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Léon Bloy and His Monogamous Reader

Alberto Manguel

Rarely is a fulfilling explanation given to the relationship between two beings. The seemingly fortuitous pairings of lovers, friends, leisure comrades or working partners depends on too-complex or too-delicate motives for our ordinary comprehension: Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Don Quixote and Sancho, Tom and Jerry are not evident couples and yet it is impossible to question the bonds that bind them. Even less evident are the love affairs between readers and their books. Why St. Augustine pines for Virgil’s Aeneid and Holden Caulfield for Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa cannot be answered in any fully satisfactory way. Chance, personal circumstances, a particular taste for this or that, a secret longing or a hidden obsession may go a little way to explain our passion for one book or one author and not another, but behind these heart-pulls are invisible strings like those that hold certain constellations together in the sky.

It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that a certain shy and soft-spoken nineteen-year-old Bourgignon student of the École Normale, born in the Saône-et-Loire in 189, became passionately attached to the irascible, vehemently partisan, vociferous and irrepressible works of Léon Bloy, who was none of these things in his private life. The question, however, persists: why Bloy?

The student in question, Joseph Bollery, discovered Léon Bloy in 199, through an anthology of Bloy’s writings, recommended to Bollery by a schoolmate. Bollery felt “charmed by the intense poetry and by the incomparable style,” and read everything he could find by this strange author. He pursued his reading of Bloy during his teaching career and during World War I, which left him terribly wounded. After the war, he settled in La Rochelle, working as secretary of police, and later as officer of the judicial police. Bollery eventually became Bloy’s biographer and one of his most lucid critics. He died in La Rochelle on April 13, 1967, no doubt holding a volume by his favourite author in his hands. In 198, the Bibliothèque municipale de La Rochelle acquired Bollery’s entire Bloy collection from his heirs. To this, the library has added other related treasures, such as the original autographed manuscript of Bloy’s A Byzantine Epic, exquisitely bound by René Kieffer with a design of four interlocked birds on the front. Bloy is yet to be discovered broadly by English-speaking readers. I would recommend starting with his Disagreeable Tales, translated by Erik Butler and published in 215 by Wakefield Press.

The Bibliothèque municipale de La Rochelle was lodged, until the late 199s, in the old bishop’s residence, occupying the site since the late eighteenth century. Today it has been replaced by the Mediathèque Michel Crépeau, a magnificent modern building facing the medieval towers and the port of La Rochelle. The architecture inside hints at the shipping business for which the city is famous: graceful reading rooms, splendid vistas, generous space for the collections lend the library the atmosphere of the inside of a ship, and make it a place particularly suited for study and consultation. And singular collections such as Bollery’s Bloy material seem perfectly at home in this intimate space.

A few years after his first readings, Bollery gave a lecture on Bloy, which was printed by Bloy’s friends as a small pamphlet entitled A great unknown French writer; this led René Martineau, a colleague of Bloy’s, to offer Bollery the directorship of a magazine dedicated to Bloy’s oeuvre. The first issue of the Cahiers Léon Bloy appeared in 1924 and carried on until 1939, with Bollery fulfilling the tasks not only of director but also of secretary, writer and proofreader.

Like those lovers who, in the novels of chivalry, never meet their beloved in the flesh and only know them through their works and their portraits, Bollery never met Bloy. Only after Bloy’s death did Bollery meet his widow, Jeanne-Léon Bloy, and later their youngest daughter, Madeleine. These family contacts allowed Bollery access to Bloy’s manuscripts, to the twenty-four volumes of the unpublished journal and to many other papers.

Through his work at the Cahiers and his friendship with Bloy’s family, Bollery managed, throughout the years, to amass a great deal of Bloy material. It is moving to see the collection lovingly put together by a reader who grew up reading his subject, following Bloy’s work from book to book and from anecdote to anecdote, first as the adolescent who glimpses something which he cannot fully understand the attraction of but must nevertheless acknowledge, then as the erudite scholar, capable of analyzing and judging fairly. Unfortunately, Bollery was not a rich man and he was unable to purchase many of Bloy’s documents that passed through his hands. Instead, with singular devotion, Bollery copied out, by hand, many of the writings: journals, notes, letters, literary pieces. With his profound knowledge of Bloy’s life and work, and with his copied archives (and several original documents, including various drafts of Bloy’s novel about Marie Antoinette, corrected proofs of three volumes of the journals, dozens of letters), Bollery completed a colossal three-volume biography of his literary hero, published by Albin Michel between 1947 and 1954.

We can only imagine the sober Bollery’s impressions as he perused, for example, Bloy’s random notes—ideas for essays, original insults, aphorisms and the like, against false piety, bourgeois hypocrisy, corrupt journalism, mercantile greed—such as these, copied from a 194 Bloy manuscript:

Justice and pity are the same thing.

It stinks of God in this place!

I can’t understand how a hand touches a newspaper without a shudder of disgust.

In the blackest night, on a black table, a black ant. God sees it.

There is in the department of Tarn et Garonne a municipality that bears the name of Our Lady of Miseries.

The Devil is sentimental.

Napoleon had a taste for the subjunctive tense.

Wherever there’s an imbecile, there’s danger.

To show evil as precisely as possible, with rigorous exactitude, it’s indispensable to exaggerate.

A  decade or so after Bollery fell in love with the works of Léon Bloy, one of his contemporaries across the Atlantic, as shy and soft-spoken as Bollery had been, read the books with equal fervour, though not with any desire physically to collect the manuscripts. Jorge Luis Borges, in Argentina, discovered Bloy and wrote about him, and something of what Borges thought of Bloy might explain Bollery’s passion. “The sedentary and pusillanimous Léon Bloy transformed himself into two irascible creatures: the sniper Marcheboir [one of Bloy’s pseudonyms], terror of the Prussian armies, and the pitiless polemicist we know today and who, for the present generations, is no doubt the real Bloy. He forged a matchless style that, according to our mood, can seem unbearable or magnificent. In any case, it is one of the most vigorous of all literature.” It is possible that Bollery felt in this double creature a reflection of his own unrealized self, the wounded soldier and the quiet scholar.

In fact, it is in his work as reader of Bloy (and his contemporaries, since Bollery read, for the sake of his favourite writer, all those who were part of Bloy’s circle) that Bollery achieved a sort of modest fame. The French biographical dictionaries assiduously ignore, for the most part, Bollery and his achievements, and only grant him a sort of vicarious immortality in association with the writer he so faithfully read and promoted. There were, no doubt, others who from time to time, attracted Bollery’s attention outside Bloy’s circle, but these were passing nocturnal interests that held no importance for him in the morning. Bollery was that rarest of things in the world of books, a monogamous reader.

Borges listed Bloy’s universal disgusts and impartial contradictions: “I abhorred England, which he called ‘the infamous island’, as much as he abhorred Germany, Belgium and the United States. It’s superfluous to add that he was an anti-Semite, though one of his best books is called Salvation through the Jews. He denounced Italian perfidy, called Zola ‘the Cretin of the Pyrenees,’ he insulted Ernest Renan, Anatole France, Paul Bourget, all of the symbolist poets and, in general, the entire human race.” Surely such furious verve must be exulting to a timid man.

Late in life, Borges was to remark that “a writer writes what he can; a reader reads what he wants,” perhaps forgetting that these words were a variation on an observation by Bloy: “Talent does whatever it wishes to do, genius does what it can,” words which Bollery dutifully copied out. Perhaps this was the talented freedom that Bollery sought, and found, as reader of Léon Bloy.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at manguel.com.


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