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Le Roman de Georges Carpentier, Edouard de Perrodil (1912)

Le Roman de Georges Carpentier consists of nearly equal parts fact and fiction.  The protagonist is called “Georges Carpentier,” comes from Lens, and is a champion boxer; that much is true. On the other hand, he is nonetheless a character in a narrative the event of which are largely fictional.  The end result is a genuinely strange mélange of fact and fiction; it contains at once fact that has been fictionalized and fiction that could conceivably pass for fact.  The title of the work itself announces this ambiguous, hybrid nature: roman means of course (fictional) “novel” but can also be used to refer to the “romantic” nature of a true story. The use of the word roman in the title has a slightly less obvious connotation as well.  One might infer from it that Perrodil is proposing not only to write the “novel” of Carpentier himself, but also to report on the “novel” that has already been written by the press.  In other words, the “novel” of Carpentier already exists as a collective construction of the journalists who have breathlessly reported and embellished every detail of Carpentier’s life; Perrodil has taken that “novel” as the subject of his book. While Perrodil’s work definitely functions on a first level as a novelization itself, it also functions on another level as a meta-novelization, as a commentary on the commentary.  In so doing, it establishes itself as the first in a long line of writing about Carpentier that is in fact writing about the writing about Carpentier.

Perrodil, in a preface, is explicit about the fact that it his work is at once fact and fiction, a novel based on historical reality:

As its title announces, this book is a novel.  That is to say that fiction occupies an important place here.  I nonetheless followed, with scrupulous fidelity, the real life, still brief but extraordinary, of the young and celebrated French boxer […] I don’t pretend to be a Sir Walter Scott or a Balzac, but I hope that, in the eyes of sportsmen, the documentary interest of the book will serve as a sufficient compensation for my shortcomings! (7)

Perrodil thus makes the odd and convoluted gesture of emphasizing that his book is a work of fiction, then specifying that it is nonetheless closely based on fact, then admitting his shortcomings as a novelist while hoping that the facts being represented will make up for the poorly wrought fictions constructed around them.  All of this leaves the readers to wonder why he didn’t simply write a biography of Carpentier. This fundamental question remains unanswered but one might speculate that Perrodil’s goal, conscious or not, is to create, or at least contribute to, a modern myth of Carpentier.  Blurring the lines between fact and fiction is a necessary component of that process. A factual account of his life, however extraordinary and however fascinating to “sportsmen” simply doesn’t have sufficient drama to draw in non-sports fans. On the other hand,  pure fiction is simply that and risks being drowned in the endless flood of mediocre novels into the marketplace.  It is precisely the mélange of fact and fiction that characterizes Perrodil’s book and that, in principle, will attract readers.

 Pérrodil emphasizes the central importance of Carpentier’s victories over English boxers and creates (or propagates) a myth around this fact.  Carpentier, the (English) giant-killer, the pride and joy of France, is truly a larger-than-life character in Pérrodil’s text. The prescient “Deschaumes” (curiously, Carpentier’s real name in this text is used but his manager Descamps is given the transparent pseudonym “Decchaumes”), first recognizing the prodigious natural aptitude for boxing of the young Carpentier (literally a child at the time), announces from the first that his pupil’s destiny is to defeat the Anglo-Saxons who have so long dominated the sport.  Deschaumes already sees in Carpentier both the vindication of the French and the future of the fledgling sport in France:

People are getting more and more interested in boxing in Paris these days and that interest will only grow and embellish, especially if we come up with some French champions capable of holding their own with the foreigners.  Well, I know what I’m talking about, and Georges has the potential for becoming a boxer capable of  giving a sound thrashing to even the most famous Englishmen and Americans… his arrival on the scene will provoke a veritable revolution in the sport of boxing. (58)

In this version of his life story, the fearless prodigy Carpentier takes on this identity, proposed by Deschaumes, and is determined to prove that the French “race” is at least the equal of the the English and Americans who dominate boxing.  It is he who announces his intention to put to rest forever the notion of Anglo-Saxon superiority in the ring by going to England to prove himself, saying to his manager:

“This has got to end […] People are saying, people are repeating endlessly that Frenchmen are still inferior to the English and Americans, and that we should just give up the idea of ever beating them.  Well, I want to go give a good thrashing to the champion of England, right there in London. Do you understand me, Deschaumes?” (124)

“Deschaumes’” response is enthusiastic: “Absolutely, Georges, right you are.  We’re going to show the English who we are!” (125-126)  

