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Battling Malone by Louis Hémon (1925)

 

Battling Malone by Louis Hémon (1925)

 Défense et illustration de la race française

The French, having started from zero, have jumped into boxing with both feet. […] Before long, a Frenchman will be champion of the world.

This quote, attributed to legendary African-American boxer Sam McVea, serves as the epigraph for a curious-- and curiously prescient-- book written in 1911 by Georges Rozet, La Défense et illustration de la race française.  In it, Rozet chronicles and promotes the new-found prowess of the French in various sports that had long been considered exclusively British endeavors.[1] He seeks to reinforce nationalist pride in his countrymen’s burgeoning athletic skills and to underscore the cultural, political, even “racial” importance of this new phenomenon.  Rozet’s choice of title, a perhaps (or perhaps not) tongue-in-cheek reworking of Du Bellay’s seminal text of the French poetic Renaissance Défense et illustration de la langue française (1549),  is significant, suggesting at once his belief that a veritable “renaissance” of French identity will take place by way of athletic achievement. It also seems to suggest an idea he will make much more explicit slightly later, that literature will play a central role in that renaissance.

Truly brilliant French athletic triumphs are just around the corner, Rozet assures us:

“[…] the big news of the past few years is that France is in the process of winning all the honors in the muscular domain […] Every day, athletic “revelations” are sprouting up like mushrooms in our country. (3)

Boxing is among the first of the specific sports he cites as fertile ground for French “revelations:”

From all over, novices who, three years earlier, had fled in desperation from the fist of steel of the men from across the Channel, began to parry effectively and respond with toughness. (4)

[…] suddenly, track, swimming, even boxing reveal the Frenchman to be quick, full of endurance, capable of strategy in battle, of method in training and especially of grace and style, with an indefinable panache […] (4) [emphasis mine]

Rozet goes on to say that the British (and other “phlegmatic” cultures) will no doubt continue to dominate in team sports, which require “cohesion, discipline and selflessness.”  The French, however, will “soon and undoubtedly” reign over “individual sports, which require, in addition to an endurance and conditioning that can be acquired, incommunicable qualities of drive and vigor, of energy and address.” (6)

There is no mention of the soon-to-be-great French boxer Georges Carpentier in the volume.  This makes sense, given that the book was published in 1911 and that Carpentier didn’t win his first French title until June of that year and first European title several months later.  Rozet’s comments about what French athletes are and should be nonetheless provide a virtual blueprint of what Carpentier will very soon become, in both pugilistic reality and popular perception. His extolling of quickness, endurance, intelligence, “grace,” “style” and “panache” as essentially French qualities almost eerily prefigure the adoring and essentialist descriptions of Carpentier that would fill both French and British newspapers in the months and years to come.  A veritable myth of Carpentier would accrue, a myth that would endure long after his retirement from the ring. This myth, for all its hyperbole and hero-worship, had its basis in solid, pugilistic fact: Carpentier defeated British opponents with lightning speed and ferocious power, winning European championships in an unheard-of four different weight categories, up to and including heavyweight, in just a couple of years preceding World War  I. He would regain the European heavyweight  title soon after the war’s end and travel to America to win the world light heavyweight title, making him the first non-native speaker of English to hold a world title in boxing. Less than a year later, he would fight the legendary Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight belt, in a fight that has gone down in the history books as boxing’s first million-dollar gate and a landmark in the history of the marketing of professional sports. Despite his loss, he emerged as a beloved global figure, everyone’s favorite adopted son.

It is important to reiterate that Carpentier accomplished all of this while maintaining  what was perceived as a quintessentially “French” persona and in this way, too, fulfilled Rozet’s hopes. Rozet’s argues that athletes are thinking, feeling human beings, as capable as anyone else both of experiencing and expressing emotion.  When athletes do express their feelings, he says, “it is with a sensitivity that is youthful and somehow refreshed.”  He thereby assures his readers, who may fear that sports will “impoverish” the traditional French socio-intellectual strengths of “grace and psychological subtlety,” that he knows many athletes who are “cultivated men of the world, who cry on occasion like children.” (7)  Rozet is assuring his French readers that the new breed of French athletes are indeed, and will remain, “real” Frenchmen.  They will represent not only muscle but also heart and head, as Frenchmen always have; they will not become the hulking, pre-verbal Anglo-Saxon brutes of collective French nightmares.  Carpentier’s extreme popularity will indeed owe much to his ability to conform to popular notions of  “Frenchness,” his ability to be “cultivated” and “graceful” while at the same time putting a string of apparently tougher British opponents on the canvas with no discernible difficulty.

