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The Strange Odyssey of Pierre Mac Orlan

Two women in flower market, Paris, France (1925 or 1926). Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection (Library of Congress).
Two women in flower market, Paris, France (1925 or 1926). Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection (Library of Congress).

The little lane in front of the house is deserted. It’s late afternoon, a few days into the New Year, and darkness is creeping in. Snow is still thick on the ground from yesterday’s storm, a carpeting that left much of the Seine-et-Marne département glowing in luminescent white. I trample though the slush listening to the wind whistle through the trees, feeling its icy chill, and approach the entrance of a house that backs onto the willow-banked Petit Morin River. Everything is at once tranquil and eerie, fitting for the life and oeuvre of its former occupant, who resided within its ancient walls for over forty years, walls that seemed to drape around him like a familiar overcoat. The main entrance is only a footstep from the roadside and a stone plaque to the right immortalizes "Pierre Mac Orlan, 1882-1970," the writer who once joked that he was the only Goncourt Academicien who opened the door himself.

His was a life of adventures more clandestine than spectacular, and I marvel at the ordinariness of this brick abode that stands austere and silent. So this is where the diminutive scribe, the Péronne native, who had a penchant for berets with little pompoms, for tam o’shanters, finally ended up. Behind its walls, sitting at his large wooden desk, he penned scores of novels, a few of which made it to the big screen; adventure stories about pirates and outcasts; journalism and essays and memoirs that spanned both World Wars; and poems about misty quays, sailors’ bars and mysterious women of the night that became music serenaded on the accordion and sung by Juliette Gréco, Monique Morelli and Germaine Montero.

In his youth, Mac Orlan embarked on strange roamings, vowing to become a painter, traveling far and wide: to Montmartre and Le Havre, to Brest and Rouen, to Marseilles and Metz, to Cologne and Berlin, to Naples and London, to Bruges and Copenhagen, to Morocco and Tunisia. In turn-of-the-century Paris, he befriended Picasso, Modigliani, and Apollinaire, almost got himself killed in the Great War, and reported from the front as Hitler’s darkness swept in. He once interviewed Mussolini for the radio, fraternized with the Foreign Legion in Tunis, and retained a life-long passion for rugby. Mac Orlan basked under a lumière froide and became a veritable visitor at midnight, a voyager whose odyssey eventually did transport him back to Ithaca, to the village of Saint-Cyr-sur-Morin, where his real adventures would soon begin.

I’m here hot on his tracks in deep winter, mesmerized by his meanderings, mingling in his slightly foxed universe. I’ve come to "Musée des Pays de Seine-et-Marne," located near the center of Saint-Cyr, whose "Salle Mac Orlan," a whole floor devoted to the man’s life and work, is the museum’s crowning glory and the focal point of my homage. His is a legacy in which gentle meditative types can reclaim lost ground in an age commandeered by men of action and war, whose adventures tend to be chemical and explosive, manufactured by the ad men. Above all, Mac Orlan can teach us how to live out the best adventures of all: those inside our own minds and within the pages of a well-thumbed book.

The exhibit is larger than I originally imagined, situated in an airy space, well lit and dust-free. The walls are packed with black-and-white photographs of Mac Orlan, some by Robert Doisneau and Man Ray, as well as cartoons and extracts from his own notebooks. There are headphone stations and TV screens to tune into his music and to glimpse the old raconteur himself in front the camera. In the middle of the floor, there’s a glass cabinet with many first editions, some illustrated by the author, treasures left open at key pages, screaming out for inspection. Opposite, against a far wall, similarly behind secure glass, is a presentation of Mac Orlan’s assorted berets, brightly colored in red and yellow, in green and blue, and in tartan, with their little pompoms still twinkling— "pompoms of fantasy," as Mac Orlan coined them. The tartan, of course, is a characteristic Mac Orlan indulgence, along with the knickerbockers. Around 1905, after discovering his grandmother’s (probably apocryphal) Scottish ancestry, the erstwhile Monsieur Dumarchey, the wannabe painter and avid Anglophile, reinvented himself as the writer Monsieur Mac Orlan, the Celtic nom de plume destined to figure on his identity card and on all those wonderful yellowing books before me.

One of the smallest and most intriguing of these books hails from 1920. Its simple black-and-white dusk jacket is a refreshing antidote to the hard sell of today’s book business, where books do seem to be judged by their flashy, multicolored covers. Moreover, even by Mac Orlan’s deft touch—he rarely scribbled any work beyond 250 pages—the Petit Manuel du Parfait Aventurier is slender. And yet, somehow, the essay soars to tome-like proportions. Within the space of 60-or-so tight leaves, Mac Orlan’s whole life-spirit is laid bare. In it, he presents some compelling, if offbeat, notions about adventure: "It’s necessary to establish, as a law, that adventure doesn’t exist. It is in the imagination of those who pursue it and is effaced when one believes they’ve found it, and when one holds it, it’s not worth looking at."


Andy Merrifield

ANDY MERRIFIELD is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2004

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