Improvised Memoirs

The Improvised Memoirs are  the transcript of 41 interviews with Paul Claudel realized by Jean Amrouche and broadcast on the French Radio Television  from May 21 to July 12 1951, and  then  from October 1st 1951 to February 14 1952. The text of these interviews has been published first by Gallimard in the NRF collection in 1954, then again, in a version corrected by Louis Fournier, in the “idées Gallimard” collection in 1969, and finally republished in the “Cahiers de la NRF” series  in 2001. A 42 second interview was not broadcast, and appears  as an appendix, in the last two editions.

Facing  the octogenarian patriarch, haloed with the stature of   academician and writer of genius,  Jean Amrouche, “intimidated” and  sensitive to the honour  of being permitted to  question  “the greatest living poet” and “one of the greatest of our history”, excels in  “inciting him, exciting him, provoking him” in order to “compel his memories”, forcing himself to appear “insinuating, subtle, even sometimes tough and inquisitive”, in order to obtain from the author his considerations on his life, his works and all the eternal or present subjects that aroused his thought. The essentials of the interviews focused on the  life and works of the writer and the diplomat, recalled and analyzed in the chronological order of the events and creations. First there is the childhood in Tardenois, then the Parisian teenage years and the discoveries of Rimbaud, Dante, Eschylus and Shakespeare , the first works, from L’Endormie to Tête d’or and from The City  to the first version of La Jeune fille Violaine, then the desire to flee Paris, to plan a career abroad and  success at the major Foreign Affairs  “competitive examination”, the departure for the first diplomatic appointment in the United States, where the young consul devotes himself to the composition ofExchange. Comes the time of the long exile in China, the composition of the Repos du Septiième Jour and of the Art poétique. It was mainly, in 1900, the big crisis of the failed vocation and of the passion.for the one who will be the Partage de Midi heroine, composed during the fire of passion and the torments of abandonment. After his way back to Europe, in 1909, occurred the consulate years in Prague, Frankfurt and Hamburg, marked by the composition and the creation of L’Annonce faite à Marie and the first theatre experiences in Paris of L’Échange and of L’Otage. Appointed ambassador in 1921, after missions in Italy and Denmark, Claudel leaves for four years to Japan, where he composed Le Soulier de satin, then in the United States, where he vainly tried to obtain the Livre de Christophe Colomb performance, created without his attendance in Berlin in 1930. On his return to Europe, ambassador in Bruxelles, he devotes himself above all to biblical exegesis works, while composing several prose ones. Retired in his Brangues estate, in Isère, during the second world war, he collaborates with Jean-Louis Barrault for Le Soulier de satin  creation at the Comédie Française in 1943. After the return of peace, it was the moment for the big theatre creations, above all up to Jean-Louis Barrault who successively organized at the Marigny Theatre, Partage de Midi, L’Échange and Le Livre de Christophe Colomb.

The story of the main biographical and dramatical events is intertwined with memories and judgments on the readings, the encounters and the friendships, and with more general considerations on the dramatic art and the moral and religious questions. One can regret that the place of the reflections in majority devoted to the dramatic works overshadows in some way important pieces of the poetic work and the prose texts, as the Conversations dans le Loir –et-Cher or l’Introduction à la peinture hollandaise, as well asthe massivevolume of the essays on the biblical writings. Within the freedom of the conversation, the Improvised Memoirs are however one of the essentialsources and one of the most direct and accurate testimonies on Claudel’s life and works, on the judgment he gave on himself with the age passing of time and sometimes some rare memory faintnesses, but also, more generally, with a wonderful quick-wittedness, a genuine sincerity expression and a remarkable critical glance of sharpness on the past, the realizations, the  hardships of life, the literary works and ideas. Thus appear, as confidences and memories drift back, the fundamental features of the man and of the writer, his admirations, his repugnances and his convictions. By the wide range of the subjects and the spontaneity of the talk, the Improvised Memoirs constitute the most alive portraitof Claudel by himself and the most judicious introduction to his works.

The complete recording of the interviews appears in a set of 12 CD.


Mémoires de Paul Claudel, Revue d’Histoire littéraire de la France, n° 279, 3/2005