An arts teacher washes his five daughters with a hose-pipe in the garden of his house which stands right above the N20 road. On the day of inspection he takes out and reads a text interpretation which had been buried in his satchel for ages : the “Mirotons” finds that very good ; the pupils had never imagined that their teacher could think so high ...
It is the month of May, it is mild, the may beetles are flying among the horse-chestnut trees in the schoolyard. In the covered part of the yard we are engaged in a heated game of “basque ball” with the future scrum-half of the Racing-Club de France, when our French teacher appears : the Mirotons-Navets* Cothurnus (he was in fact our French teacher’s teacher !) has just arrived and Diderot is expecting us. Everyone wipes their forehead, Cothurnus will be the only one to go into raptures over the greatness of the XVIIIth century. Cothurnus will congratulate his former pupil and will congratulate us, too, because we have a very good French teacher, which is absolutely true. Next day, our French teacher, in order to thank us, will read some Rabelais to us after sending out the girls.
1962 - Saturday 5th January
It is raining. In the staff-room, Mr Sylvester, breathing in the night which lingers by the half-open window, evokes the time when, before becoming a commuter, he spent his Christmas holidays on Mont Ventoux. In a corner of the corridor, the double of Charles Vanel asks a supervisor where the headmistress’ office is : is this a Mirotons-Navets ? During break at 10h25, Miss Lambkin is still trembling, for she thought that this person had come for her.
Mrs Bélise, who teaches a “living” language and hails from Lower Normandy, complains about her problems with discipline and that she wades in certain classes as she wades in the waste land surrounding the “clink”. She changes her shoes, opens and shuts a dripping-wet umbrella, nods approval continually and swears she will make her undisciplined pupils write until the end of... school-time.
Way back in the corridor, impaled on his sweep (you must know that I am the sweep destined to sweep the yard of dirt like you ?), Chappy, the caretaker, the man from the Berry, observes. Chappy has acquired a Dauphine of a worn canary-yellow colour, which enables him to return to Nohant in a roughly eight-hour drive, causing excitement to quite a few along the road. However, Chappy prefers Paris to the Berry, because down there “you have to lend a hand here, have to lend a hand there, and never a quiet moment”.
Sunday 6th January -
Election of Miss France : She is a mathematics teacher at the Lycée of Fort-Dauphin. Perhaps teachers will thus rise in the esteem of the people, be better paid, who knows ? And once more, from now on, will be more considered, according to the words of the corporal on duty. Miss Woolsey, headmistress of the Lycée, summons the beauty to her office in order to dispense some advice : ”stop using make-up, avoid the journalists ...” ; at least that is the headline over three columns in an evening daily, if not, mind the professional assessment of this beautiful Helen who is trying to make the horse of Troy enter the walls of our spartan educational system.
7th January –
Counter stroke by fourteen agrégés against this Miss Woolsey of the State Education : “ The agrégation exam has taken the place of beauty so many times, that it is only fair that at last beauty takes the place of agrégation.”
14th October 1963 -
Ultra mundane agenda. Mr Sergent-Major, Inspector General for State Education, decorated and all, successfully marries off his son who plays Bridge with a dulcinea who makes bridges. Being a friend of Protagoras, they say “tu”. This man, son of a civil servant, has a certain education : college, more college, complementary courses, supplementary courses at the American-British Institute where one of his teachers is staggered at seeing him climb up to the vice-presidency of the jury of an important examination board (Why he of all ?), a place where he can at last show off with impunity sandals without socks on feet without a caesura.
Conceited, full of himself more than of anybody, he had viciously inspected, at Charenton, somebody unworthy who directed a bookish series in pedagogy, of course a clever source of profit; he had also visited a school where his second daughter was vegetating who, taken out of the secondary domain, was developing her powers in the technical field; he had laid like eggs poisonous reports on various people (among them a certain Doormat, like him a corrector at agrégation exams, son of a civil servant and ex-secretary of a captain), complaining everywhere and particularly to Beaujole, from Franche-Comté, holder of a baccalauréat and Headmaster in addition, that the title Teacher is given to all and sundry, whereas the Teacher at the American-British Institute was indignant about all and sundry parading the title of Inspector. And in the name of equality (of the sexes ?), look at our chief pedagogue transferring a master in order to install ... a mistress !