At another point in his book, Rozet emphasizes the appeal that boxing, specifically, has for those who admire the human body as an esthetic object.  This somewhat high-minded approach to the sport is, he implies, more French than British.  It is also serves to explain the attraction of the sport for the upper classes:

It is no coincidence that, every Saturday night, men of the highest society, wearing the heavily starched of starched shirts, and the most scoliotic of bureaucrats, turn out to take a look at the anatomies of our fighters: those bodies at once muscular and fine, seemingly enlarged by their nudity, with pectorals and rhomboids of rubber roiling beneath a glistening epidermis.  The instinctive and, if you will, subconscious admiration of the human body comes naturally to people who, after all, are capable of admiring a beautiful animal, a pure-bred dog at a dog show or a thoroughbred horse on the turf. (110)

This passage too is difficult to read without being aware of how completely Carpentier ‘s career would, in the very near future, incarnate and transcend the ideas it expresses.  Endlessly hailed as a “Greek god” (or at least a piece of Greek statuary), Carpentier would be admired for his physique as much as for his pugilism.  His body would be strong and effective but also beautiful, “at once muscular and fine.” The French (and the British and Americans, for that matter) would indeed cultivate an “ instinctive and […] subconscious admiration of the human body” by way of Carpentier’s “pectorals and rhomboids […] roiling beneath a glistening epidermis.” And Rozet is absolutely right in thinking that this admiration for a beautiful—and highly skilled-- body would consistently attract an improbably distinguished crowd to ringside for Carpentier’s fights. Many card-carrying members of the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie, many prominent figures in all sort of prestigious fields, people who had never before even thought about boxing, would become avid fans of the slim and handsome young Frenchman with the devastating smile and even more devastating knockout punch.

Rozet’s manifesto ends up, in effect, painting a portrait of the ideal French athlete of the future: strong, skillful, and beautiful, a standard-bearer who will be able to beat the British (and various other “Anglo-Saxons”) at their own game while remaining quintessentially French in personal style, appearance and manner. He did not know that his idealized athlete would in fact manifest himself in the flesh just a few short months later. He certainly could not have known that the imaginary portrait he had painted foreshadowed virtually every trope of the elaborate myth that would grow up around the young boxer.

Sport and Literature

While Carpentier’s pugilistic feats were certainly very real, and genuinely spectacular, the cult that he inspired was largely a literary construct. His career clearly indicates that the future of French sport was as much in the hands of the sportswriters as those of the athletes themselves.  In this too Rozet was prescient.  Two years after his Défense et illustration de la race française, Rozet wrote an essay called “L’Avenir de la littérature sportive” (“The Future of Athletic Literature”).[2]  In it, he describes the emergence of a new genre, a way of writing about sports that differed from anything that had been done before.  In his earlier book, Rozet had promoted the burgeoning French interest in sports; in this slightly later essay, he argues that  it is not enough for a culture to practice sports or even succeed at them, but that that success must be celebrated in serious literature as well. Rozet frames the question that interests him very clearly in the opening paragraph of the essay.  Little by little, he says, sports have “invaded our daily lives.” But in order for sports to take their place alongside genuinely significant “national activities” such as art and literature, there will have to be an “athletic literature” as well as athletic contests.

There already existed in France numerous and verbose periodicals devoted to sports, as well as columns in the daily newspapers with accounts of games and matches and tournaments. But these writings, however numerous and lively, constituted athletic journalism.  While Rozet seems to approve of that genre, the question that really interests him is whether an actual literature—plays, poems or novels—will be born of the recent but intense enthusiasm of the part of Frenchmen for sports. Will literature be transformed by France’s “physical renaissance?”

