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Comment Je Suis Devenu Champion d’Europe (1911)

Comment Je Suis Devenu Champion d’Europe, the first of Carpentier’s autobiographies, was published in late December 1911, just after his defeat of Young Joseph for the welterweight championship of Europe and just before his eighteenth birthday.  It gives us Carpentier’s own story, but with considerable framing by others—first, man-of-letters and boxing aficionado Tristan Bernard provides a preface, introducing the young champ to the reader, then Carpentier’s  “teacher and manager” François Descamps introduces him again, at considerable length, in a foreword. Despite the fact that Carpentier is identified as the author of the work on the title page, slightly less than a third of the book is taken up by the section (supposedly) penned by the young boxer himself, “Souvenirs et Travail d’un Champion” (“The Memories and the Work of a Champion”). That section is in fact considerably shorter than Descamps’ account of Carpentier’s career, “Ce Qu’est Georges Carpentier” (“What Georges Carpentier Is”) (Carpentier’s section weighs in at a mere twenty-nine pages, while Descamps’ is a heftier fifty-one).  And it is Descamps who provides the blueprint for many of the central aspects of what would become the mythic Carpentier persona: Carpentier as a natural pugilistic genius, a “born boxer”; Carpentier as dutiful pupil and faithful son; Carpentier as valiant (but, typically, triumphant) underdog in fights against much bigger men; Carpentier as the Frenchman who beats the Anglo-Saxons at their own game.

It is important to remember that in 1911, while many Frenchmen had heard of Carpentier, it is likely that only avid boxing fans really knew anything about him.  Indeed, in 1911, many Frenchmen, even those interested in sports, were still in the process of getting acquainted with boxe anglaise, a recent if booming import.  An introduction to Carpentier was, for many, an introduction to the sport he practiced.

Carpentier’s own text begins on a characteristic note of extreme modesty.  He points out that Descamps helped him write what the reader is about to read and excuses himself in advance for his literary shortcomings:

I may know how to use four-ounce boxing gloves, but that doesn’t mean I know how to use a typewriter; my pugilistic education has perhaps overshadowed my literary formation.  […]

Firs of all, I find myself in a rather awkward spot.  My trainer has already recounted my career and it seems to me that he has already said all there is to report about my past, presuming that my past holds any interest for you. 

What, he asks, can he possibly say?  The explanation of the psychology of a boxer is a “philosophical task” that is “beyond [his] abilities.”  Instead, he suggests, he will speak simply, personally and, above all, modestly about his accomplishments:

I want to speak to you simply, as a friend, and I will be well satisfied as long as my writing doesn’t bore you and you are kind enough to forgive this little boxer, who has grown big, as least as far as size is concerned, when he sometimes seems immodest.  I want, above all else, you to understand fully that I have no pretensions whatsoever. (68)

What Carpentier denies here are pretensions of two sorts: literary and pugilistic. As far as boxing is concerned, he explains, there are two reasons for his success: he was lucky enough to possess a “special disposition” for the sport, a disposition that was honed by a wise trainer; and lucky enough to have a teacher/manager who was exceptionally patient and skilled.

The greatest thrill for the young champion, a devoted son as well as an athletic prodigy, was buying a house for his parents.  It is on this wholesome note that the book ends:

The greatest satisfaction of my life was bestowed on me the day my earnings made it possible for me to buy a small house for my parents, on the town square in Lens, a house where they would find a safe harbor for their old age, when they were worn out from the back-breaking labor they had to do in order to raise and feed their children.  There, late at night, next to the fire, they could talk about their little Georges, whom they had wanted to see go down into the mine instead of up into the ring! (95-96)

This first Carpentier autobiography sets the tone for the others.  The narrative voice of virtually all of his autobiographical writings will be characterized by extreme modesty, by an insistence that he is a good boxer, a conscientious professional and an upstanding human being-- but nothing more.  His fame and popularity are gifts bestowed on him by the kindness of others, he suggests (in so doing, of course, he encourages them to keep on giving).

His gratitude to his fans will be expressed time and again in the decades to come.  This earliest version, before he had acquired true celebrity status outside of his native land, emphasizes the particular gratitude he feels vis-à-vis his French fans.  Not knowing to what degree French patriotism would become a theme in his career, the seventeen year-old, future “idol of France” is nonetheless lucid about the role nationalism plays in the applause and adoration lavished upon him by his fellow countrymen:

[…] I cannot say enough, to all those who were good enough to acclaim me, how grateful I am for their expressions of kindness.  I know I have so many admirers more because I am a Frenchman than because I am Georges Carpentier.  That makes me all the more proud and I will always do my utmost to live up to the patriotism of my countrymen, in all of my bouts. (72)

[…] I want to repay a debt of gratitude to the French public and, in particular, the Parisians, who have been so kind to me.  I never imagined, in my wildest dreams, that one day three thousand people would wait for me at the station, when I was returning to Paris, deafen me with cheers and carry me off in triumph […] I was very, very happy and I can thank enough those who accorded me such a great honor. (87)

1 Georges Carpentier, Comment Je Suis Devenu Champion d’Europe (Paris: Pierre Lafitte, 1911), 67-68.