them in book form, and thus was born a long series of volumes, the first one, Heureux habitants de l’Aveyron, being released in April 1990. This title means “Happy inhabitants of Aveyron”, “Aveyron” being one of the ninety-plus “départements” which make up France; each and every morning, Philippe Meyer launched his column with this kind of salute, with a new département each day (and sometime a French-speaking country like Belgium or Switzlerland).

The whole series of books includes thirteen volumes, twelve slim paperback originals and a thirteenth, more imposing tome in trade paperback. I urge all French-speaking readers among you to get them all—but act fast, for some are already out of print.

In 1993, when he published a book called Dans mon pays lui-même (if an American publisher were interested, he may call this opus “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”), Philippe Meyer was already well-known for his daily column and for his portraits of politicians (they had also been collected in book form as Pointes sèches, 1992—this title translates as “Dry Points”). The portrait he was tackling now was that of our country. The book had a huge success, and deservedly so: Philippe Meyer, who had traveled a lot in France, was able to write both a paean to what is beautiful in this country and a sometime scathing attack of what is wrong with the way we handle things.

An aside here. One of the reasons why he traveled a lot is that he spent some time presenting in high schools and other institutions the stunning film De Nuremberg à Nuremberg, directed by Frédéric Rossif, for which he wrote and narrated the text. This film, one of the best documentaries devoted to World War II and Nazism, was a command from French TV, which then deemed it too harsh and refused to broadcast it. It went on to make a kind of underground career in art house showings, and a DVD was finally released here a few years ago.

Following the success of Dans mon pays lui-même, Philippe Meyer wrote a book about Paris, Paris la Grande (1997). I remember quite well the impact it had on me. At the time, my lady friend and I had had to leave Paris intra muros, where the rents were so high that we could no longer afford them. Living in the suburbs was a quite different thing, as we soon realized: we had now to live with all the hassles of Paris (the rush hours, the pollution, the stress) and none of the perks (we could no longer go to see a movie on a whim, for instance—each outing of this kind had to be planned). Three years later, we fled the Paris region to go and live near Toulouse.

Philippe Meyer’s thesis in Paris la Grande was that Paris was in danger of becoming a theme park—the Parisian people were chased from the city, where they could no longer afford to live, their apartments were converted into stores and offices, but the façades of the buildings were carefully kept and tended in order to please the tourists. His books is more complex than my clumsy synopsis, of course, but that’s the gist of it.

Now, for all of you English-speaking readers out there who have patiently read these lines, comes the opportunity to discover Philippe Meyer for yourselves. It seems publisher Flammarion had the good sense to issue an English translation of Paris la Grande, as A Parisian’s Paris, and the books is still available at amazon.co.uk. I even found a review, penned by one George Walden for The Sunday Herald:

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4156/is_20000123/ai_n9624584

I couldn’t help but notice that the translator of the book remained anonymous, which is a shame…

Paris la Grande was so successful here that Philippe Meyer, a good amateur singer, was able to get a record out of it, a compendium of French songs from all the ages, with a smattering of quotes about Paris from various writers, including Montaigne, Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire… Songs and quotes are in French, of course, but the liner notes of the CD have been translated into English by one Charles Johnson, so I urge you to hunt for it—it’s quite enjoyable.

* * *

This then, was the man I thanked as I was leaving the restaurant. I had to do that, you know, for he’d brought me a great deal of pleasure as the years went by, and he was still doing so.

Today, Philippe Meyer produces and hosts a weekly radio broadcast called “La prochaine fois, je vous le chanterai” (“Next Time I Sing It For You”), devoted to songs, singers and songwriters, but he keeps writing and publishing books. The next one, Traits et portraits (“trait” means “line,” but also “stroke” or “dart”), a new collection of politicians’ portraits, I presume, is scheduled for next September, and I, for one, am eagerly awaiting it. He has an uncanny talent when it comes to political analysis, and his 2002 book, Démolition avant travaux (“Demolition Prior to Work”), written in the wake of the infamous Presidential election, is one of the more lucid books of its kind. (I kept getting back to it, and to Meyer’s politicians portraits, as the 2007 campaign drew to a close, and I was not very surprised by its outcome—angry, confused and saddened, yes, but not surprised.)

