“Maurice Barrès”, by Emmanuel Godo: retrial

The writer Maurice Barres.

“Maurice Barres. The great unknown. 1862-1923”, by Emmanuel Godo, Tallandier, 688 p., €27, digital €19.

On May 13, 1921, a curious trial was held in Paris, a sham set up by the Dadaists to judge Maurice Barrès, accused of “attacking the safety of the mind”. Witness Tristan Tzara launches hostilities. Barres? “He’s the biggest scoundrel I’ve met in my poetic career, the biggest pig I’ve met in my political career, the biggest scoundrel that has happened in Europe since Napoleon. » Despite the defense provided by Philippe Soupault and Aragon, Barrès was sentenced to twenty years of forced labor. A judgment without legal value, but which fixes for a century the image of the nationalist writer. Here is the academician frozen in “Patriotic, anti-Semitic, pre-fascist, ratiocinator model, offered to detestation and on whose back one can easily buy a certificate of good intellectual and political conduct”summarizes Emmanuel Godo in his captivating biography, very well written but very partisan.

And if this detestable Barrès was simply false? If posterity had erred on this man who loved to displease? For the centenary of the death of the writer, struck down by a heart attack on December 4, 1923, Emmanuel Godo has decided to open the trial for review. This poet and professor of literature at the Lycée Henri-IV, in Paris, announces it straight away: despite all his “apparent defects”Barres has it “helped to live” by giving him for thirty years the pleasures of reading, an energy and a “unparalleled freedom of conscience”. It is therefore as a defense lawyer that he approaches the bar. Its objective: to release from purgatory the author of The Inspired Hill (1913).

There is a lot to do, as the friend of Maurras has accumulated disastrous political choices: defender of the very populist General Boulanger, then of the plotters who fomented a coup d’etat in 1889, the writer, journalist and deputy showed a pugnacious and enduring anti-Dreyfusard, an adversary of the separation of Church and State, and a radical, xenophobic nationalist, coupled with a defender of colonialism.

Barrès was above all an immense writer admired by Proust, Malraux and Mauriac, a powerful stylist, a “monument of French literature”A ” genius “, retorts Emmanuel Godo. His prose “suffers comparison with that of the greatest musicians of our language”, he professes. So he devotes a good part of his biography to brilliantly dissecting the texts of Barrès, rarely read now.

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