Le Roman de Georges Carpentier ends after Carpentier’s defeat of American Willie Lewis on May 23, 1912, the latest in a series of triumphs over Anglo-Saxon rivals; the next-to-the-last page includes an allusion to his upcoming fight with American Frank Klaus on June 27, 1912, a fight he would lose.  It is significant that Le Roman de Georges Carpentier ends with Carpentier undefeated.  According to the internal logic of the narrative, this must be the case.  There would be no way of capturing defeat, and the reality of physical limitations it evinces, in a narrative of such extreme hero worship. Perrodil takes his place among the many, both before and after him, who create a Carpentier “character” that is not only a boxer with prodigious skills but a sort of super-human, a quasi-god.

This demi-dieu is characterized almost as much by his extreme beauty as by his pugilistic abilities. In a number of descriptions, the power of Carpentier’s beauty is literally striking; Perrodil emphasizes the fact that reaction to it is immediate.  It is literally the sight of him that sends men and women alike into a sort of beatific trance. The word apparition is used a number of times at moments when Carpentier suddenly appears, in the ring and elsewhere, and produces an almost uncanny effect on those who see him.  It is indeed Carpentier’s appearance (in both senses of the English term) that creates the effect but it is also Carpentier as apparition, in the supernatural sense, that is implied here.  There is something distinctly other-worldly about the Carpentier of Perrodil’s text, never more so than when he first comes into the field of vision of an individual or a crowd.  The power his very appearance wields brings to mind scenes of religious apparitions; Carpentier is clearly, on some level, a messianic figure here[1]:

[…] his mother and sister, from afar, both of them in beatific ecstasy, observed his triumph. (164)

 [a poor old man comes every day to the pub owned by Carpentier’s family, in the hope of catching a glimpse of him; finally Carpentier’s sister, working at the bar, takes pity on him and goes and wakes up her brother, asking him to come let the old man have a look at him] When the young man appeared, the old man looked at him for a long time and not a single word passed his lips.  After having contemplated him for a long time, silently, he payed for his beer and walked away, still not having said a word… (187)

[…] thunder shook the ceiling of the Circus… It was the sudden, spontaneous fusion of all noise in one formidable, immense acclamation…Georges Carpentier’s blond head had just appeared, coming out of his dressing room […] the ovations of the crowd went on and on, unending.  Whne he climbed into the “Enchanted Circle,” and Deschaumes had removed his elegant, mauve-striped robe from him, he appeared, his face beaming with an angelic smile, with the ideal beauty of a young god, his body diaphanous, bathed in light… (217)

The Carpentier character is this roman is in fact nearly Christ-like.  In the crowds that press into the Carpentier family’s pub in Lens, eager to get a look at the young champion, there are always a few poor people seeking alms, typically without much success.  One day, however, something out of the ordinary takes place:

Suddenly, a little girl, about twelve years old, came forth accompanied by her father, who was holding a little wooden bowl.  The poor girl had one arm that was completely deformed and her hand had only three fingers.  It was a pitiful sight.  She had, made the rounds of the crowd, with her father, and only collected a few rare donations.  Beggars were really too much.  Georges Carpentier, deeply moved by the sight of this poor child, manifested his profound pity by taking a silver coin out of his pocket and giving it to the father. In a matter of instants, the little wooden bowl was filled.  Large coins suddenly rained down. (187-188)

The act being described here is not miraculous: Carpentier takes pity on a handicapped child, gives her a coin, and others follow suit.  It is, however, described in way that evokes a parable: Christ emerges from the crowd to display kindness and charity and others are inspired by his selflessness.  

As we saw in the examples given above, the very sight of Carpentier, like the sight of Christ, is enough to send crowds of onlookers, almost miraculously, into a reverential state of awe and wonder:

But, when Georges Carpentier appeared, the yokels had fallen silent and the human wall had suddenly opened up, without a word, without a shout, each one of them wide-eyes and open-mouthed. (173)

Not a single shout, not a single gesture.  A few people shook the young boxer’s hand, others were content to merely gaze at him, happy to have had the chance to simply contemplate his features.  With unwavering patience and exquisite kindness, he made himself available, completely, to everyone. (185)

Carpentier is above all a selfless figure, to the point of (symbolic) martyrdom:

[upon seeing his old friend Jules Chandos, now become his enemy in the vioent struggles surrounding the miner’s strike in Lens] […] suddenly, he felt a steel blade, slicing through his flesh, embed itself in his heart and turn his blood cold… his arms fell to his sides… (222)

