Les amants de Carcassonne — by L.F. Bollee and Luca Malisan [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]
If your taste in poetry is inclined towards the pure and noble, but at the same time, tragic, you need look no further than France’s Joë Bousquet (1897–1950).
He was born in Narbonne, in the land of the Cathars and was, in spirit, much like his Cathar ancestors: ascetic, seeking to lead a simple life. Their rejection of the authority of the clergy led to their persecution and an eventual crusade against the Carthars that saw their cities attacked and, in the case of Carcassonne, subjected to a lengthy siege (in 1209). As one sees from the photograph below, the ancient city has changed little since medieval times.
Joë was seventeen when the First World War began. He fought in the trenches, became the most decorated officer in his regiment, and was wounded close to the war’s end by a bullet that struck his spine.
Carcassonne, view of the ramparts [Author: Christophe Eyquem, Creative Commons 3.0 Unported]
Joë Bousquet never walked again. He was paralysed from the waist down, bedridden for the rest of his life, and in constant pain. Sometimes, he smoked opium to relieve it. Always he wrote.
He corresponded with and was visited by many writers, and a series of his love-letters, written post-war to a young woman he called Linette, have recently been published.
Linette is likely the name he gave her to honour a Linette that once he’d known. (Joë was in the habit of giving nice-sounding names to his female acquaintances).
Fans of the bande dessinée (French comic-strip) genre will appreciate Les amants de Carcassonne (The Lovers of Carcassonne) created by writer LF Bollée and artist Luca Malisan, with colours by Dimitri Fogolin (Editions du Patrimoine/Glénat, 2012). The book is set in Carcassonne during World War II and tells the story (based on truth) of Joë Bousquet and his relationship with (the first) Linette. Occasionally, Joë amuses Linette with stories of his Cathar ancestors, sometimes weaving himself and Linette into the tales as characters. Thus pictures of Nazis and WWII France are punctuated from time to time with illustrations of the siege of 1209 and medieval knights.
For the interested (maybe non-French speaking) reader, the story is as follows:
Page 3: Linette arrives in Carcassonne, by bus. It is August 1944. Although much of France has been liberated, Carcassonne is still occupied by the German army.
Pages 4–8: A flashback that shows why Linette is on her own. German soldiers (actually SS) arrive in her village—which is called Bousquet (like the poet)—and search for weapons. Linette and her sister Marinette run away with their father’s old shotgun, meaning to hide it. The Germans spot them and open fire. Marinette is killed, but Linette escapes. Her father and young brother are not so lucky. They are shot. With her mother already dead (through giving birth to her brother), Linette is now an orphan.
Pages 9–13: Now in Carcassonne, Linette’s old school teacher (Mademoiselle Roland) has put her in touch with an older couple who find her a job as secretary, taking dictation from the poet Joë Bousquet.
Pages 13–14: Linette looks out from her room and admires a scene of resistance in the street.
Pages 15–17: A tender scene where Joë invites Linette to take off her clothes in order to dry them. It has been raining. He promises to close his eyes. In the end, he peeks.
Pages 18–20: Joë makes amends by delighting her with a tale of the Cathars. The characters of Joë and Linette are there in medieval garb.
Pages 21–25: Given what has happened to her family, Linette is ready to join the fight against the Germans. She carries messages for the French Resistance and only escapes being caught by hiding in a cellar. The man of the house where she is hiding is taken away.
Pages 26–31: More tales of the Cathars. A young man from the Resistance (his name is André but his Resistance name is Musset; Linette’s Resistance name is Camille) visits Joë and requests him to publish coded messages as part of his next poems.
Pages 32–39: Cathar resistance scenes mingle with similar scenes of WWII resistance. Joë and Linette star in both. She helps André when he is wounded. (Page 38 has a clever trio of drawings, comparing Joë prostrate in his bed with Joë as a wounded Cathar knight and then with Joë as he was when he lay wounded in the trenches of the First World War).
Page 40: Linette helps the Resistance when they receive an aerial arms drop.
Page 41: The older woman (Linette is staying with her and her husband) advises Joë against becoming attached to Linette: “She is not for you, this Linette… too young, too virginal, too spirited! and not cultivated enough…”
Pages 42–46: Carcassonne is liberated, but some Germans remain in the city. Linette becomes involved and is captured.
Pages 47–48: The story ends with Joë in his room. We are told that André survives the war but never pursues his intended study of medicine. He goes into politics. As for Joë, himself: he finds a new secretary, a young woman with whom he eventually enters into an amorous correspondence. Her name is Jacqueline. She never understands why Joë insists on calling her ‘Linette’.