Thursday, December 20, 2012

Toulet in Algiers, Part 2


Apart from skirt-chasing, Toulet spent his time, with his companions, at coffee-concerts and musicals or at the theatre. He left little enough evidence, but we know that he saw the Tales of Hoffman, Carmen, and the second act (at least) of l’Africaine. He also saw Sarah Bernhardt in Froufrou – he thought her famous voice had Creole and Russian overtones  - a little like describing a fine wine.
He wrote on the ballet, where it is necessary to suspend belief. He remained an avid reader, a literary glutton who, once sated, attached himself only to the better stuff. However the most remarkable fact of his haphazard existence in this new settlement was his entry into literary life. Apart from a piece on an exhibition in Saintes, where he stood in for the regular critic, and an oddity on electric light when in Mauritius, nothing of Toulet’s had appeared in print up to now.
His literary efforts were published under a variety of pseudonyms, most commonly Jemand, Juan, and Jean de Maurice. These were attached to numerous verses and prose pieces, and sketches of visits to Madagascar and the African coast, in La Revue Algérienne, Le Charivari Oranais, and especially in La Vigie Algérienne, a political daily. 
From May 6th to September 1st he published 57 articles on the French Revolution, on the occasion of its centenary. Toulet attempted to follow day by day the unfolding of the drama, a sort of “on this day” type of account, with a strong leaning towards the minor players of the revolution. He leavened his account with quotations from contemporary accounts and revolutionary biographies (especially those of little-remembered players such as Jean Joseph Mounier, baron Malouet or the unfortunate Rabaut-Saint-Etienne) because he could not produce for his readers the action and excitement of a Bastille Day for every issue. His prodigious reading, even in the idleness of Mauritius, served him well. He had read, and still had to hand, Michelet,  Blanc, Lamartine, Sorel, Renan, and other contemporary documents. (An idea that one finds in Lamartine or in Renan  - “L’homme est comme un ouvrier des Gobelins qui tisse une tapisserie don’t il ne voit pas le dessin” - is an image that Toulet uses in his piece of 17th May, and recycled years later in Contrerime X.) The budding historian had also consumed Taine, Prudhomme, Tocqueville, le Marquis de Ferrières, and Goethe.
One could not expect too much originality on such a specialised subject from an amateur historian of twenty-two in these pieces, but he wrote intelligently and descriptively of Mirabeau, and Sieyès (the two strongest minds of the Revolution, according to Talleyrand, who knew both of them well). “Rarely has the conflict which is at the heart of the Revolution been defined so clearly as by the contrast and the struggle between Mirabeau and Sieyès, politics versus ideology”.
Sieyès was a political theorist; he was called the brain. Toulet describes him as living in his system as in a diving bell, working for humanity as a sum of equal parts, neither hating nor loving it. Mirabeau, on the other hand, was passionate and disorganized, as scornful of mankind as much as he loved it. Toulet continues: “If  muddy, fertile waters could beat against pure and sterile glaciers, that would resemble Mirabeau meeting Sieyès. (Mirabeau was an omnivorous reader, always with pen in hand, made innumerable excerpts from all sorts of books, and drew upon them with no scruples about plagiarism when he wrote – much like Toulet, without the plagiarism.)
Apart from these more-or-less serious historical pieces, Toulet revealed a truer image in the Petites Chroniques that appeared between April and October 1888. In these he gives free rein to his humour – the subjects are for the most part unexpected and might have been more suited to an undergraduate review than to a serious daily. Martin remembers: “Il montrait un goût très vif, poussé parfois jusqu’au macabre, pour ce que, à défaut d’un terme plus adéquat, j’appellerai volontiers la « plaisanterie contrastée ». Il avait coutume d’affirmer les choses les plus énormes … avec un sérieux déconcertant, et son pince-sans-ririsme dépassait quelquefois, il faut l’avouer, cette mesure qui était au fond un des traits essentiels de son caractère.”
As an example of this fantastical style, Toulet discusses the introduction of the electric chair in the USA as a means of execution in a manner that recalls Swift’s “Modest Proposal”:
“Here’s the thing: to start with you sit the invalid down in an insulated chair – already an advance in politeness…Then comes the cap, insulated also. “Put it on, I pray”, exclaims the electrician. All the civilities, and the epilogue in equally good taste: two bell-pulls that the invalid takes in his hand, a button pressed and voila, he’s healed, i.e. dead.
Dead is not enough. Mr Edison proposes turning him into coal; for two pins he would go for diamonds. Isn’t it magic? In a few minutes you would be Mr Pickwick or Mr Jonathan: ffsss…and there you are, a blackened morsel to be distributed to the poor so that they can warm themselves. Unless your will does not circumvent it it: “I leave to Ketty my carbonised body, so that she can stuff her stove with it, and that I may burn for her dead, as I did living!”
He seemed to find advances in technology a perennial fascination. He had written about Edison before, and of the only two pieces that he published before he arrived in Algiers, one, as noted above, was on the subject of electric light.
In September Toulet was presented with the opportunity to take on a column in the Charivari Oranais et Algérien, an illustrated weekly, while the regular columnist, Pierre Gavault, went to Paris for the Universal Exhibition. When Gavault returned in late November he resumed his column and Toulet was preparing to leave for France. Gavault, born in Paris in 1864, had come to Algiers to pursue his architectural studies, and like all Toulet’s student friends, was interested in literature, to the extent that he too contributed stories and verse to the Algerian journals. He wrote in the Revue Algérienne under the pen-name Pierre Loÿs (not to be confused with Pierre Louys). Toulet and he struck up a friendship soundly based on their mutual fascination with art, literature, music and architecture. After Toulet’s departure, the two friends continued to correspond regularly, and met again in Paris in 1892. Gavault died young in Vals, the Ardèche, in 1895.
Gavault was no mere dilettante. He contributed the illustrations to a book on Algerian archaeology by Stéphane Gsell, who married the dual disciplines of archaeologist and historian. He himself authored another book Étude sur les Ruines romaines de Tigzirt that was published posthumously by E. Leroux, 1897 with a foreword by Gsell.  I have also come across mention of a book of poems published by H.Simonis Empis in 1900 that cites the author as Pierre Gavault and the editor as Paul Gavault - surely Pierre’s brother. Toulet’s first book, Monsieur de Paur, was published by H. Simonis Empis in 1898, and it is not too great a leap to think that he might have been acquainted with Pierre’s work.

