Michel Miniussi: Lei Passatemps [The Pastimes]
Though it was not his native tongue, Michel Miniussi became one of the leading Occitan writers of the second half of the twentieth century, till his untimely death at the age of thirty-six. He is still revered in Occitania though barely known in the rest of France, let alone in the rest of the world. This novel was translated into French by one leading Occitan writer – Robert Laffont – and illustrated by another – Bernard Manciet. It is strange novel, not at all what we might expect from an Occitan writer.
Miniussi was brought up in Cannes and had the chance to see the rich and idle live their lives. This book tells their story, mildly mocking, though, at the same time, quietly fascinated by them, albeit from a distance. However, there is no doubt for him, there was a void in their lives. As the title tells us this is about not just pastimes, in the limited English sense of the word, but about passing time. Many of these people really seem to have limited interests, beyond attending fancy parties, travelling to exotic locations and idle talking. As we shall see, sex does come into to it, to a certain degree, but not very much. Marriage, if it does take place, is often as much for money and social standing as for love and romance. The Occitan text is full not only of French words but of English ones, too.
We start with a fancy party. One thing that these people do do is to paint and design. We meet Patrick (the host) and the wonderfully named Symphorien de la Bâchelière both of whom who have contributed to the art work in the expensive residence where the party is being held. Symphorien has a past. It seems that he was a German collaborator during the war. No-one seems to care. Though there is no explicit homosexuality, a lot of the time various guests admire handsome, debonair, effete young men who are there. Indeed, women are few and far between.
Miniussi is very sharp with his descriptions. Sigismond Clérambault is described by one guest as romantic and bored. It is said that he takes himself for Lord Byron to which another guest says that he is more like Napoleon on Elba. We later learn that he is the Maltese consul in Monaco. Jean is described as knowing everyone’s name though no-one knows his. As Miniussi states, the evening dragged on, with idle often somewhat bitchy gossip. We meet Mr. de Coeuvre, who is said to be British, an admiral and stiff in his bearing. He turns out to be only a commodore.
The next day, Mr. de Chancré, whom we also met at the party, takes on a larger role. He visits de Coeuvre in his castle, which looks old but is not. He does not know what to do, so wanders around the shore line abandoning all precise thoughts. He will later pop over to New York. He will go to a massive party at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and does not like it, declaiming that Cannes is the most beautiful country in the world but missing Paris when he gets back to Cannes, claiming that nothing every happens at Cannes. He sometimes imagines having a large country estate where he can spend the time in silence, doing a bit of botany but does not really want it. He tells his friends that he has been to Copacabana, even though he has been nowhere near it. However, he does like to spend the summer in Scotland or Gstaad, and we catch him briefly in Edinburgh. But only briefly.
He likes to go to Chihuahua’s, a smart café, where there are two completely separate groups. The first is a group of retired women, with their poodles, having their ice cream. The second, of course, is the group frequented by de Nancré and his friends. Here we meet the very rich Victor-Amédée, with his yacht, his Daimlers and Bentleys, and his loft (the English word is used) in a block (the English word is used) in New York, where the Prince of Wales also has a loft. He has a young Belgian friend, Charles-Hubert, whom he wants to make a gentleman. It is here, where we meet a few more women. First there is Hyp Vevey. De Nancré is warned against her as she is broke and looking for someone to keep her. However, though he avoids her, he cannot avoid Victoire who makes a play for him. She continues to chase him and he has to hide from her, even when she needs his help, as she has cancer and is having chemotherapy.
We continue to follow this group and de Nancré in particular but nothing much changes. They meet, they talk, they travel, they show off their fancy houses and their beautiful furniture. Women play a small role, though de Nancré does admit, after an interesting conversation with Hyp that he thought the art of conversation had died in 1793!
It certainly is a strange book, as not much happens and Miniussi is interested in only what we might call social anthropology, namely the study of a peculiar subset of people who inhabit Cannes and contribute nothing whatsoever to the world. Politics are not discussed, apart from an oblique reference to de Gaulle. There are claims to an interest in the world of art and the world of books, but we never see them reading or talking about books and art, if it comes up, is purely the possession of fine works to boast about. Though one or two of them are or have been married, there is no reference to children. In short, this is a species of people that seem to have no purpose, not even to breed. The book was published posthumously but seems to have attracted little critical attention and, while still available in a bilingual French/Occitan version, it is certainly not known outside Occitan circles.
First published in 1994 by Edicions de la revista OC
First published in French in 1997 by Les Amis de Michel Miniussi