The author of L’Empire Céleste and a member of l’Académie Goncourt, Françoise Mallet-Joris died on Saturday, August 13 2016. The sad news of her death was announced by Pierre Assouline, writer and journalist, who succeeded Françoise Mallet-Joris on the Goncourt jury after her resignation in 2011 for health reasons. What Pierre Assouline said about this Belgian novelist is worth quoting: ‘Françoise had a sensibility that really influenced the choice of the academicians a lot and encouraged them to read books to which they would not spontaneously go.’ The journalist added that although Françoise had a large readership among women, she wasn’t just a novelist for the women, something that may appear to contradict what we think of her because of her feminist commitments.
‘I was still very young when, after the success of Le rempart des Béguines, that had me terrified, I found myself in that momentary vacuum when I couldn’t write. I had had my chance, but I thought I would not have it again. I could write one book, but I could not write a second. I heard people around me saying and repeating what they expected from the writer in her second book. The idea that they merely “expect” something from me was enough to terrify me. But the worst suffering was not being able to write.’ This confession of Françoise Mallet-Joris in La Double Confidence, awakens in us deep resonances. While this novelist, who was a Member of the Royal Academy of Belgium and Vice President of the Goncourt Academy had just left us, her words make us return abruptly to an exceptional career that started in the early 1950s by a big bang, under the stewardship of the editor René Julliard.
In 1951, Françoise Mallet-Joris, the daughter of Albert Lilar, Belgian Minister of Justice, and writer Suzanne Lilar, published her first novel Le Rempart des Béguines. The novel describes, without sentimentality, the sentimental education of a girl of 15 who has a love affair with the mistress of her father, a Russian woman of strong personality and somewhat demonic charm. This novel was later made into a film in 1972. Born on July 6, 1930 in Antwerp, Françoise Mallet had just completed her studies at a college in Philadelphia. Already the writer of a collection of poems entitled Poèmes du dimanche (1947), she came to Paris to publish the manuscript of Le Rempart des Béguines in which the narrator Helene, a young girl of 15, meets her father’s mistress one day and falls under her spell. In Paris, René Julliard, the discoverer and publisher of literary talents, welcomed Françoise to his stable of young talent. Sensitive to the melancholy charm and candor of the young woman, Julliard knew that he had before him a rare talent.
Indeed, the young novelist had a dazzling start. Within one night she became the most famous unknown of the literary world. There appeared an avalanche of articles on her and the sales of her book would follow. She was already determined to pursue the aim her editor set for her: to live by her pen and that’s why when she felt as if she ran out of inspiration, it haunted her. This idea of living without writing was unbearable to her. In La Double Confidence, she notes: ‘For good or bad, I wrote since I was 12, maybe earlier. Writing had the supreme appeal, like drugs or alcohol or love and passion. The instant relief from anxiety or doubt. It was not possible, it seemed to me, to live, to support life, without writing.’
Having the strength of a unique character and personality and keeping her sufferings entirely away from the view, Françoise Mallet-Joris continued to exercise a charm that was full of sweetness and sadness. She thus became an incarnation of the constantly renewed pleasures of literature. After Le Rempart des béguines came La Chambre rouge, Cordélia and Les Mensonges which won prix des libraires in 1957. Then appeared L’Empire céleste, which won the Femina Prize in 1958. Françoise Mallet-Joris also published Les Personnagesen (1961), an essay named Lettre à moi-même in 1963 and Marie Mancini, le premier amour de Louis XIV in 1964. That year, she won the Prince Pierre of Monaco Prize for all her literary publications.
In 1970 Françoise Mallet-Joris had great success with her novel La Maison de Papier, a book full of humour and family happiness born of her experience with her four children, two boys and two girls. Although her biography of Jeanne Guyon (1978) had subtle reflections on mysticism, the dazzling debutante of Le Rempart des Béguines had already become a popular novelist in the imagination of the public. So, in 1988, when she published La Tristesse du cerf-volant, a book more complex, polyphonic, and certainly one of her best, it only baffled her readers. She then tried to please those readers who loved her first books, both with Adriana Sposa (Flammarion), where she played with literature and ambiguity and with Divine (1991), that dealt with food and fasting or Sept démons dans la ville (1999), a cry of revolt against nameless violence, indifference and fatalism.
Married three times (her first marriage lasted eighteen days!), mother of four, having struggled all along with her family life, painfully affected by disease, Françoise Mallet-Joris always looked ahead with courage and determination. Member of the jury for Femina from 1969 to 1971, she was elected that year for the Academy Goncourt, in the guise of Pierre Mac Orlan. Although she never met the author of Quai des brumes, Françoise Mallet-Joris had the same musical affinities as Mac Orlan: a taste for the accordion! In 2011, she had completely withdrawn from public life, resigning from the Goncourt Academy for health reasons.
Françoise Mallet-Joris had also written songs. She worked with the singer Marie Paule Belle who was also her long-time partner. Françoise Mallet Joris’s former companion, confided of her “immense pain” at the news of her death. ‘I owe her everything….I was born a second time thanks to her.’