Rozet seems optimistic about the possibilities.  Already he sees the beginnings, however hesitant, of such a transformation.  The very fact that illustrious poets, prose-writers, humorists and academics have begun to write about “muscular life,” in some cases on the front pages of  sporting periodicals, suggests that some sort of rapprochement is taking place between hommes de lettres and the world of muscle.[3] However, Rozet opines, in many cases the results cannot be considered examples of true “athletic literature.”  Many of them, in fact, are nothing more than accounts of reactions, on the part of “intelligent men of letters,” to “the spectacle, viewed exclusively from the outside, of athletic effort.”  When a man of letters writes about a sporting event, it is often as something that is by definition alien to his experience and about which he knows little. This very novelty is often his central theme.  True athletic literature, by contrast, must be genuinely grounded in athletic knowledge.

Rozet argues that in order to understand sports and thus describe them properly, you have to have had some first-hand experience of athletic competition or training: “You don’t watch a boxing match the way you do a sunset […] an athletic description must be above all, by a sort of muscular sympathy, a ‘physiological state,’” (3) There is, he says, a “second generation” of writers who have in fact had some athletic experience, however little, and have spent some real time among athletes of one sort or another.  These “storytellers” (Rozet makes a point of using the word) are in a much better position to create a true athletic literature. Their works are informed by a sound and detailed technical understanding of the sport about which they are writing, while at the same time being more than merely technical accounts.  

This is literature of a distinctly new type, as Rozet is quick to remind us.  He describes the unique properties of this new sub-genre:

The novelty is in the minute description and analysis of physical life, of athletic effort and all the sensations that go along with it, of all the feelings that that it gives birth to—none of this rendered in a dry, technical manner but in a truly literary manner.  It is in fact a psychophysiology in which the study of movement and rhythm would hold a place of honor. (8)

Rozet cites brief, humorous pieces published (in italics, he points out) as sidebars in sporting periodicals as among the first examples of this new literature.  Little by little, however,  the new genre is to be found in the actual accounts of sporting events:

Heretofore rigorously technical and dry, on principle, the accounts of matches or championships are day by day starting to include stylistic flourishes, external, picturesque or moral considerations, and comparisons with extra-athletic life, intended to illuminate, by enlarging, their specialized subject matter.  Even those who used to be the coldest and most algebraic, if you will, chroniclers of the athletic calendar, are starting to put some effort into their writing. (11)

Growing popular interest in sports, both inspired by and reflected in sports writing, has given rise to these stylistic efforts.  As sports are taken more and more seriously, the art of sports writing must become increasingly sophisticated:

For two or three years now, sporting news has begun to make its way frequently into the spotlight, in other words onto the front page of daily newspapers that used to be exclusively concerned with political and literary affairs.  So the writing of that news is truly obligated to wrap itself in the mantle of style, even the toga of general ideas and of philosophy.  Penetrating more and more deeply into everyday life,  it borrows its vocabulary and its procedures from traditional literature; however, by way of a logical cycle, an irresistible reaction, it in turn influences and transforms them as well. (11)

There is, Rozet says, an entire universe of newspaper readers who welcome sports writing that, rather than merely providing a dry, technical account of the facts, is “freer, simpler and more decorative.”  The result is a form of writing so “enriched by all the methods of history or of literary criticism—comparisons, approximations, oratory descriptions or esthetic analyses” that it can truly “hope, one day, to take its place as a literary genre.”

Some sports lend themselves more readily than others to a literary treatment. Boxing holds a particular attraction for so many of the practitioners of the new genre of writing:

Especially boxing. The theatrical way in which it was introduced to us five or six years ago; the astonishment, the sort of sacred terror it provoked in the general public at first;  the extraordinary business negotiations and  furious rush of snobbism it engendered—all of this guaranteed that it would be surrounded by a copious literature. And indeed, no other sport has made more ink flow in France. (12)

Legions of boxing writers have sprung up, some of them writing only “communiqués” from ringside or purely commercial hype to help promote a bout.  Others, however, sometimes in those same articles, find in boxing “a bubbling source of descriptive style, humor, eloquence.”  There is plenty of uninteresting writing about boxing, Rozet says, but the sport also regularly inspires examples of the kind of athletic literature he envisages for the future.