Footnote Paul Gavault was born in Algiers, in 1867. It is worth remarking that both he and Pierre seemed so share an interest in museums. Pierre’s diploma piece was a design for a provincial museum in the Midi. Paul. as a member of La Concordia, the artistic association of Algeria, submitted a report, Notice sur la Bibliothèque-Musée d’Alger, to the Revue Africaine in 1894 on the state of the municipal museum in Algiers. The same museum attracted the caustic comment of René de la Blanchère that “the museum is in a fine palace, but one can hardly see it. It is on the ground floor, and although the courtyard is pretty, the rooms are dark and the antiquities heaped up anyhow. It is, to my knowledge, the only museum that you visit with a candle in your hand…)  Paul Gavault trained as a lawyer, turned up in Paris in the 1890s as a  playwright and screenwriter (yet another who abandoned law for litterature), was appointed directeur of the Odéon in 1914, mayor of Yport from 1914 to 1919 (although effectively absent since he was called up), chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, and died in Paris on Christmas Day 1951.

BibliographyRecherches archéologiques en Algérie ... Avec des planches exécutées par P. Gavault by Stéphane Gsell and Pierre Gavault.  Publisher E. Leroux, 1893. Gavault is described on the cover as an « architect diplomé par le Gouvernament »
Les Usages du Patrimoine: Monuments, musées et politique coloniale en Algérie, 1830-1930. Nabila Oulebsir. Editions de la maison de science de l’homme, Paris 2004

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