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Michael Ferrier: François, portrait d’un absent (François, Portrait Of An Absent Friend)

Our anonymous narrator, clearly Ferrier himself, has just learned of the sudden and unexpected death of his friend François Christophe. François and his young daughter were washed away by a wave off the island of Graciosa in the Canaries. He was forty-seven. This novel is the narrator’s tribute – we might even say hagiography – to his friend whom he had known since school. François Christophe was a real person but there is very little about him on the web, even in French. His IMDB profile, for example, misses out several of his films.

Film is key to this book as we shall see and the book more or less starts off with a description of the narrator’s visit to Montmartre cemetery where François is buried. He states we had dreamed of making a fictional film about love and quantum physics, and it now turns out to be a book that I must write in his absence. However his description of his visit to the cemetery is very filmic. He tells of his walk through the cemetery as though the camera were tracking him but he also, as he will do throughout the book, goes off on various tangents. The approach road is called Avenue Rachel and he explains who Rachel is. He comments he [i.e. François] was on the lookout for these multiple, invisible, left out or forgotten events that made up the flipside—but were the very lifeblood—of contemporary history. Naturally he also mentions others buried there, including Stendhal and Fragonard.

We learn how the two met – at boarding school – and soon became close friends. This boarding school, on the outskirts of Paris, seems to have been an amazing school. The boys seemed to indulge in a wide variety of alcoholic drinks and a wide variety of different kinds of marijuana and smoking ordinary tobacco. The school tries to clamp down on it but does not succeed. He admits – and I can confirm from my own experience – that most boarding schools are not like this, describing the typical boarding school as the building becomes a great dark charterhouse, a library or a necropolis, its walls pierced with a few lit casement windows which look like enormous, monstrous children’s heads blinking their eyes in the darkness. and cites a few famous Frenchmen who had similar dark experiences.

He uses this boarding school experiences to discuss related issues. Firstly there is the issue of friends. He maintains close friends are generally just two people and cites historical/mythological examples: Achilles and Patroclus, Castor and Pollux, Orestes and Pylades. He also mentions Du Fu and Li Bai, a friendship that was particularity relevant as Li Bai died by drowning (though in the Yangtze, not in the sea.) Of course he and François fall into this category of close friends..

Interestingly alcohol and smoking marijuana are also key topics. He quotes various people from history who seem to make better decisions and produce better work when they were drunk, while smoking dope sets the imagination on a journey. I wish I had been to his school.

They also seem to have been more intellectual than our school as they listen to Bach and Thelonius Monk, and not pop music. François’. favourite saying seems to be Never working requires great talent from the great Guy Debord. François did not do well in his final exams but went on to write a dissertation on Saint-Simon at the University of Paris.

François was a great lover of cinema and we get a list of his favourite directors, including the mandatory (for French intellectuals) Hitchcock. However, he seems to have hated most film-makers and is highly critical of the direction cinema is taking. The problem today is that there are only false films, and that people call these false films, real films. He loses interest in fictional film and focusses on making documentaries. Later in life he gets into radio drama – what he calls radio films.

We follow his film career, which is quite varied – films in Africa and one about the homeless in France and even one in the US about Tarzan. Ferrier goes off to Japan to live and François visits. It is there that the two friends pursue their aim of making a film together which has a variety of proposed names including Schrödinger’s Cat. We learn a bit about it but it does not go well. Each one wants to make the film his own way, to his own rhythm, to his own beat.. They quarrel for the first time and François returns home to take up his radio career.

It is, overall, a beautifully panegyric to a friend. As he says, quoting Cicero, To have a friend is a wonderful thing. The friend is a “rare pearl, a demi-god.” Maybe Cicero is exaggerating

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review it is almost hagiographic and he himself quotes the profound saying that Baudelaire takes from Leconte de Lisle: All who eulogise are scoundrels. Whether he is thinking of Mark Anthony re Caesar or not, eulogies can be dubious – de mortuis nil nisi bonum – but this one makes for a very fine book, poetical in parts, influenced by film in others but, above all, giving us the measure of the man he is writing about.

First published in 2018 by Gallimard
First published in English in 2023 by Fum d’Estampa
Translated by Martin Munro