Wednesday 19th May 1964 -
Schoolyard of the lower years at the lycée Méliès**. The Mirotons-Navets, notebook in hand, takes notes and notes, notes and notes : a full score of notes. Never have there been so many notes taken. The Mirotons, grizzled hair, light raincoat on a greyish suit, is inspecting a sport’s lesson. The pupils - a First Year at first sight - are very badly aligned. The Mirotons folds his arms and sharply marches up and down the damp tarmac. The teacher shows how to wedge in one’s shoes for the start of a race (o Jesse Owens !). Two little girls adjust their shoe sizes. The Mirotons makes a few sharp steps, for it is not at all warm. He now puts up the collar of his gabardine raincoat and goes to fetch his briefcase. He seems on the point of leaving. He consults his chronometer, immobilizes nearly to attention. Suddenly the starting technique of the race prompts his supreme interest. 11 h 59 03 : the sports teacher ambles backwards in order to better decorticate the movement : false start ! 12 H 00 01 : the Mirotons goes to the sports teacher, giving him some explanations, to which the honest second-fiddle listens, hands crossed where his trouser-legs meet. It seems that the conversation becomes rigid. 12 H 02 00 : handshake. The head-pedagogue walks away majestically in short strides towards a well-earned rotten stew. A few pupils bring the starting blocks which resemble Denver-clogs. The lesson continues. The teacher, broken-chested, raises his arms to heaven (o Piquemal !) : he has crossed the finishing line ! ... Chrono ?
Friday 22nd october 1964 - 16 h 30
Protagoras marches feverishly up and down the corridor outside his office-door. He has the flu, more or less. His office is occupied by the Mirotons-Navets from Sémigall, Mr. Smurfit. “He has shaky hands (in need of Golden apples ?...), I held him back in the stairs for fear of him falling flat on his face !” comments Protagoras - 17 h 30. Protagoras is again marching up and down the corridor outside his office as I come out of my classroom and asks me to wait for him, while Mr. Smurfit (62, Saint Ruffian’s Lane, Castle-Lafleur) receives for confession his very last penitent (Mrs. Higheel) - 18 h 00. End of session. The Mirotons slowly descends the stairs and is ready to head for his metro where Protagoras proposes - with my help - to drive him back. Once firmly installed in my car, Protagoras slams the door on his knees and sits on my right with the excuse that we live in the same area. I drive past the little café opposite the entrance to Arielle Street ***, go along the cemetery and down towards Acapulco Avenue, suggesting to Protagoras to take the Mirotons, who has admitted to living a long way away (62, Saint Ruffian ...), somewhat nearer. The Mirotons thanks and thanks again, asks whether the long detour ..., explains that at the terminus there would perhaps be more seats than earlier on ... Conversation between Protagoras and the Mirotons. The former stresses his relations with the radical council of Creekmont, evokes its M.P., its mayor, its no.5 deputy mayor who courts a little girl of seventeen, makes Creekmont into a big city of 100.000 inhabitants (which seems to astound the Mirotons), intimates that he knew Castle-Lafleur well in 1939 when he was training - he, the major - the units of his battalion composed solely of foreigners who wanted to fight for France (last year, Protagoras was only a captain !), and the Môme Moineau and her Benitez who entertained her. The Mirotons gravely nods approval and thinks that nowadays Castle-Lafleur has hardly any longer stars of such a calibre. The Mirotons complains that in town people had a problem indicating to him the exact location of the lycée Méliès and finds this very abnormal, but recognizes that at Castle-Lafleur there is no lycée, except very famous horses (the Houyhnhnms ?). At Creekmont Gate, the Mirotons gets out to take his metro, thanking and thanking once more.
