Articles de La Guinguette - 2004 - août - culture

Titre Écrivains de la mer
Année 2004
Mois août
Catégorie culture
Traducteur Catherine Mills
Dernière mise à jour21 March 2010

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Writers of the Sea

The one which especially pleases me is "Indian Summer", which is not very well known, but it is a story of a woman who has married an officer of the French navy and her husband is going to be appointed, after the war, to go to the United States to bring back the American ships which had been granted to France, in England and all that. And over there he meets an American woman, of course. She didn't know about it, but she had the opportunity to go over there because of her father, being a captain of a liner, she had a place. So she goes over there and she discovers the bowl of roses. And so she is furious, naturally, and she is going to return taking the same liner, and there she writes a letter to her husband to say, "it is finished, she is fed up with it, it's finished" and there, extraordinarily in the middle of the atlantic, she destroys the letter. Because she knows that, I feel about it like this, she knows that it is... that the sailor, it's true, there is the attraction and all that, because it was several months since he left, it's utterly human, and so she is going to tear up the letter because she knows that when he returns, it will be finished.

Rene Moniot-Beaumont shares with us his love of the works of Roger Vercel. And if you are smitten with the literature of the sea or if you are seeking to be you must hurry to Saint-Giles-Croix-de Vie to spend the afternoon in the company of M. Moniot-Beaumont. This old sea dog has a contagious enthusiasm for his subject. He has inexhaustible knowledge; and the best is that his own story is even better than the stories he recounts.

When you return to the navy, you return there either because you have to because you must eat well and work, as in Bretagne, and then you have people like me they return there because they have read much and so they want to be sailors without having... me I saw the sea for the first time at St-Giles-Croix- de-Vie at 12 years, you see, I don't know how it was done. And I had 25 years on it.

My mother worked at the Denoel publishers and I had many books of the sea which came - but I was very small, too childish. And as time passed and I grew bigger I read these books. It was "Us et coutumes abord des long couriers" by Captain Hayet for example, it is the works of Captain Lacroix, it is some... well it is "Treasure Island", essential reading, I have read it at least forty times, yes, I know it by heart, it is Jack London, it is Mac Orian, but Mac Orian a bit later. According to older people I went through all the literature of the sea.

Sailor and insatiable reader, Rene is also a lover of books. Today he possesses 3000 fine examples of good editions and a perfect knowledge of his collection.

When I speak of literature I speak a little of literature world wide, because there are some Brazilians who are not bad, some Spaniards, some Italians, some Americans, some English, of course, a huge number... but we are going to speak of French literature. So, French literature of the sea started almost with the crusades. That's to say the first person who started to speak about the sea and who started to speak of his experiences and his ideas and his impressions was Joinville, Lord Joinville who was the companion of Saint Louis. So he writes when he is in Haute Marne, in his house in Joinville, he writes about the adventure of Saint Louis and so there he has a book about the sea, on the boats, how they were transported, the attacks and everything. And it is the first impressions of a lad who is not at all a sailor, who had nothing to do with the sea, and he asks himself the question, if my memory is good, he asks himself the question when Marseille disappears, he says to himself, "that's it, it's finished, it's hell. Where are we going?". He understands much. But luckily there is a pilot on board who knows. But he, he understands well what happens. But he is going to write about it.

There is a long blurred period when the sea didn't interest France at all. England for lack of it, for them to eat were obliged to go to sea, for the French to eat they turned their back on the sea and they had potatoes.

And then, the second is Rabelais. He writes a book which is very much about the sea, with the language of the time and as well he goes to see Jacques Cartier in St-Malo, to ask for some information on how he controls a boat. So a quarter of the book is completely... that kind of spirit but it's very much about the sea. He has succeeded in something, with his language which is rather good. From Rabelais we begin to see the writers of the sea, of great discoverers like James Cooke for example, here we have Bourgainville who writes, you have some people who are going to write their impressions and all that. And the great... I'll be brief, but the great period for literature of the sea, litery genre, is the 19th century where you are going to start with Chateaubriand, who does himself write about the sea and also experiences it: he attaches himself to a mast when crossing to go to America, to a mast to see a storm, and it appears that for many hours he feels the waves on his face, strange! Good, if you want... You will haveEugene Sus, for example, Eugene Sue, who is the person who has written "The Mysteres de Paris", Eugene Sue is a naval officer at the beginning and he writes extensively about it. You have Lallendelle, you have the great writers who have tried, there are some who have even failed, who have not succeded... who haven't got the hang of it. You have Victor Hugo who has written many things. Jules Vernes, as well.

In this rapid survey, we have heard the great names of French literature. But the advice from the private interpretation of Rene is more unusual:

As to a sailor, I am going to name three authors who were sailors. You have Edouard Peisson who sensed well... for me it affects me a lot because find my work again, automatically it pleases me very much because it greatly reminds of things: when he speaks of one, I don't know... of damage on the ships, me I knew such things. It's true what we went through, it's true what we felt. It is what I felt and when I read it I take a cure of youth and a cure of younger days because that's how I felt when I sailed. It's true I felt those things. So it pleases me a lot.

