2019, Editions Gallimard
(The Cid's Last Winter)
not available in English
Gérard Philipe (1922 - 1959), the brilliant French actor of his generation who famously played Corneille's The Cid, unexpectedly died of cancer at the young age of 36. This book gives details of his last months, interspersed with stories from throughout his life.
Liliane, my children’s grandmother and loyal Gérard Philipe fan, insisted I read it. While I'd always been fascinated by her descriptions of the actor's mythical standing, I mostly considered him just a good-looking young actor from the past, and wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the book. But I was touched by the author's poetic and subtle text, expressing love for Philipe, and sadness that he died so young. The book is dedicated to his wife, the daughter of Gérard Philipe. Reading it around the time my mother died, I understood the need to recount specific details surrounding the death of a beloved friend or family member.
Jo, 90, also a Philipe fan
Jo said she used to see Philipe perform regularly at the Théâtre National Populaire (TNP), at the Palais Chaillot in Paris, where she and her parents, and later she and her husband ("born in 1923 like Philipe," she told me), had season passes. There was a buffet where the audience could eat a simple dinner before the show. The TNP was founded by Jean Vilar, Gérard Philipe’s friend and colleague, with the goal of making theatre more accessible to the public. Vilar also founded the famous Avignon Festival, an important showcase for theatre and live entertainment still active today.
Jo read the book and left me this note: "Merci pour ce très beau livre. J'ai adoré et beaucoup pleuré. Il était mon contemporain." (Thanks for this beautiful book. I loved it and cried a lot. He was my contemporary.)
When Philipe died, writer François Mauriac read these words which the actor had pronounced in the play Les Caprices de Marianne by Alfred de Musset:
Farewell to the happiness* of youth, its carefree folly, the free and joyful life at the foot of Mount Vesuvius ! Farewell rowdy meals, evening discussions, serenades under golden balconies. Farewell Naples and your women, torch-lit mascarade parties, long lunches in the shade of the forest. Farewell love and friendship ! My place on the Earth is empty.**
The lines remind me of Julia's school performance of the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Dying young, the character Emily says:
Good-bye, Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover's Corners....Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking....and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths...and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?
Yes, cherish every minute of life!
*Mauriac changed "happiness" to "purety" for his eulogy.
**Original French text:
Adieu la gaieté de ma jeunesse, l’insouciante folie, la vie libre et joyeuse au pied du Vésuve ! Adieu les bruyants repas, les causeries du soir, les sérénades sous les balcons dorés ! Adieu Naples et ses femmes, les mascarades à la lueur des torches, les longs soupers à l’ombre des forêts ! Adieu l’amour et l’amitié ! Ma place est vide sur la terre.
(The English translation above is mine; I surprisingly could not find one on-line. Does anyone know if one exists?)
Gérard Philipe's wife, Anne Philipe, wrote a book about losing the love of her life, Le Temps d'un soupir, Julliard, 1963, which I was amazed Jo had on her bookshelf. It’s a true gem and deserves a post of its own (coming soon). Unfortunately, not available in English as far as I can see.
If you're not fully frustrated with all the French, here's a beautiful poem by Alfred de Musset: https://www.poetica.fr/poeme-578/alfred-de-musset-adieu/