The conversation takes off again with Protagoras who tells me how the Mirotons inspected Mrs. X in a class of first years, wiped out, shouted down, voice imperceptible, living at the other end of Paris “even further than you or me”, he states. I also learn that The Clot, Master Cook of the Mirotons-Inspection of Languages and Commander of the Légion d’Honneur, owes Protagoras, then headmaster of Wheatville, 14 000 F in telephone charges, a fact considered by the latter as patent bilking-skulduggery. As for the Head of Diggon-by-Coalville who had had fun denying two meals to the Mirotons Y and his lady, because this gentleman had shouted successively at the teachers, the supervisors, the deputy head and the head of the said lycée, this Headmaster is still waiting for his honorary title. And Mr. Protagoras to conclude : “he can stuff his honorary title up his arsehole !”
Monday 25th October -
At the Lycée Méliès, the Mirotons-Navets Adret is getting ready to inspect Miss Bernice.
Mr. Adret, former history teacher at Molesy, has come back from a holiday at Altamira where he had minor lessons given to his son by the local primary school teacher.
Wednesday 27th October 1964 -
I bump into Protagoras who sings the praises of Mr. Adret who made a point of going to greet his old mother-in-law (92 years and who is dying), explaining that Mr. Adret’s son is a pastor. **** Mr. Adret, who boasted about his grandfather being a shepherd, was propelled into the world by his morticultural parents-in-law and told his khâgnous students about the hairdresser in a prehistoric borough who would have loved to pull Mrs. Adret, his wife, by her hair into the very heart of the immense Grotto (cf. Mas Azil).
17th November -
Mr. Legg, Academical Inspector, has come to see the “trainee” English teachers. “A good friend of mine, head of the lycée Goellon-les-Sartines”, Protagoras explains. Mrs. Sleeper arrives late and admits freely to Mr. Legg that she did not wake up in time. The merry old live-wire imagines the worst, sentimentally speaking. At that, Protagoras appears to excuse Mrs. Sleeper, for “she has just had a car accident”. Legg then has Mrs. Sleeper’s pupils translate the following sentence : “the English teacher is late, because she did not wake up in time”, and everyone bursting out laughing at the subtlety of the retort.
Pedagogy : Mr. Protagoras points out to me that one Mirotons is supposed to have caused death by heart attack to an “inspectee” in Shortvale and has since been somewhat stuck in his hole.
Let us write, let us write, something will remain - Forkman, trap smashed up, was angry with female teachers who did not find him pretty enough. Son of a Gascon printer, prizewinner at Avernes ***** Faculty, Forkman prided himself on his knowledge of literature and had sent a poem-letter or a letter-poem to Major Popoye, another local erudite. Cothurnus the Celt launches himself into the rousseauiste literature and boasts of being lodged in an HBM. Bumpty writes poems which he calls the Suif et la Bougie. Raoul has written an admirable opuscule : Advice for the teaching of swahili, while The Clot and a few others (Mylor of Nowhere among them) are calligraphing fairytale exam reports between two bouts of phonetic fever contracted in the caves of some stalag on the other side of the Rhine.
Protagoras the Gascon -
Related to a Great Writer by his grandmother, owner of the correspondence of Valéry (50 letters), secretary to Gide (“in the presence of Miss Bravy”, he stresses), admirer of Aragon, publicizer of a collection of poems by Seghers, Protagoras, Headmaster at Wheatville, lands one day in a philosophy lesson : “I’ve just come down from Jean-Paul (implied: Sartre). He told me : he (implied: Camus) didn ‘t suffer. That’s very good”. This was after Camus’ fatal road accident. Informante, of the young gaullists, calls him on the telephone : “you’re a b...!”; Protagoras lines up a selection from the Lycée, asking each one of them : “I am a b..., I ?” Protagoras bends over backwards during an Academical final involving his Lycée (football), which does not stop him from declaring to me a little later : “I detest this game of the one-armed”. On the Boul’ Mich, Protagoras comes across former pupils of the lycée of Wheatville, to whom he confides that the lycée Méliès possesses the most handsome swimmingpool in France ...
