Obituary: Michel Déon

Acclaimed French writer and member of Academie française who made Ireland his home

 

Michel Déon, who has died in Galway at the age of 97, was the author of more than 50 novels, plays and essays, a member of the Académie française and the most Irish of French writers.

He was born Edouard Michel in Paris, the son of Paul Michel, a civil servant, and Alice de Fossey. His father became an adviser to the Grimaldis, and he grew up partly in Monaco. He recounted the trauma of his father’s death by a brain tumour while he was still a boy in the poignant memoir Your Father’s Room (2004). He published his first novel, Farewell to Sheila, the story of his teenage romance with an English girl, in 1944, as Michel Déon, the pen name he took from his maternal grandmother, Blanche Déon de Beaumont. He legally changed his name in 1965. He met Chantal Renaudeau d’Arc, who would become his wife, on New Year’s eve 1957. They had two children, Alice and Alexandre, and settled on the Greek island of Spetsai. They lived between Spetsai and Galway for two decades before settling permanently in Tynagh, Co Galway from 1988.

His two best-known novels, The Wild Ponies and The Purple Taxi, were partially and entirely set in Ireland, and won prestigious awards: the Prix Interallié and the Grand Prix de l’Académie française, respectively. His fame and commercial success persuaded the Académie to elect him as its youngest “immortal” in 1978. When he died, he was the second oldest French academician. He regarded The Wild Ponies as his best book. It posed the ambitious question, he wrote, “of the disenchantment that my uprooted generation lived through during and after the second World War.” The 1977 feature film of The Purple Taxi, starring Charlotte Rampling, Peter Ustinov, Fred Astaire and Philippe Noiret, enchanted France with its romantic vision of Connemara.

He was one of four writers known as “Les Hussards” in the 1950s. On the political right, they shunned the seriousness of Existentialism and the “Nouveau roman,” the intellectual fads of the time. He was a lifelong monarchist, and was stubbornly and unapologetically right-wing, having worked in his youth as a secretary to Charles Maurras, the ideologue of the far right movement and newspaper “l’Action française”. Yet he was refreshingly non-sectarian in everyday life. Those who questioned his friendship with the writer Jean Rolin – who was as Maoist as he was Maurrassien – did not understand literature, he said. He admired Stendahl, Conrad and Joyce, and formed literary friendships with Lawrence Durrell, Paddy Leigh Fermor, Milan Kundera and with John McGahern and Ulick O’Connor in Ireland. Le Monde’s literary critic Josyane Savigneau aptly described him as “a lover of life, of the South, of the sea, of women, of drink soft and strong, of the scent of jasmine and aromatic tobacco . . . All those who had the good fortune to meet him will never forget his charm, which stayed with him into old age.”

For years, he walked with his Weimaraner dog in Portumna forest, wearing a tweed cap and brandishing a cane. He was a prolific and indefatigable writer. Asked if he ever suffered from writer’s block, he said that au contraire, if he postponed the moment when he sat down at his desk in the Old Rectory, it was because he wanted to prolong the anticipation of the pleasure of writing. His oeuvre was immensely important to him. In 2014, he was pleased when the writers William Boyd, Diane Johnson and Paul Theroux heaped praise on the English translation of his 1975 novel The Foundling Boy.

One of his last wishes was to see Horseman, Pass By! his tribute to Ireland, published in English. That wish was fulfilled when the translation, published by Lilliput Press, was brought to him on his deathbed. He is survived by his widow Chantal, daughter Alice and son Alexandre.