On top of the underlying theme of the sanctity of Carpentier, a fictional narrative is constructed, a somewhat complicated plot involving a miners’ strike in Lens (led by the fictional Carpentier’s fictional former best friend, Jules Chandos) and, intertwined with that plot, a taboo romance between Carpentier the former pitboy and the daughter of the wealthy mine owner. Carpentier’s selflessness and martyrdom are not entirely of the passive variety. If he represents some version of a quasi-Christian ideal, it is that of a muscular Christianity, as becomes obvious when he explains to his former friend that he intends to protect the president of the mining company and his family in the event of a raid by the striking miners:

Georges Carpentier feature suddenly contracted and seized Jules Chandos’ arm.  Gripping it with his powerful hand, he said: “In that case, Jules, you need to know that I will be there, in the company president’s house, tomorrow.  I’ll be at the foot of the stairs that go up to the second floor, you those stairs […] The first person who tries to go up those stairs is going to get slaughtered like a bull.

Georges had stood up while he was talking, his handsome face faintly lit by the flickering flame of the smoldering oil lamp.  He had beat on the table with the first that had laid the champion of England out at his feet.  

“Yes,” he continued, “they’re going to have to step over my dead body to get to the engineer’s family, they’re going to have to start by stepping on the corpse of someone who was once a little pitboy like you, Jules…” (251-252)

In nearly miraculous and not entirely comprehensible fashion, the angry mob of strikers is turned away from the company president’s house by Carpentier.  The biggest and ugliest thug among them (“a colossus, with a hideous face, the look of a wild animal in his eye and a bare chest”) enters the house. True to his word, the champ knocks the brute out with a single punch (a devastating left hook).  Just then the mob manages to break down the front door and pushes into the house, only to be greeted by the arresting tableau of Carpentier and his unfortunate victim:

The first assailants, stupefied by the spectacle of the man laid out on the ground and the marble statue planted on one of the stairs (in their stunned condition, they hadn’t even recognized who it was at first), stopped dead in their tracks, as if they were caught in a vice…(271)

Chandos, Carpentier’s friend turned foe turned friend again, turns to the crowd and cries out: “Vive Carpentier!” The mob, only a few of whom are close enough to see the impressive spectacle at the foot of the stairs inside the house, takes up the cry hesitantly, without conviction.  Chandos then realizes they need an icon, that only a visual symbol will rally them:

[Chandos] understood that this mob, huddled in the yard and on the shadowy road, prey to a thousand confused feelings, needed to be struck by a visual image… He said to the strikers who were till hanging back at the front door of the house and seemed to be dumbstruck: Pick up Carpentier! Carry him on your shoulders! So the young boxer was hoisted up on the shoulders of the miners, who obeyed the command by instinct.  When his face appeared in the doorway, bathed in the light of the torch he was still holding, Jules Chandos repeated the cry of: “Vive Carpentier!”

This time, at the sight of the face of the popular hero’s face, so well known, appearing lifted up as if on a shield, the crowd—always so inconsistent, so variable in its emotions—took up the cry they knew so well. It gathered strength as it continued, eventually becoming like a roll of thunder…

Jules Chandos, whose presence of mind hadn’t deserted him, said to the bearers: Go down the steps, move forward toward the gate.

This was the signal for the retreat of the revolutionary army… Now, they were marching, marching toward the road and the Boulevard Des Ecoles, to follow the triumphant one perched on his shield, still holding his flaming torch as if to guide the flood of people in their retreat […] (271-273)

The hostile mob turns away from its violent intentions, for no reason whatsoever other than the fact of having fallen under the icon’s spell.  Chandos was right: the very sight of Carpentier sends the crowd into a sort of trance, rendering them docile and uninterested in doing anything other than worshipping at his feet.[2]

A real-life scene, in multiple iterations, serves as the inspiration for the illogical crowd response to Carpentier during the miners’ strike in Perrodil’s fiction. When Carpentier would return to France after a victory abroad, the massive and fervent homecoming scene was invariably spectacular and the spectacle was invariably recounted in the press in great detail.

Here is Perrodil’s version of the first of these iconic real-life homecoming scenes:

The exact time at which Georges Carpentier and his manager were to arrive at the Gare du Nord, three days later, had been announced.  More than an hour and a half before the arrival of the train bringing back the glorious conqueror, the mob of enthusiasts was arriving.  […]

When the train finally arrived, there was a huge rush, a whirlwind.  Georges Carpentier was torn from his train compartment, abducted, passed around form shoulder to shoulder, as a deafening clamor rose up: “Vive Carpentier!”