Saturday 20th November 1965 -
To dinner at the Le Dauphin, Bluelane Street. He tells us that one of the auxiliary teachers, appointed last year for 3 months to replace Miss Philaminte, held a qualification for primary schools only. He was inspected in a Latin class and received the pedagogical mark 6/20 after succeeding in translating - in an hour and a half - a single line of a Cicero text thanks to the accompanying translation (Aubier/Montaigne/Guillaume Budé ?) ... Are there not people who drive without a licence ? Qualified as he thus was, he had fraudulently obtained a few years ago delivery of a diploma in arts conferred on a distant relative. Thus he taught French and Latin at the lycées Matisse and Lafayette before suffering shipwreck on the hill of Creekmont, being ranked as an auxiliary teacher. His method was not without pedagogical interest in that he had the work of his fourth years corrected by his third years and therefore well earned this mark 6/20 (on the Richter scale ?), as prudently conceded by the Mirotons in charge who definitely did not want this to be known, of which we take note.
I receive tonight, via an assembly with listening power, my pedagogical mark : twice that of the afore-mentioned auxiliary Teacher. But that is because I really hold the BEPC !
27th April 1966 -
For two days, the lady deputy head has been trotting along the corridors in order to assign to the arts teachers class-rooms on the ground floor, where they are to relocate their dear pupils, because the Inspectress General Weevil has a heart complaint and cannot go upstairs. Le Dauphin tells me that the said Inspectress has requisitioned, at the Garden lycée, an entire dormitory in order to install herself there with her Weevil (literature in eighteen volumes) and to sleep (with her literature ?). She adores Stendhal, for his heroes are handsome and her heart beats faster when faced with the Jura - scenery. This morning at 8 a.m., I see her get out of a taxi on the arm of Mr W. Protagoras is all attention. Mrs Weevil was in office already in 1943, Mr Acourt remembers. A certain Mirotons-Navets (Arts) had inspected Mr Acourt in Avignon. It was hot. The lesson was about grammar. The Mirotons settles down at the back of the classroom, drops his jacket, is in braces and is sweating - back turned to the class. His report gave a complete picture of Acourt (look, walk, weight, etc.). A certain Smalley (Mirotons), as short as a Second year, drops in at Acourt’s on a day when the latter was explaining a handsome tirade from Micromégas : hence mutual embarrassment.
From one lycée to the other 1966 -
X, mathematics teacher for pre-university classes at Bordeaux, has bought an old black bicycle from a Mirotons-Navets who, every year, calls in regularly to see if the machine is still running well. Y took his mess-tin to the staff-room at the Lycée; dressed as he was in the same shabby old clothes from one year to the next, his colleagues said that he was buying land. Z, in the night, harvested the fruit, newly appeared, in the orchards of his own pupils.
17th January 1967 -
Seen the Man from Limoges, supervisor general of the sixth forms. “If you knew what happens in this house”, he whispers to me. “Anonymous letters and telephone calls up to the eye-balls”. When he was working in Metz, someone telephoned him one day to tell him that his daughter (16 and a half years old) had been seen several times in a dubious establishment of the town. After a year’s investigation it turned out that the spy was the son of a career colonel. On the subject of denunciations, it is interesting to refer to the statements of the ex-Mirotons-Navets Cothurnus on the subject of denunciations at the lycée Papi during the Occupation.
Thursday 7th March 1967 -
Europe 1 . The Mirotons-Navets The Monarch mumbles into the micro in order to try and explain that marks must not be any more from O to 20, but from 1 to 5 or from A to E and not from A to Z.
The day before yesterday, Miss Leonore (daughter of a Mirotons-Navets) comes to see me to inform me that she will be absent from the lessons to come : she is getting married and is flying towards love as fast as a pupil leaving his classroom.
Mrs E. Jenny passes her CAPES oral exam, supervized by the Mirotons-Navets Ernest the Wily who is hanging out at the lycée Papi in a more or less incognito manner. He doesn’t want this to be voiced. Lady Jenny, wife of a diplomat, is quite moved by this under her fur coat. She passes with distinction, which in return will give her Ernest the right to remain in the same premises ?