Tellingly, the first two examples he chooses to cite both come from pieces about Carpentier.  In the former, Georges Oudin concludes his article on Carpentier with a neo-Classical apostrophe of the young hero (“O Carpentier!”).  The writer, speaking on behalf of all Frenchmen, be they from Paris, Bordeaux or Lens, tells Carpentier of the debt France owes to him.  Greater than the debt owed to an artist, it is:

[…] the gratitude deserved by a compatriot who, putting himself on the line, was the first to acquire, with the smiling facility of our race, a manner that looked like the one that typifies cultures that are essentially utilitarian, effective, and practical. (quoted in Rozet, 13)

Rozet’s second example of sports writing that rises to the level of athletic literature displays, he says, even greater “technical precision” and at the same time is even more “oratorical.”  J.-Raymond Guasco’s account of Carpentier’s 1912 defeat at the hands of American Billy Papke describes the disappointment of the crowd, not because their hero lost, but because the fight itself was unsatisfying.  It was at once too methodical and too brutal, not emotional or romantic enough for French tastes:

The Frenchman, indeed, doesn’t like American way of boxing any more than the American way of doing business.  The match was too business-like [in English in the text], it lacked lyricism.  […]

We will never understand the beauty of the result for its own sake, the poetry of effort removed from all emotion. A fight only interests us if it is, so to speak, grandiloquent.  […] we are the sons of men who went to war in lace cravats; we don’t like the stevedore who beats the stuffing out of  his colleague, simply and without panache. (quoted in Rozet)

It is very important to note that  Rozet’s examples not only display sound technical knowledge and literary style but also what he calls “moral considerations, […] comparisons with extra-athletic life, intended to illuminate […].”  Specifically, both examples display a preoccupation with the way in which Carpentier serves as a standard-bearer of Frenchness; both pose, by way of Carpentier’s example, questions about French identity.  In the first, the author pays homage to Carpentier as a sort of savior of the French “race,” to whom all Frenchmen are indebted.  In the second, the author speaks of the centrality of style and esthetics to French tastes, even in something as rough as a boxing match.  The sort of “panache” he calls for is something that Carpentier reliably provided  (except when a rough-and-tumble opponent like Papke made it impossible to do so). Underlying Rozet’s discussion of athletic literature, then, is the notion that it is intertwined in some way with French identity.  The kind of “lyricism” Guasco says Frenchmen like to see in the ring is directly comparable to the lyricism Rozet wants to see in sports writing.  Dry, business-like reporting of the facts is equivalent to the fighting style, at once brutal and methodical, of a boxer like the American Papke; Frenchmen require something more esthetic and meaningful, both in the ring and in the words used to describe what takes place there.

At the same time, Rozet acknowledges, albeit in passing, the debt that the more literary French sportswriters owe to their Anglo-American counterparts.  It is because they have paid careful attention to English and American newspapers and magazines, especially in their reporting on boxing, that French writers have developed a style of humor that recalls Dickens or Twain, “a delightful mélange of all genres.” French boxers had learned the basics of their profession by emulating their Anglo-Saxon counterparts; French sportswriters had done the same.

Sports writing in periodicals may well have begun to rise to the level of Rozet’s imagined genre of athletic literature, but it was still not clear if and when poems, plays or novels representing athletics will appear.  One factor, Rozet says, is that readers are not yet sufficiently knowledgeable, indeed not yet sufficiently athletic, to greet such literary works with enthusiasm.  What is needed is an author who will do for athletic literature what Pierre Loti did for travel literature.  Perhaps one day, Rozet hopes, there will be an athletic equivalent of Zola’s cycle of novels, a “Rougon-Macquart of the world of muscle,” but that day has not yet arrived.

He does cite two authors who are clearly already taking important steps in the right direction.  Tristan Bernard’s recent novel Nicolas Bergère: Joies et déconvenues d’un jeune boxeur (1911) demonstrates a genuinely athletic perspective, as well as a sociological realism—directly attributable to the large amounts of time its author has spent in the company of boxers and race-car drivers.[4]  Rozet also cites one of Louis Hémon’s short stories, praising the fact that Hémon’s descriptions of the bodies of boxers are at once anatomically precise and literarily interesting and reminding his readers us that descriptions of the human form hark back to the Greeks.  With their new-found knowledge and appreciation of the body, specifically the body in movement, writers of the twentieth-century athletic renaissance could end up creating “a more sincere or at least more complete humanism” than that of the sixteenth-century cultural Renaissance, the concerns of which were “almost exclusively contemplative and formal.” What Rozet could not know was that, at the very time he was writing, his compatriot Louis Hémon was writing a novel of precisely the type he was calling for. It would not be published until more than decade later, but, like Rozet’s own work, it demonstrates an uncanny prescience about the man who would very soon become France’s longed-for athletic Messiah. Georges Carpentier would fulfill Hémon’s fantasy of a French champion boxer; Hémon himself would fulfill Rozet’s fantasy of a Frenchman who could write a novel about sports that was both technically accurate and stylistically worthy, who could thus bring into being a true athletic literature.

