The first sixty-nine years of my life are summed up here, as far as I can remember them. I was born on 30 July 1945 in France, at 11 allée Marguerite, Boulogne-Billancourt, close to Paris. My brother Rudy was born on 5 October 1947. Until the age of four I was brought up by my Flemish maternal grandparents, meaning that at the start of my life I spoke only Flemish. Strange for someone who was to become a French writer.
By 1949, at the age of four, I was living with my brother in a house in Biarritz on the Basque coast, away from our parents who had put us in the care of a “governess.” In September 1950, my brother and I were baptised at the Église Saint-Martin in Biarritz, in the absence of our parents. My first day of school was at the Sainte-Marie school in Biarritz.
In 1951 my brother and I were back in Paris in our parents’ house at 15 quai de Conti. The next year we were sent to friends of my mother’s in Jouy-en-Josas in the outskirts of Paris, at 38 rue du Docteur-Kurzenne, and I was enrolled in the Jeanne-d’Arc school then the Jouy-en-Josas elementary school.
We went back to Paris in 1953, where I attended the elementary school of the rue du Pont-de-Lodi, in the 6th arrondissement, until June 1956. That year, we spent the summer with a friend of my father’s, Nathalie E. Puis, and in October I became a boarder at the Ecole du Montcel in Jouy-en-Josas, where I stayed until June 1960.
On 29 January 1957 my brother died.
On 18 January 1960 I ran away from boarding school, but because I was nonetheless such a good student they waited until the end of the school year to expel me. In August that year I stayed with an English family in Bournemouth, from where I ran away to spend a few days in London.
In September I became a boarder in the Collège Saint-Joseph de Thônes, in the mountains of Haute-Savoie, where I would remain for two years until June 1962. During this period I ran away to Geneva, Lausanne and Lyon, and I passed my first baccalaureate in Annecy, Haute-Savoie, in June 1962. In October, back in Paris, I entered the Lycée Henri-IV, first as a boarder then as a day student. In 1963, I failed my second baccalaureate. I got to know the writer Raymond Queneau, who took me to the summer cocktail party in the garden of Éditions Gallimard, but I did not dare tell him I wanted to be a writer.
In 1964, I obtained my second baccalaureate. This would be my only degree.
Without asking my opinion, my father enrolled me in the Lycée Montaigne in Bordeaux, far from Paris, to prepare for competitive entrance to the grandes écoles. I ran away after the very first day and got on a train for Paris. I registered at the Sorbonne until 1967 in order to delay my military service. But I never attended classes and I was what people in those days called a “phantom student.”
In July 1965 I left for Vienna, Austria, where I tried and failed to find work. That is where I started my first book. I would always remember Vienna fondly, and that must be why, 35 years later, I wrote about the Austrian writer Joseph Roth.
The next year, to make a living, I worked as a researcher in Carlo Ponti’s cinema production company, in particular on plans for a screen adaptation of André Malraux’s La condition humaine (“Man’s Fate”).
In 1967, I wrote songs for a singer of my age, Françoise Hardy. In June of that year, my first book was accepted by Éditions Gallimard. It appeared on 5 April 1968, entitled La place de l’étoile.
In September 1969 my second book appeared, La ronde de nuit (“Night Rounds”).
In January 1970, in a restaurant on the Champs-Élysées, I met a very pretty girl called Dominique Zehrfuss, and we married in September. Our witnesses were the writers André Malraux and Raymond Queneau. We had extended trips to Rome and Tunisia, and in Paris we lived in Montmartre.
In September 1972 my third book appeared, Les boulevards de ceinture (“Ring Roads”).
In January 1973 I collaborated with film maker Louis Malle on the screenplay for Lacombe Lucien, and the film was released in January 1974. The Swedish actor Holger Löwenadler had an important role in the film and impressed the French public. I was proud to have written his dialogue.
Our first daughter Zina was born on 22 October 1974.
In September 1975 my fourth novel appeared, Villa Triste followed by a fifth in April 1977: Livret de famille.
My daughter Marie was born on 1 September 1978. In November of that year I was awarded the Prix Goncourt for Rue des Boutiques Obscures (“Missing Person”).
In 1981, I published Une jeunesse in February, and in August, accompanied by my wife Dominique, I rediscovered London. I had not been back there since the time I ran away in August 1960, left to my own devices at the age of 15.
Books followed one after the other. In October 1982, De si braves garçons; in January 1985, Quartier perdu (“A Trace of Malice”); in September 1986, Dimanches d’août, and Une aventure de Choura, written in collaboration with my wife Dominique.
In 1988, while flicking through some old newspapers, I read in a Paris-Soir from December 1941 a missing person’s report about a girl called Dora Bruder. I spent years trying to track her down, and it was not until 1996 that I finally wrote the book dedicated to her.
Also in 1988, I published Remise de peine (“Suspended Sentences”), then Catherine Certitude in collaboration with the illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé. More books followed in the next 25 years: Vestiaire de l’enfance (1989), Voyage de noces (“Honeymoon”) (1990), Fleurs de ruine (“Flowers of Ruin”) (1991), Un cirque passe (1992), Chien de printemps (“Afterimage”) (1993), Les chiens de la rue du Soleil, in collaboration with my daughter Zina (1994), Du plus loin de l’oubli (“Out of the Dark”) (1996), Dora Bruder (1997).
In 1998, I sent Éditions Gallimard the manuscript of the first novel of a young American writer I admired, Tristan Egolf, entitled Lord of the Barnyard. Seven years later he committed suicide. He was doubtless the greatest American writer of his generation.
I wrote more books: Des inconnues (1999), La Petite Bijou (2001), Accident nocturne (2003), Un pedigree (2005), 28 Paradis, in collaboration with my wife Dominique (2005), Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue (2007), L’horizon (2010), L’herbe des nuits (2012), Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (2014). Over these years I spent time in Berlin, Rome and Stockholm.
All these details may seem monotonous but when you think about it, that is often what the life of a writer is.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
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