The second who isn't a sailor, but it's Roger Vercel because Vercel had, he had the ability to write about the emotions of the sea and he did something quite extra ordinary, he wrote a book and he sent for his captain friends from the distant high seas or captains from Cape Horn ships or captains from cod fishing boats to ask them Is this how you must see things? And they made corrections. And there you feel it, you sense what is in it.

I like very much adventures like those of Moitessier for example. He's original, perhaps a bit mad. This amateur sailor who did the round the world race and who won races and then took part in the round the world race and at the south, in the south atlantic, he said "Good, ah well, me as ususal in the race there is nothing more I can do. And there he declares that in a sense for him the race is finished and he reached the cape on Tahiti. I find that, that he has some spirit. He hasn't come back, he's a strange person.

Rene notices that slightly mad spirit is missing from the best sellers today:

What's a bit sad is that there are a lot of people who write of their experiences, but it's not very original. That's to say, it's my opinion, they could give their impressions, they give them, but really it's often on the race, for example, which is very good, but that has lost its... There is the sporting angle but it isn't the angle from the sailor that people like me feel, the emotions of the sailor. Because the navy, you can enjoy, he can have there the race of the Figaro I find that very good, but there is also all the rest. There are all the people who are dead, there are all the people who have travelled, there are all the people whose families are broken, there are the widows who were there, there are the lads who want to join the navy, they have knowledge of that. It's all a story.

His naval career is now finished but Renee is starting a new adventure.

Well, I am an experienced of the merchant navy man, an experienced ocean going navigator, I have experience of chartering boats for the Shell company, and now I have taken early retirement and am happy as a king. And to occupy my retirement, well, I have created a literary site which will be called The House of the Writers of the Sea. And in this house I will put a large maritime library, but of literature, with the books which are the best. It is not a question... we will have paper-backs, but thy are for working, but I will have very beautiful books. That's to say that here I would like to make a little of what exists at Celestin in Alace, with the humanist library, a lovely library of maritime literature, with files about the writers, of information, books which have inspired them, photos, documents, various objects... it is not a museum, it's a literary site.


As a preview for his project, Rene mounted a small exhibition on the buccaneers and pirates that we can find today at St-Gilles. Pirating is something Rene knows from experience:

I was attacked by pirates in the Philipine, a real attack. We had a cargo, of associated shippers, and the pirates with their armed canoes which attacked the boat. And as we weren't armed, obviously, it was difficult, we had an inferior revolver on board, but we could do nothing. But luckily, after it had lasted for a bit more than an hour, luckily, a Philipine warship passed near by and that stopped the attacked. But it was good that I experienced that. I was 22, 23 years old, I was a young lieutenant. I was very happy, it was a lovely adventure. The problem, in a small way throughout the world, now, is when you are sailing, if you are not armed, and if you haven't given your coordinates, if you cannot be found, you may be killed, robbed, sink the boat and no-one knows what has become of you. So you must pay attention because pirating is increasing. And sadly, as there are countries which are becoming poorer, it's sad but it generates more pirates.

What has this dreamer experienced compared to the sailors who come into their work through the more traditional route, from father to son.

I was considered as an exception because sailors are people who always live adventurously, and in a sense they have no need of books of the sea. But me, I would very much like to live the adventure but I also very much like to dream of it, for the book is the first door of the dream.

Family life can't have been at all easy?

No, very hard. Very hard except if you find a spouse who copes, and I found one. She is from Auvergnat and she has coped and it's relatively good... it's been even very good, since I have been married for 37 years, you see, that's not bad...

He has had some memorable experiences:

You have the sunsets, at times in the Indian ocean I found it extraordinary, and as I was a sailor from the old school, I learnt to manoeuvre the sails as well as when I found our position by the stars, for example, for me, my pleasure was to see the sky and navigate by choosing my stars, and knowing them very well. That was memorable. It is let's say poetry, poetry of the sea.

But was the sailor's life better than you imagined when you were young? Well it's sad to say but Rene had no need to think before responding:

No, no. I had a good time at the beginning in the merchant navy, when I started in 64, I had a very good time since it was... there was still... the earth was still it wasn't all the same... When you went to Singapore, there was the Chinese quarter, there was the Malay quarter, there was the Indian quarter. Now you go to Singapore, it's New York! So there's nothing more to see. But me, I had a very good time, I experienced more than that where we stayed for 15 days, or a month in the ports. Because the work of a sailor is the sea for sure, but the ports as well, it's very good.

Relieved today of the burden of work Rene is again free to dream. And in fact, if you believed that the age of treasure island was ended...

So, there you have the last treasure island which is called the Isle of Coco or Coco Isle. You have the address there in latitude and longitude. For your listeners I can give it: it's 5 32'08"north, and 87 03'08"west, and that... you have three treasures, many tons of gold ingots, silver ingots, a big heap of things, waiting for you. We know it because we know the history, one of the treasures was stolen at the beginning of the 19th century. They were refugees there, the pirates, and we know they were there, there's no problem, we have proof. But we cannot find them because of the vegetation which is prolific, it's almost on the equator, and then there are some movements, some earthquakes, so we don't know if all that is...has moved. And my advice you need bulldozers, that wouldn't be bad.

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With questions or for more information, please contact Alistair Mills (alistair.mills@btinternet.com)
Updated 21 March 2010

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