An Athletic Novel

Louis Hémon’s Battling Malone is widely considered a forerunner of what would eventually be a substantial body of French literature devoted to athletic themes.[5]  It is not possible to establish a definitive date of the writing of Hémon’s novel, which was not published until 1925, some twelve years after his death. We do know that it had to have been written before Hémon sailed from Liverpool for Canada in October 1911, since the manuscript was found in a trunk he sent to his family in France before his departure.

Hémon, a Frenchman living in England in the years preceding his departure for Canada, was an enthusiastic amateur boxer and all-around athlete as well as a writer.  He was offended by the formulaic stories, a staple of the cheap British magazines of the time, in which the characters are a girl, a hero (an Englishman), and a villain (a Frenchman). Invariably, Hémon reports in an article for a French sporting publication, the French villain is represented as “small, sickly, and affected.”  And invariably the dénouement of the story consists of the upstanding, manly Englishman defending the girl against the unseemly wiles of the Frenchman. Specifically, the English hero grabs the Frenchman by the scruff of the neck and gives him a sound thrashing, after which, Hémon reports, “everyone is happy.” While there may be a few variables along the way, the outcome, Hémon says, is always the same.  As a Frenchman, an athlete, and a writer, Hémon longed to tell a different story: “Every time I see a new version of this little British fable, I am obsessed by the desire to write one that would tell the opposite story.”[6]

Hémon scholar Chantal Bouchard suggests that it was Carpentier’s early international victories that allowed Hémon, several years later, to realize his dream of writing a story in which a Frenchman gets the better of an Englishman:

The athletic progress of [Hémon’s] countrymen afforded him the opportunity [to write such a story] several years later.  Indeed, around 1909-1910, certain French boxers, notably Georges Carpentier, began to win European championships, upsetting a bit the British certainty concerning their ontological superiority (a belief that had already been badly shaken by American athletes).  Along with several other indicators, like the publication of a series of short stories about boxing between September 1909 and May 1910, Carpentier’s victories allow us to situate the writing of Battling Malone around that time. (173)[7]

Bouchard’s assessment of the role Carpentier’s career played in inspiring Hémon’s oeuvre may be somewhat overstated, given that Carpentier’s first fight in England didn’t take place until October 2, 1911, a mere ten days before Hémon left for Canada and after he had both published his short stories about boxing and (presumably) completed the manuscript of Battling Malone.  Hémon had been firmly established in London as early as 1903 and had made only sporadic visits back to the Continent, as his letters to his family in France attest;  indeed, there is no mention in his correspondence  of Hémon’ having traveled to the Continent at all in 1908, 1909, 1910 or 1911. Given that all of Carpentier’s pre-October 1911 fights took place in either France or Belgium, it thus seems virtually impossible for him to have seen Carpentier fight.[8] He may well have read about Carpentier in the French sporting press, of course, but the coverage would have been fairly limited: before October 1911, Carpentier was a up-and-coming young boxer but not yet a star.  Bouchard goes on to make a more convincing point by specifying that Hémon’s novel anticipates Carpentier’s career rather than recounting it:

In any case, Hémon anticipated Carpentier’s career, since the boxer won his first European title in London on October 23, 1911, at the age of seventeen, at which time Hémon had already been in Montreal for several days. (173)

Hémon indeed anticipates Carpentier’s future triumphs in the ring against British opponents in several weight classes, up to and including heavyweight. His novel thus creates a fictional Carpentier of the future; he paints a portrait of Carpentier as the champion he hopes he will become, as the champion his fellow Frenchmen needed him to be. Carpentier’s pre-October 1911 record may well have sparked Hémon’s imagination but the writer and sports fan had no way of knowing that his fantasies would be realized.[9] 

