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Blaise Putois by Jacques Mortane (1924)

In 1924, when Carpentier’s prestige as an iconic figure had lost some of its luster, Jacques Mortane (pseudonym of Jacques Romanet), published a novel called Blaise Putois, Boxeur.[1]  Mortane’s title character is a middleweight who could have been a champion but squandered his chances by allowing his taste for the good life overpower the discipline required to train in a serious way.  Putois was too simply much of a Don Juan to endure the ascetic rigors of the pugilistic life.  Too many of his numerous conquests took place in the bedroom, too few in the ring: “A pretty boy, with a silver tongue. If he had had as many athletic victories as amorous ones, he would have been a great hero.” (7) While Putois is no coward, neither is he a born fighter and his vanity about his pretty face doesn’t help matters: “[…] he wasn’t afraid of getting hit but he would have been very sorry indeed to be disfigured […] The bottom line was that he wore the trunks of a boxer but didn’t have a boxer’s heart.” (31)

This French pretty-boy boxer, who is wildly successful with women, vain about his good looks and loves the high life can not of course but evoke Carpentier, especially in a book written in Paris in 1924.  It is important to specify, however, that Putois resembles Carpentier most in the way in which the crowds react to him. At the start of his career, for example, it was above all Putois’s appealing looks that generated interest in him, especially among women: “His photograph was published.  People liked it.  His face was sympathetic, honest, pleasant.  Women were no less fierce than his opponents for the championship, nor were they more difficult to defeat for the title.” (35)

Also reminiscent of Carpentier is the cordiality with which Putois handles himself in all situations. Win or lose, he is always smiling and gracious.  As was the case for Carpentier in real life, this genteel persona goes over big with the fans, who seem to care little whether or not he wins. Mortane specifies that Putois is embraced by people up and down the social ladder, another clear evocation of Carpentier:

People were disarmed by so much cordiality and, oddly enough,  every time Blaise Putois fought, the crowds came flocking.  He was as popular with the swells at ringside as he was with the toughs up in the balcony. (39)

Although Carpentier was a more skilled and successful boxer than Mortane’s Putois is described to be, it was nonetheless true that the fascination he exercised over the crowds was due in greater part to his person and his persona than to his pugilism.  It is clearly this facet of the Carpentier story that inspired Mortane’s novel. Fans love Putois regardless of his skill or lack thereof: “It didn’t matter that people knew he was going to lose, the fans were interested in him nonetheless.” (40)

Mortane describes a fight that pits Putois against an esteemed British opponent, John Barnett, obviously a fictionalized version of Carpentier’s first fight against Joe Beckett, in 1919.  The fight attracts a somewhat unlikely crowd,  bringing back to ringside a specific group of fans who had been boxing fans before the Great War but had since abandoned the sport:

Once again, around the ring were the personalities who, before the war, never missed a fight card but who, since the Armistice, had deserted the boxing arenas.  Men of letters, painters, and actors, all connoisseurs of the sport, were there.  It was clear that they were not there for the heavyweight fight, certainly not. [But rather for the Putois-Barnett middleweight bout] (107)

Among other things, Mortane informs us that the crowd considered Putois to be “a real gentleman.” (112)

Teasing his readers by adding an extra hint of possible verisimilitude to his fictionalized account of a real and easily recognizable event, Mortane does not describe the Putois-Barnett contest but informs readers that if they are interested in the details, they should consult the account published the following day in L’Auto. Thus, he says, “I cannot be accused of being partial.” (114) This is yet another ironic wink to aficionados, since it was well known that Victor Breyer, editor of L’Auto was a long-time fervent devotee and personal friend of Carpentier. In fact, Mortane tweaks the fact/fiction interplay even more, going so far as to  “reproduce” the fictional article that supposedly appeared in the real publication L’Auto, describing the fictional fight so closely modeled on the real one. (The novelist  assures his readers that he has not “left out a single word nor added a single line” to the account.)  What is most striking in the pseudo-article on the bout is the description of the crowd’s wild acclamation of Putois’ win: “Blaise Putois’ victory was acclaimed with frenzy: three cheers went up in honor of the Frenchman, who seemed to us to be completely transformed.” (121-122)

