A writer, his ashes and Paris’s delay in giving him a final resting place
Paris Letter: After months of political wrangling, Michel Déon is finally to be buried at Montparnasse
Michel Déon: the French writer and academician at his home in Co Galway in 2000. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
For nearly 14 months after he died, in Galway, on December 28th, 2016, at the age of 97, the ashes of the French writer and academician Michel Déon were held hostage to a refusal by the socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, to give him a final resting place in the city.
The refusal was cloaked in bureaucratic language, but no one doubted it was political, a legacy of the polarisation that blighted 20th-century France, at a time when President Emmanuel Macron says the ideological divide is no longer relevant.
In the end the pen was mightier than politics. Faced with an outcry from France’s literary establishment, Hidalgo gave up on Monday evening and wrote to Déon’s daughter, Alice, saying she would give Déon a tomb in the French capital.
My father used to love stopping in little Irish cemeteries overlooking the sea. There’s no view in Montparnasse, but I thought he’d have friends there to talk to
Although he lived in Co Galway for the last 40 years of his life, Déon attended sessions of the Académie Française in Paris several times a year. The academy was founded in 1634 to defend the French language. Déon joined in 1978.
Shortly after Déon’s death Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, the academy’s “perpetual secretary”, requested permission to bury his ashes in Montparnasse Cemetery, which is filled with great writers. She encountered what she called “insuperable bureaucracy”, then a flat refusal, on the grounds that Déon did not live in Paris and did not own a family crypt.
Jurisprudence and a past statement by the interior ministry left decisions on burials at the mayor’s discretion. Hidalgo’s predecessor made exceptions for Susan Sontag, in 2004, and Carlos Fuentes, in 2012.
“My father used to love stopping in little Irish cemeteries overlooking the sea,” says Alice Déon. “There’s no view in Montparnasse, but I thought he’d have friends there to talk to.” She begins listing writers her father admired, and who are buried in Montparnasse: Théodore de Banville, Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett . . . “He’ll be in good company,” she says.
In the late 1930s Déon joined Charles Maurras’s far-right, royalist Action Française. Although his novels are about life and love, not politics, Déon never renounced the ideas he espoused in his youth.
Hidalgo is the granddaughter of Spanish republicans, who abhorred the far right. For the past year her refusal to allow Déon to be buried in Paris was viewed as petty and Ubuesque, a word derived from a play by Alfred Jarry and meaning absurd.
Then 100 writers and publishers signed a full-page petition published by the conservative daily Le Figaro on Monday.
“Michel Déon’s oeuvre, personality and international reputation do not deserve this deplorable situation,” the petition said. “His presence in Paris, like that of Proust, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Sartre, will contribute to the already great prestige of a city that is indissociable from our intellectual and literary history.”
The petition was signed by numerous laureates of the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary award, and members of the Académie Française, who are known as “immortals”.
Signatories included Michel Houellebecq, the best-known French novelist abroad, the playwright Yasmina Reza, the Czech-born writer Milan Kundera and Antoine Gallimard, the scion of France’s most prestigious publishing house.
At the suggestion of Pierre Joannon, Ireland’s honorary consul general on the Côte d’Azur and a friend of Déon’s, Le Figaro highlighted a quote from a Déon novel: “What is terrifying is the absence of a tomb. Since ‘Antigone’, we know that for some, it is intolerable. The body must return to the earth or the sea. We must know where it is.”
There should be no left-right boundaries in literature. My father had right-wing ideas, but he was not sectarian in his literary tastes
Hidalgo had not realised how much Déon was loved by his peers. He enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow academicians, and was often the first to recognise new talent. When Houellebecq was threatened by Islamists in the early 2000s he sought refuge with the Déons in the Co Galway village of Tynagh. On trips to Paris Déon often dined with Reza, but he failed to persuade her to join the academy. He and Kundera were also close.
In her letter to Alice Déon reversing her decision, Hidalgo notes that Paris receives 5,000 requests for only 150 burial places a year.
Sadly, Déon’s widow, Chantal, passed away at the end of January, before the fate of his ashes was settled. She too has been cremated. Their ashes will be buried together in Montparnasse.
Alice and Alexandre Déon’s grief at the loss of their parents was compounded by the long wait. “There should be no left-right boundaries in literature,” says Alice, a publisher. “My father had right-wing ideas, but he was not sectarian in his literary tastes. Writers may be left or right wing. But an oeuvre isn’t.”