The story of Hémon’s novel Battling Malone is both simple and compelling.  In order to reverse a recent and deeply unsettling trend of British boxers’ losing to French opponents, Lord Westmount and a group of friends from the National Sporting Club form the “British Champion Research Syndicate,” whose sole purpose is to find a British boxer able to restore national honor in the ring.  Westmount eventually comes up with Patrick Malone, an East Ender of Irish heritage with an unusually massive and powerful physique and a talent for brawling.  Malone possesses virtually no pugilistic skill or technique but an iron jaw and fists like sledgehammers have made it possible for him to devastate more skilled opponents.  The “syndicate” decides that Malone will avenge England’s honor by beating the Frenchman Jean Serrurier, the “pugilistic marvel of the decade, before whom so all the middleweights of England and America had had to lower their flags.” (59)[10] Before long, Malone becomes the darling of the British newspapermen and is acclaimed as a national hero. Eventually, the fight with the prodigious Frenchman takes place, a classic David-and-Goliath, skill-vs.-brawn matchup. British bluster notwithstanding, the science of pugilism wins out in the end and Malone is decisively defeated.  Malone’s humiliating loss in the ring also means the loss of the woman he loves, Lady Hailsham (Lord Westmount’s sister), who greets his post-fight declaration of love with derisive laughter.  In a melodramatic and rather gruesome conclusion, the simple-minded brute Malone avances threateningly toward the cruel Lady Hailsham, who shoots him dead.  

Of greatest interest in this story is of course the nationalist theme, which is both explicit and ubiquitous.  After having been knocked out multiple times by the unskilled but savagely powerful Malone during sparring sessions, tough British middleweight Jack Hoskins gives the aristocratic members of the British Champion Research Syndicate the assessment they were hoping to hear-- Malone can beat Serrurier:

“He will beat all of them,” he murmured, still a little dizzy and glassy-eyed, “…all of them!” […]

“Do you think he can beat Serrurier?” asked one voice and everyone strained to hear the answer.

[…]

“Serrurier is good,” replied Hoskins in an impartial voice.  “I’ve seen him fight and there’s no denying that he’s good!… But when this boy here lands a hook on the side of his jaw, ‘M’sieur’ will curl up into a little ball, roll over into the corner of the ring and stay there until somebody picks him up.” (59)

This vivid image of a humiliated Frenchman is of course the precise fantasy entertained by the members of the syndicate.  Much more than simple boxing fans, these rich and powerful men are English nationalists, seeking revenge for the humiliation of their “race” at the hands of a Frenchman and proof  that Englishmen were in the beginning, are now and ever shall be, more manly than their French counterparts. [11] For them, nothing less than “racial” superiority is at stake:

This was the answer they had wanted to hear, and they all stood back up with a flame of pleasure in their eyes.  Finally, Old England would reign supreme again, and they would be able to pick back up and slip back into the vanity of a superior race, like a piece of clothing that had only been out of fashion for a few months!  They turned to look at Patrick Malone as if to a new Messiah, all of them having dropped for a moment their imperturbable calm and that aristocratic coolness that has been inculcated in them at Eton and Oxford as the only attitude befitting men of their station and country.

They were all eager to shake the hand of the young barbarian from Whitechapel, all ready to promise him a slice of their fortune if he restored to them, with his victories, the right to disdain foreigners. (59)

After years of suffering through an endless stream stories in which red-blooded Englishmen physically humiliate lily-livered Frenchmen, Hémon was finally able to write the ending he wanted, in which a skilled, intelligent, gentlemanly Frenchman overcomes, through a stylish application of the art of boxing, an English brute. Even before Carpentier had proved his real worth in the ring, the image was already in place (at least in Hémon’s mind) of a slim, handsome, golden-haired French boxer with exquisite manners and devastating ring prowess, able to defeat larger and tougher opponents through sheer technique.  These things would come to pass many times in the years to come—in England, in fact, most notably with Carpentier’s defeats of British heavyweight champs Billy Wells in 1913 and Joe Beckett in 1919 and 1923.  At the time of the writing of Battling Malone circa 1910, however, they were more wishful thinking than anything else. Faithful French sports fans, perhaps including Hémon, may have believed that Carpentier was the man who would prove French prowess and manliness in the face of English derision but that was still, before October 1911, largely a leap of faith.

