23 April 2009

Le Petit Nicolas

To celebrate the fiftieth birthday of France’s most popular schoolboy, Paris’ Hôtel de Ville is sponsoring an exhibition of texts, drawings, and memorabilia, Le Petit Nicolas, now through May 7. My initial attempts to see the show met with failure: long lines of people waiting in the rain led me to conclude that they were being paid to stand there, and they prevented my breezing on in. Yesterday, I succeeded, and discovered four rooms with plenty of interest. It’s safe to say I’ve never laughed so hard at an exhibition.

The brainchild of writer René Goscinny and artist Jean-Jacques Sempé, “Little Nicholas” appeared as a weekly feature in the newspaper Sud-Ouest Dimanche; after a brief interval, the stories would be published in Pilote, the hugely influential comic magazine founded in part by Goscinny, and home base for his most famous creation, Astérix the Gaul. Reflecting an idealized (indeed, almost completely imaginary) childhood and a curiously timeless nostalgia, Le Petit Nicolas became a series of five books of gently humorous anecdotes, recounted in a child’s voice and identifiable to anyone who has ever been seven years old. They were among the first books I read as I resumed the business of reading in French, and they’re wonderfully funny. Attending the exhibition was a kind of pilgrimage, an act of devotion, but also a reunion with an old friend.

Goscinny and Sempé met when each arrived in Paris, almost simultaneously. Sempé had been living in Bordeaux, where he was born, and come to the big city in search of his fortune. Goscinny, born in Argentina, had been living in New York City and working at MAD Magazine, where he drew inspiration that informed Pilote (and most especially his collaborations with the artist Gotlib, which are perfect MAD features but for the French texts). The two men became each other’s first friends in Paris, Sempé recalls, and as they talked about their background, they identified common threads among their very different boyhood experiences. Petit Nicolas was born.

Goscinny was a master scenarist, with a phenomenal capacity to pick up simple, yet satisfying plots and solid gags. His achievement in Le Petit Nicolas is the narrative voice, perfectly childlike and yet not quite like any kid you ever met. Nicolas has a repertory of slang phrases (C’est chouette! C’était terrible! Sans blagues!) and a passion for les cow-boys; he gets into scrapes with his teacher, his parents, and above all the assistant principal, Le Bouillon, but he’s fundamentally a good kid. As are his friends, each of whom bears an antiquated first name and a signature personality trait: Agnan, the teacher’s pet; Alceste, the fat kid and Nicolas’ best friend; Clotaire, the slowest kid in the class; Eudes, who likes to punch people; Geoffroy, the rich kid.

Sempé almost always depicts Nicolas in his school uniform, short pants and necktie. His quick, seemingly nervous lines are in reality rigorously controlled, and one of the impressive things about the exhibition was to see the immaculate state of the drawings, with no trace of pencil and only rarely any Wite-Out corrections. His use of white space is stunning, and his work is all the more impressive for its tininess: I’d always assumed that the drawings were fairly large, then shrunk for publication, but the originals are indeed the size we see on the printed page, often no bigger than a postage stamp. “Sud-Ouest Dimanche didn’t give me much space,” he remembers in a caption accompanying one of the exhibits. Sans blagues. My favorite pictures in any Petit Nicolas story show the little boys running around and yelling: tiny glimpses of the exuberance of childhood. You look at them and think, “Yeah, I used to do that, too.”

The series ran five years at the outset, and that seemed enough: a certain repetition had begun to set in, and the publication in recent years of thick volumes of unpublished stories is at once welcome and tedious, because they show Goscinny going over the same ground, with only slight variations, and relying excessively on catch-phrases. He was a genius, yes, but a journeyman, too.

Though Sempé is alive and well, and contributed some new drawings for the exhibition, Goscinny died in 1977, when his daughter was a very little girl. As an adult, she’s begun to mine her father’s desk for all kinds of unpublished material, and released them to the world, building on his several franchises while feeding on the cult of personality surrounding the old boy. (It’s commonly accepted as fact that, had Goscinny lived, he would have been the first comic-book writer admitted to the Académie Française.) In her exploitation of her father’s work, she’s shown more restraint that other authors’ heirs: Dr. Seuss’ widow, by endorsing all kinds of substandard knockoffs by other hands, has tarnished her late husband’s reputation almost beyond recognition. Yet one can’t help wishing that a few of Goscinny’s treasures had remained hidden: he really did have a sense of what his best material was, and most of it he published within his lifetime.

Several of his creations have enjoyed all kinds of after-lives: Astérix, Lucky Luke, and Iznogoud continued their adventures, not only in comic books written by the artists who collaborated with Goscinny but also in movies (both live-action and animated) and television cartoons. Now it’s Nicolas’ turn: part of the exhibition is dedicated to clips from a forthcoming live-action film (to star Valérie Lemercier and Sandrine Kiberlaine) and animated TV show. Somewhat to my surprise, I’m cautiously optimistic for the results.


late booming mom said...

How is that though I've ready nearly every ASTERIX (mostly in English, but a few in French), and adore Sempe (one of his New Yorker covers with a cat cozily enshrined on a bed hangs in the kids' room), but I never knew of this collaboration? I'd love to track down these books here though my francais is tres rusty. What else is Sempe doing these days? I always adore his New Yorker stuff.

Anonymous said...

Dear late blooming mom-I have been trying to lay hands on that cover image for years! Could you please tell me the date of the issue and the title of Sempe's work? I recall seeing it featured in a graphique de france catalog in the early 80's. I'd love to hang it in my kid's room as well.

Late Blooming Mom said...

Dear Anonymous: Here is all the info I have on the Sempe New Yorker cover with the kitty: It ran November 24, 1997
It is called "Luxurious, Quiet And Cozy." My husband bought a framed copy of it on the street in Manhattan; the New Yorker may have back issues and though they take months, they can probably get one to you. Otherwise, CartoonBank.Com may have it. Best, Late Blooming Mom

Anonymous said...

Dear Late Blooming Mom, I can't thank you enough for all the information and help you provided and for getting back to me so quickly. Makes me feel good to know there are still thoughtful and kind women out there -Thank you so very much!