I’ve come to realize over the years that Philippe Meyer was one of the writers I most consistently enjoy, whose works has never disappointed me, one of the writers who, in short, make my personal pantheon. The main reason is the sheer beauty of his writing. The man is in love with the French language, and he is, I think, firmly in the tradition of writers like Voltaire or, later on, Vialatte, who combined rapier wit with velvety writing. I do hope you try to read him and enjoy him—in English if you can’t read French.

With hindsight, I was fated to see this bon vivant in a restaurant, somewhere in Aubrac country. The towns we were visiting, like Laguiole, Espalion, Conques—splendid towns, all—and the countryside we were hiking in are in the département of Aveyron, after all. Happy are its inhabitants.

Let me end this column as Monsieur Meyer ended his:

Je vous souhaite le bonjour
Nous vivons une époque moderne

May I wish you a good day
We do live in modern times

Best,

BIBLIOGRAPHY OF PHILIPPE MEYER

1. Radio Columns
Heureux habitants de l’Aveyron… et des autres départements français, Le Seuil, 1990
Ça n’est pas pour me vanter…, Le Seuil, 1991
Nous vivons une époque moderne, Le Seuil, 1992
Dans le huis clos des salles de bains, Le Seuil, 1993
Chroniques matutinales, Le Seuil, 1994
Les Progrès du progrès, Le Seuil, 1995
Balivernes pour la levée du corps, Le Livre de poche, 1996
En progrès constant…, Le Livre de poche, 1996
Dans cette vallée de larmes…, Le Livre de poche, 1997
Le progrès fait rage, Folio, 1999
Le futur ne manque pas d’avenir, Folio, 1999
Du futur faisons table rase, Folio, 1999
L’avenir peut attendre, Robert Laffont, 2004

2. Other Non Fiction
L’Enfant et la Raison d’État, Le Seuil, 1977 (translated as The Child and the State: The Intervention of the State in Family Life, Cambridge University Press, 1983)
Justice en miettes, with Hubert Lafont, Presses Universitaires de France, 1979
Le communisme est-il soluble dans l’alcool?, with Antoine Meyer, Le Seuil, 1979
Québec, Le Seuil, 1980 (traveler’s guide)
Le Nouvel Ordre gendarmique, with Hubert Lafont, Le Seuil, 1980
Pointes sèches, Le Seuil, 1992 (politicians portraits)
Dans mon pays lui-même, Flammarion, 1993
Eaux fortes, Flammarion, 1995 (politicians portraits)
Paris la Grande, Flammarion, 1997 (translated as A Parisian’s Paris, Flammarion, 1999)
Portraits acides et autres pensées édifiantes, Le Cherche-Midi, 1999 (selections from previous books)
Causerie, Les Arènes, 1999 (text of a one-man-show performed in 1997, illustrations by Olivier Douzou)
Paris la Grande, en vers et en chansons, Les Arènes, 2001 (art book collecting songs, poems and photos about Paris)
Démolition avant travaux, Robert Laffont, 2002
Fonds d’écran, Le Cherche-Midi, 2006 (a collection of TV reviews written between 1980 and 2002 for various weekly magazines, including one, Le Point, whose editor, also a TV producer, fired Meyer after he satirized rampant cronyism in the media)
Traits et portraits, Robert Laffont, 2007

3. Fiction
Brusque chagrin, novel, Éditions de Fallois, 2005

4. Movies and Music
Le Carnaval des animaux, by Camille Saint-Saëns, narrated by Philippe Meyer, CD, Le Chant du Monde, 2000
Paris la Grande, CD, Le Chant du Monde, 2001
Link to both records:
http://www.chantdumonde.com/fr/label/fiche_artiste.php?artist_id=16
De Nuremberg à Nuremberg, a movie by Frédéric Rossif, written and narrated by Philippe Meyer, 1988. Region 2 DVD (in French only, with no subtitles) available from Éditions Montparnasse.
Link:
http://www.editionsmontparnasse.fr/fr/film.php?idfilm=576

PS : Caveat lector! There are two writers named Philippe Meyer. The other one, a physician by trade, writes books about health matters such as high blood pressure—don’t confuse them.

Simmons watch
After a long wait, publisher Pocket will publish the French paperback edition of Ilium next month! No link for the cover yet, I’ll keep you posted.

^top | more News>

Home     Books     Curtis on Publishing     Previews     Bio     Bibliography     Snapshots      Reader's Forum     Art