The character of the French boxer, as noted by both Bouchard and Proteau, is clearly inspired by Carpentier. In fact, even the name Hémon chooses for  his fictional boxer, “Jean Serrurier,” evokes “Georges Carpentier.” The rapturous physical descriptions of the fictional Serrurier evoke the real-life Carpentier as well:

[…] a handsome athlete with the face of a child, innocent and radiant […] (154)

[…] this adolescent with the shining face […] (154)

[…] this young white acrobat. (156)

[…] Pat, catching his breath with some effort, his head down, made out more clearly the eyes, fixed on him, attentive, without anger, and that innocently animated child’s face. (157)[12]

Perhaps even more important, Hémon repeatedly underscores the physical contrast between the child-like Frenchman and his brutish British opponent.[13]  Malone is not just bigger than the “slim” and graceful” Serrurier, his build is almost freakishly imposing:

It was a torso that was disconcerting to look at at first, as if it were abnormal.  The shoulders were broad, the chest deep.  But what was especially striking was an unusual development of certain muscles, and the look of other muscles which, typically full and meaty on most athletes’ bodies, seemed to have shrunk to thin strips on Malone, reduced to the dimensions of  strong wire cables, of which they also seemed to have the limitless resistance. (52-53)

Battling Malone by Louis Hémon (1925) (cont'd)

[1] Georges Rozet, La Défense et illustration de la race française (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1911). All translations from the French, throughout this article, are mine. Return to text

The history of the evolution of sports in France, especially in the 1870-1914 period, is a complex one, with profound implications, and has been the object of much study by social and cultural historians. Among others, see: Paul Adam, ed. Le Sport à la une, 1870-1914 (Paris: L. Levi, S. Messinger, 1984); Michel Caillat, Sport et civilisation: histoire et critique d’un phénomène de masse (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1996); Jean Toussaint Fieschi, Histoire du sport français de 1870 à nos jours (Paris: PAC, 1983); Ronald Hubscher, Jean Durry, and Bernard Jeu, eds. L’Histoire en mouvements: le sport dans la société française (XIXe-XXe siècle) (Paris: Armand Colin, 1992); and Philippe Tétart, ed. Histoire du sport en France 2 vols. (Paris: Musée National du Sport: Vuibert, 2007).

[2] The essay appears to have first been published in La Revue du Paris, in December 1913.  It was then included in a collection of essays by Rozet on athletic themes, Les Fêtes du muscle (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1914) (“The Future of Athletic Literature” is the first in the volume, 1-46).  All quotations and page numbers cited refer to that volume. Return to text

[3] Rozet, 2-3, cites examples here, names that were no doubt well known and much respected in 1914, but are unknown today.  One exception is Tristan Bernard, the famous playwright (and Carpentier worshipper). Return to text

[4] Bernard had a particularly intimate and affectionate, even worshipful, relationship to Carpentier, to the point of having served as a witness at Carpentier’s wedding in 1920.  Nicolas Bergère may have been inspired by the very young Carpentier, but only in part and to a much lesser extent than Hémon’s Battling Malone. Return to text

[5] See Aurélien Boivin, “Louis Hémon et ses Récits sportifs,” in Colloque Louis Hémon: Quimper (Calligrammes/Fondation Louis Hémon, 1986), 79-89; Pierre Charreton, “Avec Louis Hémon, aux sources de la literature à theme sportif: Battling Malone, pugiliste,” Etudes Canadiennes 10 (1981), 35-43; and Charles Chassé, “Louis Hémon, précurseur de la literature sportive,” Bretagne (April 1935) (cited by Boivin, 89). Chantal Bouchard, 172, characterizes Hémon as “ the first French writer to include sports as a theme in literary works, predating by a good fifteen years or so what later came to be called sports literature” and affirms that the subject of Battling Malone “represented a genuine novelty for the French literary world” (174). See Chantal Bouchard, “Postface: Le Rêve piégé du boxeur,”in Hémon, Battling Malone, pugiliste (Montreal: Les Editions du Boréal, 1994), 173. In fact, upon its initial publication in 1925, no less a critic than Henry de Montherlant, himself the leading practitioner of athletic literature in French, called Hémon’s novel “the true precursor of an entire movement” that had anticipated the sub-genre by more than a decade. See Montherlant, “Un Précurseur du roman sportif: Louis Hémon,” Les Nouvelles Littéraires 5, no. 173 (February 6, 1926), 1.  Return to text

[6] Louis Hémon, “Anglomanie,” Journal de l’automobile, February 4, 1905. Reprinted in Hémon, Récits sportifs (Alma: Editions du Royaume, 1982), 107-108.  Cited in Bouchard, 173. The information conveyed here concerning Hémon and the writing of Battling Malone is derived from Bouchard.

