Rohmer by the Book
Friponnes de porcelaine
By Eric Rohmer
Ed. Antoine de Baecque & Noël Herpe
La Bleue, €20
Before he became the great, singular filmmaker we all know, Eric Rohmer was Maurice Schérer, a teacher who failed the École normale supérieure exam, under-performed on the aggregation, and was an unrecognized writer. Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe, responsible for an excellent recent biography of the director, edited this edition of the young Schérer’s unpublished short fiction, which was written for the most part in Paris during the Forties. (In 2007 Gallimard reissued Rohmer’s novel Elisabeth, written during the same period.)
Neither bad nor brilliant, these little, dialogue-heavy stories were written in a classical, formal, and precise idiom, and they’re compartmentalized and not without a certain coolness. But if you don’t come to them expecting to discover a lost literary classic, they’re nonetheless fascinating insofar as they reveal the genealogy of a large part of Rohmer’s filmography. Here you can find the first drafts of Suzanne’s Career, La Collectionneuse, My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee, and even The Aviator’s Wife. What’s more, Schérer originally titled the volume Contes Moraux. The first phase of Rohmer’s oeuvre, then, was conceived, outlined and set to paper 20 to 30 years before its realization on the screen—a unique case in cinema history.
The whole Rohmerian universe is already in place in the young Schérer’s writings—even his hidden right-wing leanings, which come out in the dandyish, elitist, and misogynist monologue of the narrator of “Chantal ou l’Épreuve,” which became the basis for La Collectionneuse. This less sympathetic ideological side would fade—in fact, disappear—in his films.
In this respect, there’s a problem nevertheless. Maurice Schérer, or his characters, may have crossed paths with a certain Hélène Berr during their strolls through Paris in 1943 and 1944, especially since Schérer lived near the Sorbonne, where Mlle. Berr studied English. Her writing, which like Rohmer’s has recently come to light, describes Paris at the time: the German occupation, the yellow stars, the roundups, the terror, etc. And yet, even setting aside any talk of taking sides, there’s not the faintest trace of the Nazi presence in Maurice/Eric’s stories. Certainly, a work of literature isn’t obliged to take up the political and social questions of its time. But isn’t the context of occupied Paris exceptional enough to creep, if only a little, into the purview of a writer otherwise generous with realistic details of his city?
Self-censorship? Indifference? Voluntary ethical withdrawal? Aside from Pascalian games of seduction between male and female mischief-makers, the filmmaker-to-be didn't see a thing in Paris in 1943. That doesn’t detract from his filmography, nor from his admirably humble and pragmatic approach to cinema, but it’s a little awkward all the same.
Reprinted by permission of the author. Translation by Max Nelson.