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Henri Calet: La Belle Lurette [A Long Time Ago]

The French title may give the impression that this book’s title should be translated as The Beautiful Lurette but this book has nothing to do with a woman called Lurette. The title comes from the French expression il y a belle lurette, which in turn comes from il y a belle heurette, meaning literally a good hour ago which is actually slang for a long time ago.

The novel is an autobiographical novel about Henri’s early life and it is not a pretty one. His mother, Sophie, and her sister, Césarine, came from a good provincial home. However, when Sophie was sixteen, she ran off with a forty-year old tubercular anarchist. They had a daughter, Louise, who is also something of a victim, like Henri. The relationship did not last long as the tubercular anarchist then ran off with the still very young Césarine and the couple went to the United States.

Sophie’s subsequent relationships were not any better. Her next boyfriend was killed in a fight with the police when the police were looking for money forgers. Sophie got four years in prison, with three months off for good behaviour.

Meanwhile the distinguished Vertebranche family had gone down in the world. Recent Vertebranches had spent time in jail. Henri’s future father was an orphan by the time he was three. He was sent to his grandmother, who handed him over to the priests who locked him up because of his bad behaviour, By the time he was freed, aged seventeen, he was an incorrigible rogue, vowing vengeance and also vowing never to work for a living. He spent some time in prison and some time in an asylum. When he met Sophie, he was more than ten years younger. Sophie had returned to the money forging while father and son went out and about, father engaging in a bit of petty crime. But things got worse between the couple and he started hitting her. Eventually,he ran off with Louise, his stepdaughter.

Henri develops osteitis and is sent off to a home in the warmer climate of the South, where he and the others are sexually abused. He returns to his mother where they move into a sixth floor flat in a fairly unpleasant complex. It stank of shit, is his comment. The next door neighbour regularly beat up his wife and ends upo throwing her out of the window and then hanging himself. An ambulance and hearse are always stationed nearby and are frequently called on. Meanwhile, his mother has changed profession and is now a fortune-teller and a prostitute. Finally, she takes up with a new neighbour Monsieur Antoine, a Belgian, who moves in.

With World War One approaching the three flee to Belgium , where Antoine is arrested for failing to do his military service. When the Germans invade, they flee to the Netherlands and then back to Brussels, where Sophie has a job as a chambermaid in a hotel. Henri has to go to a boarding school midweek but stays with his mother in the hotel at weekends, where he is sexually abused by the son of the manager.

He stays at various places and goes to various schools, kicked out of each one for bad behaviour. He is now growing older and getting interested in the opposite sex. Meanwhile his mother is branching out into pimping younger women. When the war ends the pair return to Paris and the father soon reappears, having spent the war hiding in Scandinavia. Foolishly, Sophie takes him back but he soon reverts to his violent ways. Things do not go well for our hero particularly when he moves out after his father hits him. He has a succession of jobs, women and bad habits, even including helping his now fifty year old mother have an abortion.

This is undoubtedly a grim tale – Down and Out in Paris and Belgium. The three main characters, father, mother and son, all have bad habits, indulge in criminal behaviour and seem to have little respect for others. Of course, at least the father and son, came from bad backgrounds with little parental guidance. As far as we are aware, this is an autobiographical novel and clearly, if this is the case, Henri Calet did not have a great upbringing and it is not difficult to see why he fell into bad ways in later life (the book ends when he is around twenty). It makes interesting but not particularly enjoyable reading. It is not difficult to see why no-one has rushed to publish it in English.

Publishing history

First published 1935 by Gallimard
No English translation