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Cocktails with an ‘immortal’ – An Irishwoman’s Diary on French writer Michel Déon

A French literary giant with strong links to Ireland

Writer Michel Déon celebrates his 95th birthday at the Académie française with his wife Chantal and the perpetual secretary of the Académie, Hélène Carrére d’Encausse. Photograph: Lara Marlowe

The perpetual secretary of the Académie française sent out engraved invitations to a cocktail party marking the 95th birthday of the academician Michel Déon.

When the Académie was founded in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu, it was assumed the work of academicians would pass automatically to posterity. The company of 40 are known as “les immortels”. Though they’re sometimes mocked for their great age, in nearly four centuries, only two immortels have reached 100.

“It’s to console me for reaching this terrifying age,” Déon joked about the cocktail party. “It’s a prelude to my centenary celebrations.”

Déon, his wife Chantal and their children Alice and Alexandre moved to Co Galway in 1969. Perhaps he had “an obscure need for rain, wind, green fields... the presence of the ocean and the muffled, continuous sound of waves breaking on the cliffs of Moher,” Déon wrote in 1970.

Deon is inextricably linked with Ireland in the minds of French readers. With his tweed cap and jacket, he looks the part. His 1973 novel Un Taxi mauve (A Purple Taxi) was a declaration of love to Ireland. The film version, with Charlotte Rampling, Philippe Noiret, Peter Ustinov and Fred Astaire, was shot in Connemara. No other work of literature or cinema has so shaped the French idea of Ireland.

Purple Taxi was awarded the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, five years before Déon was elected to the august body. In his speech at the perpetual secretary’s cocktail party, Déon called the prize “an opening in my existence”. It amused him to see his work translated into a dozen languages, although the indifference of English language publishers long disappointed him.

Beneath the crystal chandeliers and Aubusson tapestries at the Académie, Déon’s friends mused on his life and oeuvre. His fellow academician Frédéric Vitoux speculated that “the fervour and passion of Michel’s love for books may be Irish”.

Déon is the last of the four writers who emerged in the early 1950s and were known as the hussards. Their writing was irreverent, non-conformist and attentive to style. Unlike existentialism, which dominated the period, it refused to take itself seriously.

Éric Neuhoff is one of the néo-hussard writers who have followed in their footsteps since the 1980s. “Michel Déon is a great storyteller,” Neuhoff said. “In my opinion, Un Taxi mauve is one of the best novels of the 20th century. I will always remember the night I read it, on a terrace in Spain . . . It changed my life.”

Déon has for decades led a double life, between the meditative peace of the Irish countryside and the worldly temptations of Paris. “Ireland brought him depth and serenity,” says Neuhoff. “It enabled him to write great books, whereas if he’d stayed in Paris, I imagine he might have continued going to [the nightclub] Castel’s.”

Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, the perpetual secretary of the Académie, called Déon “a man of friendship,” and “a pillar” who “brings authority to the Académie ”. The “immortels” rarely celebrate birthdays. “We have gathered around him to tell him how much we love him,” she explained.

Déon’s friendships read like a Who’s Who of 20th-century culture. In France, he knew Coco Chanel, Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí. It was he who discovered Françoise Sagan’s classic novel Bonjour Tristesse. In the US, Deon spent a night drinking with William Faulkner, translated Saul Bellow, met Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. Déon knew Graham Greene and Lawrence Durrell, and forged a close friendship with the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

The Académie’s main duty is to defend the imperilled French language, Déon says. But he also praises it as “a very good club that one wants to belong to”. For years, he was seated next to Claude Lévy-Strauss, who died in 2009, just short of his 101st birthday. Had it not been for the Académie, they wouldn’t have met, Déon says. During sessions, the father of modern anthropology doodled drawings of cats, which Déon kept. “We used to make fun of our colleagues,” he adds with a mischievous laugh.

Déon has written more than 50 books, but only three, Where Are You Dying Tonight?, The Foundling Boy and, this autumn, The Foundling’s War have appeared in English. Inspired by Henry Fielding’s 18th-century novel Tom Jones, The Foundling Boy has been highly praised by William Boyd, Paul Theroux and Diane Johnson. “This year, discover Michel Déon,” the Spectator exhorted readers in January.

Déon travels to Paris a half dozen times a year. He’ll be in London this week to promote The Foundling Boy. And he’s just received an invitation to visit Lebanon next spring. At age 95, he walks with a cane and is sometimes hard of hearing. There are moments of weariness, of sadness for the friends who’ve gone. But he still can’t resist the pull of life, friendship and adventure.