The crowd outside, hearing the cries, has rushed in.  […] When, having been set back on his feet, the victor of the Englishman appeared outside, an immense swaying took place, like the trees of a forest in a windstorm.  He was assailed, seized, knocked around.  Those standing near him couldn’t bring themselves to let him through.  They looked at him, as if hypnotized; squeezed up agisnt him because of the pressure of the crowd, they were crushing him. So to extract him, some young men had hoisted him back up on their shoulders and the shouts, the cheers and the ovations went on and on.  

Through patient effort, George Carpentier, along with Deschaumes and a few friends, had managed to get into a car, but the chauffeur had an unbelievably hard time getting the car to move.  A circle of iron surrounded it, from which rose up constant shouts of “Vive Carpentier!”  Finally, with infinite precaution, he had started rolling […] Finally […] the car pulled away, as the young madmen, one by one, let go, and the last clamorings still rang out, desperately. (131-133)

A similar real-life scene takes place in the novel when Carpentier returns from Monte Carlo, having beaten Englishman Jim Sullivan and won the European middleweight title (February 29, 1912):

Three lines, buried in the great sporting daily L’Auto, announcing the arrival of Georges Carpentier at the Gare de Lyon, had been enough to bring out a crowd of five hundred people, mostly young men.  When Sullivan’s victor got out of his train compartment, he found himself escorted by this ardent young crowd, over whom he towered over by a head and who pressed around him like true believers around a reliquary.  Immediately, in the outer vestibule, cries of “Vive Carpentier!” broke out.  The most robust of the young men took him on their shoulders and carried him like that all the way to his car, which, on a signal from Deschaumes, had moved towrad the group as moving picture camera men vied with each other to get it all on film. (165-166)

There are so many striking similarities between these primal scenes of actual Carpentier worship and the one depicted during the fictional miners’ strike that Perrodil seems to be suggesting that the miners are responding not only to the power of Carpentier’s eerie charisma itself but also to the power of the Carpentier myth.  The crowd is transfixed because they know, from having absorbed the Carpentier myth in newspaper and magazine and newsreels, that a crowd becomes transfixed at the sight of Carpentier. The fictional crowd follows the same conventions as the real ones.

The ultimate message of Perrodil’s version of Carpentier-as-hero may well be that the champ is a figure who transcends class boundaries in suprising and powerful ways. Perrodil takes the fact of Carpentier’s considerable appeal across class lines and uses it as the basis for the fictional plot in which Carpentier manages to heal the rift (by the mere act of showing his face) between the striking miners and the wealthy mine owners/administrators. Carpentier is depicted as occupying, alone, a sort of ideological middle ground between the violent fanatacism of the miners, led by his boyhood friend Chandos, and the bourgeois proprietary interests of the directeur:

[…] he understood the motives of the miners’ revolt.  He knew the miseries and the suffering of working-class people, and he saw that the excesses, the peasant uprisings renewed by each succeeding generation, were but the struggles of an eternally oppressed class. But he also understood that such horrors wouldn’t anything at all.  On the contrary! (245)

When, in a violent episode during the strike, a policeman is killed, Carpentier calls his former friend Chandos back to his senses, reminding him that killing innocent people is never justified:

Maybe you do have cause for complaint, Georges said, but is it fair for you to take it out on people who had nothing to do with creating the situation? […] what was he guilty of, the police officer who was killed yesterday?  He was only doing what he had been ordered to do.  He was a worker, a laborer, like you, paid to do his job.  He wasn’t rolling in dough, you can believe that. (248-249)

Carpentier’s reasonable stance—sympathetic to the plight of the miners but respectful of law and order- contrasts not only with the murderous rage of the mob but also with the cold, rigid and unrealistic bourgeois conservatism of the directeur, M. Dumay. The underlying ideological assumption of Perrodil’s work seems to be that  the workers have very legitimate grievances and but that violence and mob actions have no place in the process: change needs to take place but not by means of a total overthrow of the current situation.  What must be found is some sort of juste milieu.  The juste milieu is precisely the terrain occupied by Georges Carpentier, born a worker but self-made into a rich man.  It is both this dual class identity and his extreme charisma that make Carpentier a bridge between the classes in this text.  True national unity, Perrodil seems to suggest, can best be achieved via the vehicle of a national hero like Carpentier.  

