Photo Catherine Hélie © Editions Gallimard
For Michel Deon, immortality is not just a dream; It's his reality. In 1978 Deon was granted the prestigious title of un immortel (an immortal), the name given to members of the prestigious l'Academie Francaise. Consisting of just 40 members who are elected by their peers to serve for life, l'Academie Francaise is the pre-eminent body on all things related to the French language. Charged with passing judgment on art, language, and literature, the members of l'Academie Francaise act as the gatekeepers of French culture. Deon's has written 43 books, won countless French literary awards, and worked with the likes of Salvador Dali and Coco Chanel.
Early Life and The War Years
Michel Deon was born in Paris on August 4, 1919. The only child of a civil servant and his wife, Deon's early years hardly foreshadowed the grandeur that he would one day achieve. His father's job required a great deal of travel, and Monsieur Deon saw to it that his wife and child came with him. While on assignment in Monaco in 1933, Deon's father passed away. He and his mother returned to Paris, where Deon attended school at the Janson-de-Sailly. Although his passion lay in literature and journalism, Deon ultimately gave into family pressures and studied law.
Born just one year after World War I ended, Michel Deon witnessed first-hand the desperation left in its aftermath. Nearly everyone he knew had lost loved ones during the war, and as a result he and many others of his generation staunchly protested entering into more conflict. As the 1930s drew to a close, however, it became apparent that France would once again see action.
Deon was eventually drafted by the French military and sent to train at Rion. Deon was assigned to the 152nd regiment under the command of General de Lattre, and later met l'Academie Francais member and political activist Charles Maurras while serving as a secretary in the southern zone. When the German camps were liberated, the scenes Deon encountered changed him forever. As a result, Deon joined his fellow soldier Maurras, who was the champion of l'Action Francais, a counter-revolutionary, monarchist movement started in 1898. Many members of l'Action Francais opposed the French government, some going so far as to adopt a pro-German stance. One such member was Maurras, who at the end of the war was imprisoned and suspended of all affiliation with l'Academie Francaise. While Deon never became a royalist, Maurras did give him a great defiance for both democracy and fascism. Deon's main belief is in freedom, in both life and the individual.
When the war ended, Michel Deon returned to Paris and embarked upon his legendary literary career. In the beginning, Deon worked for a variety of French newspapers, all the while working on his own novels and short stories. Deon's early works, including Adieux à Sheila, were published as early as 1944, at the end of the war.
Shortly thereafter, Deon received a distinguished Rockefeller Foundation grant and traveled to America to better his writing. While there he worked with the likes of William Faulkner and Saul Bellow, cultivating a mutually beneficial relationship in which he both benefitted from their guidance and translated Bellow's works into French.
During this time period, Deon cultivated the writing style that would make him known throughout the world. Along with other French writers of the day, including Jacques Laurent, Antoine Blondin, and Roger Nimier, Deon staunchly rejected the popularized style of Sartre and other existentialists. This group of writers became known as Les Hussards, named after the Nimier novel Le Hussar Blue (The Blue Horseman). Deon and Les Hussards became known for their unconventionality, championship of the obscure underdog, and overall refusal to use mainstream fads in their writing.
In 1944, Roland Laudenbach and Jean Cocteau founded Les éditions de La Table ronde (The Round Table), a French publishing house that produced works by many authors of the Les Hussards movement. The Round Table published several of Deon's novels, including Les Gens de la nuit, La Carotte et le Bâton, and Tout l'amour du monde II. The Round Table eventually became a subsidiary of Gallimard Publishing, who since 1970 has published over twenty of Deon's works.
Michel Deon's 1970 novel Les Poneys sauvages (The Wild Ponies) was honored with the Prix Interallie award. Given out annually since 1930, a group of twelve accomplished writers bestows the Prix Interallie upon the top novel written by a journalist.
Deon produced his most celebrated work, Le Taxi Mauve (A Purple Taxi), in 1973. The book went on to become a literary sensation, winning the esteemed title of the Grand Prix du Roman de l'Academie Francaise. Of the sixty literary awards l'Academie Francaise gives out each year, the Grand Prix du Roman is the top prize for an individual novel. It is without argument one of the oldest and most celebrated French literary awards.
Un Taxi Mauve went on to be made into a movie in 1977. Each scene was shot in both French and English, allowing international viewers to enjoy Deon's masterpiece.
In 1978 l'Acedemie Francaise recognized Deon's distinguished career and eminent contributions to the French literary world by granting him membership and bestowing upon him the esteemed title of immortel.
In addition to earning multiple awards for his solo efforts, Deon has collaborated with numerous public figures. In 1966, he worked with acclaimed artist Salvador Dali on his memoirs Diary of a Genius. Prior to that, in 1953, Deon spent over a year working with the iconic Coco Chanel on her autobiography. Upon completing a 300-page manuscript, Chanel praised the work but delivered a devastating blow: she did not intend for the book to ever be published. A dutiful friend and colleague, Deon destroyed the only existing copy and they remained great friends.
In his pursuit of literary truth, Michel Deon has traveled the world. Switzerland, Italy, Canada, and Portugal, have all been subject to Deon's treatment of taking inspiration from his surroundings. During the 1940s, upon receiving a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, he famously explored America by train and Greyhound Bus.
Deon is an associated member of the Portuguese Academy of Science and Letters. A doctor Honoris Causa of the universities of Athens and Ireland. He is also an honorary citizen of Nice, Aix en Provence, and Antibes. His works have been translated into German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Russian, Chinese, Lithuanian, Indian, Japanese, Polish, and once in English, although his short stories were often published in London and the US.
Deon and his wife, Chantal, lived on the Greek island of Spetsai while their children, Alice and Alexandre, were small. However, by 1968 it was time for them to attend school. At the time France was in a state of upheaval, and the Deons opted instead to settle in Ireland. For over forty years Deon and his family have made this country their home, taking pride in everyday tasks ranging from raising Chantal's 50 horses to producing masterpieces at Deon's Louis XVI desk. Harboring an undying affection for his home country, Deon is a frequent visitor of France.