Always paying close attention to the way Putois’ story is being told in the press, Mortane “quotes” from other accounts of the bout as well. Once again following very closely in the lines traced by Carpentier’s real story, he points out the ways in which the press, both French and British, emphasizes the nationalist stakes of the Putois-Barnett contest and points out the respect and admiration on the part of the British for the Frenchman who had defeated their champion:

The British press had devoted an important place to Blaise Putois’ victory, in spite of the fact that they are not used to such an occurrence and particularly don’t like to emphasize British defeats. They nonetheless took the opportunity to glorify the winner […] (165)

The Putois-Barnett bout ends in a stunning KO of Barnett by Putois, mirroring Carpentier’s stunning KO of Beckett (the one difference being that Mortane’s fictionalized version puts it off until Round 4, whereas in real life, Carpentier dispatched with Beckett mere seconds into the first round).  Seeing his fallen opponent, Putois makes a showy gesture of good will and sportsmanship that is pure Carpentier:

Putois went over to [Barnett], picked him up off the canvas and, to resounding applause, placed him on his stool. It was many minutes later before Barnett came to. (121)

The other set-piece fight of the novel is between Putois and fellow Frenchman Marchal.  The nationality of the opponent notwithstanding, many of the circumstances surrounding the bout are unambiguous allusions to Carpentier-Dempsey.  The arena is sold out in advance of the fight, thanks to a publicity blitz in the weeks leading up to the event; Mortane mentions that “[e]ven the foreign press has underscored the interest of the bout.” (184) The crowd at ringside that evening does not consist merely of the usual boxing fans, but includes a number of celebrities:

Never had a more elegant and more international crowd been seen.  All the Parisian celebrities were there, amidst a multitude of foreigners.  It was like going to a boxing match in the Tower of Babel! (191-92)

Marchal, like Dempsey, is heavier than Putois; that fact alone earns Putois “a large number of partisans.” Like Carpentier, Putois enters the ring a beloved underdog and the clear crowd favorite: “Blaise got distinctly more applause […]” (193) Putois conducts himself in the Carpentier style as well: “With a placidity that only increased his opponents anger, Blaise didn’t respond [to Marchal’s insults] and did his work efficaciously […]” (194)

Like Dempsey, Marchal looks preoccupied and menacing (“furious”) in contrast to his fresh-faced opponent. Marchal’s fighting style is also the same as Dempsey’s:  he is above all a puncher, who attacks his opponent “head first, fists ready to hammer away.” This style, so different from his own, poses a distinct danger to Putois, just as Dempsey’s did to Carpentier:

You had to protect yourself, because [Marchal] knocked down anything in his path when he hit his target.  The cool and scientific Putois was wary. (196)

The outcome of the fictional bout, however, is a rewriting rather than a retelling of history.  In Mortane’s fictional account, the golden boy wins.  Clearly indulging in a bit of wish-fulfillment, Mortane gives his readers the glorious victory they had been so cruelly denied in real life just five years earlier.  With a winking reversal of history, he has Putois knock out Marchal in Round 4, just as Dempsey did Carpentier. The resulting joy is surely comparable to what would have happened had Carpentier managed to beat Dempsey:

The victory had been so beautiful that the spectators rushed toward the ring to get an up-close look at the pure and perfect gladiator, the author of this exploit. (201-202)

That this scene of triumph is a fantasy drawn straight from the most fevered imagination of the most passionate Carpentier fanatic is evidenced by the words “pure and perfect gladiator,” which echo the hyperbolic rhetoric of adoration bestowed on Carpentier in the months immediately preceding and following his fight with Dempsey.

Indeed, the clearest and most important parallel to be drawn between Putois and Carpentier lies in Mortane’s descriptions of Putois’s public persona, created through savvy maneuvers on his part and a sympathetic press.  Mortane implies that much of the interest of Putois’s story lies is found in the careful construction of the his image in the press. He may or may not be a truly great fighter, the novel suggests, but his ability to create and maintain a universally sympathetic persona, and to profit from the celebrity that accrues from it, is truly extraordinary.