In addition to the literary settling of the pugilistic score between the English and the French that is Battling Malone, Hémon also wrote a short story dramatizing the defeat of an English boxer by  a Frenchman. “The Frenchman,” the sixth in a collection of short stories set in an English boxing gym (“Chronicles of the Cadgers’ Club”), tells of the day a Frenchman shows up in the gym and puts on the gloves with one of the regulars of the establishment.  The English boxers are at first puzzled and amused by the very idea of a boxing Frenchman, then perturbed, not knowing what to expect. What begins as a friendly sparring session becomes a real fight and the gym members are shocked and chagrined to see their fellow Englishman knocked out by the visiting Frenchman. Their entire world-view has been revolutionized: “Alf Plimmer beaten by a Frenchman!…A Frenchman!… It was the end of everything; the ancient dogmas were bankrupt; the hierarchy of the world had crumbled; it was the distressing spectacle of a God suddenly behaving aberrantly, blessing the infidels…”  The story was originally published in L’Auto, March 15, 1910, p. 1; it has been reproduced in Louis Hémon, Récits sportifs (Alma, Québec: Les Editions du Royaume, 1982), 159-162.

Hémon’s preoccupation with trans-Channel rivalry is a of course a tiny reflection of the sometimes ambivalent but more often hostile and always suspicious relationship between France and England dating back to the Norman Conquest and beyond and must be considered in that context. Among many other sources, see Robert and Isabelle Tombs, That Sweet Enemy: the French and the British from the Sun King to the Present (New York: Knopf, 2007). Return to text

[7] Gilbert Proteau has stated that Hémon was on hand for some of Carpentier’s fights, but as Bouchard points out, there is no proof of that assertion. See Gilbert Proteau, Anthologie des texts sportifs (Paris: Editions Défense de la France, 1948), 219 and Bouchard, 173.  The preface by Daniel Halévy to the first edition of Battling Malone (Paris: Grasset, 1925) says: “Louis Hémon wrote Battling Malone in London, before 1911, when Carpentier was picking up his first victories; it is impossible to be more specific.” Return to text

[8] See Louis Hémon, Lettres à sa famille (Montreal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1968). Return to text

[9] Although he was not present at the fight, having already left for Canada, Hémon was inspired by Carpentier’s successful bid for the European welterweight title by defeating Englishman Young Joseph, in London.  The result was not a work of fiction but rather an op-ed piece for the Montreal daily La Presse, November 11, 1911, “Le Sport et la race,” about Anglo-French relations and identities and the role of sports therein. Hémon discusses the themes that are central to Malone, especially the centrality of athletics to English identity and world-view and the English stereotype of the Frenchman as the epitome of the non-athlete. For Hémon, it was as if the fact of Carpentier’s victory served to confirm the speculative, hopeful fiction of Malone he had constructed some months (or years) before. The piece in La Presse makes no mention of the as-yet unpublished Battling Malone. Return to text

[10] Louis Hémon, Battling Malone, pugiliste (Montreal: Les Editions du Boréal, 1994). Return to text

[11] There is of course a long tradition in British popular culture of equating Englishness with masculinity and Frenchness with femininity.  Historians Isabelle and Robert Tombs says that the “distinction was commonplace as early as the eighteenth century” and point out the symbolic importance of the fact that the national allegorical figure for England is a man, John Bull, while his French counterpart is a woman, Marianne.  See Tombs, 452. Return to text

[12] These descriptions may have been inspired by what was being said about Carpentier’s child-like appearance in the French sporting press. In an article in La Boxe et les boxeurs, published after Carpentier’s defeat of Englishman Jack Goldswain in June 1911, for example, the young French boxer is described as having “the placid, childish, almost smiling face of a schoolboy.” Return to text

[13] This will be a recurring, almost obsessive, trope of the newspaper coverage of Carpentier’s big fight against British champions (his two fights against Bombardier Billy Wells in 1913 and especially his two against Joe Beckett, in 1919 and 1923). Carpentier is always represented as “slim” and “elegant,” while his British opponents are bigger and brawnier. Return to text