The dénouement of the story is oddly incongruent with much of what is expressed throughout the work.  Carpentier, in his apotheosis as hero/messiah figure, miraculously repels the angry mobs and this is depicted as a happy ending.  Nowhere, however, is the question of the strikers’ demands resolved.  Carpentier receives a letter of thanks from M. Dumay for his “heroic intervention” but we are given no idea of how the miners’ grievances, depicted as quite legitimate, may or may not be addressed. The same text that, in spite of its decrying of violence and extremism on the part of the workers, gives substantial credence to their plight, leaves its readers to surmise that somehow their adulation of Carpentier will suffice and that their economic plight will cease to pose problems.  Hero worship, it is implied, is a panacea.

The social, as opposed to purely economic, chasm is depicted by way of the love  story between Marguerite Dumay, the directeur’s daughter and Carpentier.  But just as with the miners forgotten grievances no actual solution to the problem is proposed: Marguerite dies in the last few pages of the novel, overwhelmed by the devastating realization that her parents would never let her marry someone from such a different social background.  In a classically melodramatic deathbed farewell love letter, she explains this to Carpentier:

Since the day you saved me from a possibly fatal accident, the image of you has never left me.  A little later, when reason had fully illuminated things for me, I understood that, in the minds of my parents, a chasm separated us, a chasm that nothing could bridge.

Each time I went to speak your name in their presence, I buried it in the bottom of my heart instead.  It is that hopeless suffering that leads me to the grave, much more than the frightful events of recent days.

As you go through your brilliant life, think once and awhile of the girl you twice saved, the girl who loved you to the point of dying and who will be looking down on you, happy for your success. (277)

Significantly, it is after her death (in other words, after any possibility of marriage between the two young people has disappeared) that M. Dumay, directeur of the mines, symbolically adopts Carpentier as his “son,” in a melodramatic set-piece that takes place at Marguerite’s grave.  Marguerite’s parents, visiting the cemetery just days after her death, are surprised to see “a young man, tall and handsome” standing in a prayerful attitude next to their daughter’s grave; they soon recognize him as Georges Carpentier:

M. Dumay then moved toward him, took him in his arms and squeezed him tightly to his chest, murmuring these words: “my child, my son…”  This long embrace said everything about how much Marguerite’s father had to be forgiven for by the former little pit-boy, the acuteness of his regret and the immensity of his sorrow… (279)

These are the last words of the novel, meaning that the story ends on a note of (pseudo) social reconciliation. Carpentier’s ascension into the bourgeoisie at the end of the novel, juxtaposed with his repeated expressions of sympathy with the plight of the miners throughout the narrative, make of him an “everyman” and an ideal candidate for national hero.

Indeed, the entire novel is the story of Carpentier’s dual nature: he is at once a “true child of the people” (181) and a refined, sensitive creature possessing a powerful but undefined form of innate aristocracy.  This duality is of course the primary source of the fascination Carpentier held for his legions of fans in real life; what Perrodil has done, albeit somehat flat-footedly, is construct fictional narratives (the love story and the strike plot) that dramatize it.  Given that Carpentier’s duality is itself already a sort of literary construct based on the facts of his persona, as opposed to being fact per se. Perrodil’s work is thus not so much a fiction based on fact as it is fiction based on fiction based on fact. It both builds on, and contributes to, the burgeoning industry of hero-making that surrounded Carpentier in the 1911-1914 period.

[1] These moments of sudden appearance of the great, beautiful and powerful figure, the very sight of which sends people into almost a trance-like form of adoration, recall nothing so much as the moments in Hollywood biblical epics of the 1950’s when Jesus appears, causing time to stand still, light to flood the screen, music to swell. See, for example, Ben Hur (1959, director William Wyler). Return to text

[2] The idea of an intervention by Carpentier into a miners’ strike in Lens is purely fictional.  There is nonetheless a long history of unionization and strikes by coalminers in and around Lens, dating back at least as far as 1882, when the first Chambre Syndicale des Mineurs was founded in Lens, followed by important strikes there in 1884 and 1889.  For schematic information on this topic, see, among may other sources, www.culture-commune.assofr/za-lens-lievin/historique.htm and  Perrodil says in his preface that writing Carpentier into that history is an “anachronism” but emphasizes that his descriptions of the strikes follow as closely as possible “historical truth.” (7) Return to text