Alluding to the extensive coverage given to Carpentier-Dempsey, even in “serious” newspapers, for example, Mortane says of Putois’ upcoming fight with Marchal:

During the entire training period, every single day, even in the more politically-minded newspapers, readers were informed about the two opponents. […] Blaise Putois knew how to make an entire series of subtle gestures that, cumulatively, created popularity. (168)

Like Carpentier, Putois remains, in spite of everything, “simple, modest, welcoming,” “a real gentleman,” as reported slavishly in the press:

[he] handed out multitudes of autographs without complaint; begged the newspapermen not to exaggerate his merits, recalled his losses rather than his wins in interviews, and gave precious advice to the young boxers who came to him asking for guidance, because of his reputation as our most scientific pugilist. (176)

This careful construction of a sympathetic persona pays off, since “[e]veryone was fond of the nice young man from a good family, so polite and intelligent […] (176)” When the respective purses for the Marchal fight are being negotiated, for example, Putois points out that although his opponent is champion, he is the one who will create interest in the event.

Compounding his popularity and the interest people take in him is that the fact he is modest about those very things. Not only does he “beg” sportswriters “not to exaggerate his merits,” he is “the first to find the publicity surrounding the upcoming bout excessive.” Mortane “quotes” at length from an interview with Putois, in which he asks whether he and his opponent are deserving of so much fame and hero-worship:

Why insist on granting us the status of legendary heroes, just because, for a tidy sum of money, we are going to go in there and punch each other in the face a few times? […] All athletes deserve as much attention: why is it that boxers considered more worthy than the rest of them? (177)

The novel ends with a convoluted and highly improbable romantic plot twist (it turns out that Bobby Marchal had seduced and abandoned the sister of the woman Putois loves and the entire Putois-Marchal fight was orchestrated, unbeknownst to Putois, by the young women’s parents and Putois’ own father as a means of punishing Marchal).  Perhaps most improbable—and most significant-- of all is a scene in which Putois, completely preoccupied by his love life, literally steps on a pile of newspapers scattered on the floor, all of them celebrating “with the most vibrant lyricism” his “triumph.” The clear implication is that praise and celebrity mean nothing compared to love.  It is rather hard to imagine any ambitious professional fighter having such clear-cut and noble priorities; it is particularly hard to imagine in the case of Carpentier, who worked so assiduously to cultivate a persona in the press.  Carpentier’s honeymoon, it should be remembered, was a trip to New York to be introduced to the American press and public and was voluminously documented in the New York dailies.

Blaise Putois, at once a boxing novel and a love story, surely represents an attempt on Mortane’s part to attract both male and female readers.  It would otherwise be difficult to imagine the odd and jarring juxtaposition of the two story lines in the novel.  Well aware of Carpentier’s popularity with women, most of whom would otherwise have been uninterested in boxing, Mortane may have tried to bridge the gap between the sexes (and the literary genres they favored). Men would buy the book because they were interested in the boxer; women would buy it because they were drawn to the romantic hero.  Mortane must have been hoping to write a novel that would echo Carpentier’s own multivalent appeal and perhaps earn himself a piece of the great commercial rewards that resulted from it. The novel is after all a piece of commercial fiction, with little to no literary merit.  It is nonetheless of interest, not simply as a literary representation of Carpentier but also as a signifier of the peculiarly literary nature of his fame.  Like Hémon’s more serious Battling Malone, Mortane’s story emphasizes the centrality of the creation, by way of the daily newspapers, of a persona for the up-and-coming fighter.  The protagonist’s accomplishments in the ring are just the jumping-off place for the real story. As is so often the case in writing about Carpentier, Mortane’s novel tells the story of a story more than it tells the story of a life. It blends fact and fiction in order to underscore the centrality of that very act of blending to the entire Carpentier enterprise.

 

[1] Jacques Mortane, Blaise Putois, Boxeur: roman (Paris: Baudinière, 1924). Two years later, Mortane would write a book on boxing largely centered around his interviews with Jack Dempsey. Return to text