French writer Michel Déon dies in Galway, aged 97

Novelist moved to Ireland in 1968 and his best-known works are partially or totally set here

Michel Déon with a portrait of himself in his home in Co Galway. In ‘La Chambre de Ton Pere’, Déon recounted how the portrait was painted. Photograph: Lara Marlowe

Michel Déon with a portrait of himself in his home in Co Galway. In ‘La Chambre de Ton Pere’, Déon recounted how the portrait was painted. Photograph: Lara Marlowe

 

The novelist Michel Déon, the French writer most closely associated with Ireland, died in hospital in Galway on Wednesday at the age of 97.

Déon’s tribute to Ireland, Horseman, Pass By!, has just been published by Lilliput Press. The writer briefly emerged from a coma before Christmas in time to see a copy, which had been brought to his bedside; he put on his glasses, looked at the book and smiled, his widow Chantal recounted.

Horseman, Pass By! includes pen portraits of two Irish writers with whom Déon formed friendships, the late John McGahern and Ulick O’Connor.

Déon’s two best-known novels, The Wild Ponies and The Purple Taxi, were partially or totally set in Ireland. The Wild Ponies won the Prix Interallié in 1970, while The Purple Taxi was made into a feature film starring Charlotte Rampling, Peter Ustinov, Fred Astaire and Philippe Noiret.

An Aer Lingus pilot told Déon that his romantic vision of Connemara “filled [his] planes for 20 years”.

The Déons moved to Ireland from the Greek island of Spetsai in 1968, so their children could attend Irish schools. In 1974, they purchased the Old Rectory in Tynagh. Their daughter Alice was a boarder at Our Lady’s Bower in Athlone. Their son Alexandre attended Portumna Community School.

Chantal Déon hunted foxes with the Galway Blazers and bred Irish Draught horses. Michel was active in the preservation of Portumna forest.

“My greatest pleasure was to roam in the forests, along the shores of Lough Derg or Galway Bay, or splash in the bogs, shooting snipes,” he said on accepting an award from the Ireland Fund of France in 1998.

Solitude

Déon wrote many of his more than 50 novels, essays and plays in his study at the Old Rectory. The most valuable thing that Ireland gave him, he said, was solitude and time to think about his work.

The Déons lived between Co Galway and Greece until 1988, when they sold their house in Spetsai. “Greece obsessed me . . . but Ireland kept me,” are the opening lines of Horseman, Pass By!

Déon joined the 40 “immortal” writers of the Académie française in 1979. The French language was, he said, “an umbilical cord” that tied him to France. His academician’s sword was engraved with an Irish shamrock, as well as symbols of France and Greece.

After co-authoring Salvador Dali’s memoirs, Déon was commissioned by Coco Chanel to write her biography. He spent much of 1952-1953 with the great high fashion designer, then complied with her wish to destroy the sole copy of the manuscript.

Déon urged Julliard publishers to purchase Bonjour Tristesse, which became an overnight sensation and French classic, written when Françoise Sagan was only 18 years old.

Gifted with a rare talent for friendship, Déon encouraged many younger writers, including Patrick Besson, Emmanuel Carrère, Patrick Modiano, Yasmina Reza and Jean Rolin.

When Gallimard published a 1,363-page volume of his works in its prestigious Quarto collection in 2006, Le Figaro newspaper dedicated the cover of its book section to the “Michel Déon generation” and printed two pages of homages from younger French writers.