Bang - Bang, who is decorated and teaches mathematics in the lower years and eats in the canteen, is a former career general, like his first-year colleague at the lycée Méliès, who taught maths and raised his arms at the blackboard, threatened as he was by cork-firing pistols.
Friday 19th June 1970 -
In bus no. 32, direction La Muette, a fearful voice with a semi-familiar tone makes me turn round to see a blue suit smelling new and flowing over an old-fashioned backside. The whiner asks “peurmission” to get off because of the traffic jam. He is Mr Sweetalmond who manages to leave the bus, then immediately begins to trot, bow-legged, briefcase pulling on his arm, like bent under the weight of his agrégation in grammar. Mr Sweetalmond had completed, a long time ago, “an original book with the title The Locomotive Mary Lou, a first attempt in the field of children’s books”, according to the delighted critic.
Tuesday 17th July -
The young and subtle Asclepius arrives at 8 a.m. for the oral of an important university exam of the Sorbonne. The beadles, in grey overalls, sound their authoritarian and protective voices. The candidates are trembling with the spirit on wooden benches. Asclepius “draws” a Maupassant text. During his exam I walk up and down the corridors and come across the “withdrawn places” of Flaubertian proportions. At last, Asclepius comes out, depressed, nerves on the very edge : one of the members of the jury had accused him of presumptuousness for explaining the word “livid” by quoting Littré, that is between the black and the blue. Laughter and sarcasm by the other members of the jury on the verge of apoplexy.
Monday 27th July 1970 -
Two journalists are back from Popular China. Tchou-en-Lai is supposed to have told them that Taiwan will be liberated and the whole of Asia with it. One of the journalists is named “Twin”. According to Mr Diacrest, when the Twins passed his oral bac, an Inspector General was at their side (in order to admire their know-how ?)
6th November 1971 -
A Mirotons-Navets in English calls in at the Lycée Papi. At the end of the lesson compliments from the fellow who is ecstatic ... about the lesson ? No, quite idiotically because certain female youngsters went up to him to say so nicely “Good-bye, Sir”.
Wednesday 4th April 1973 -
Continuation of the debate Minister for State Education / striking 6th formers. In the schoolyard of Lycée Papi, Headmaster and Deputy Headmaster, stretched to full height in the April sun, are contemplating the yard like the Corsican at Austerlitz. On the overhead gallery, pre-university pupils come and go, throwing two or three bangers at their backsides. Daftodil and Old Boney turn round slowly, with dignity, slowly again for fear of things getting out of hand as at Gravelotte.******
Thursday 3rd May 1973 -
Today, in a class preparing for Veto, numbers reduced as the exam approaches by the sun and the buds of spring, I evoke a few images of Hemingway’s Kenya and the nice wild beasts whom they will be protecting, maybe, some day; but how much more interesting the card-trick I propose to them at the end of the session, with the pack they were fiddling about with on a table outside the classroom, the used pack I had to pretend to take away, since they pretended not to let me enter : hence promise of a reward, hence pressing reminder from them “the promise, the promise !”. And finally their astonishment beyond measure, like children, when seeing these conjuring-tricks by a local juggler.
Friday 5th of April 1974 -
In the agro-class and in all confidentiality I let slip that certain animals show emotions to the same extent as the best among us. “But he must be burned, he is a heretic!” a young inquisitor is moaning (a heretic is he who lights the fire, and not she who is burnt, in the words of Paulina in The Winter’s Tale).
18th June 1974 -
One of the lambs of the lycée Papi receives a 1st Prize at the Concours Général in american, hence a series of congratulatory letters : missing only the letters from the Super-Mirotons of the Inspection General. Busy in the kitchen ?
The Concours Général - the Lobra and the Deputy Head are knocking lightly on the classroom door : they come to celebrate with champagne from plastic beakers in honour of the Prizewinner at the Concours Général while waiting for some official gratitude for their great merit in this matter. They will indeed be decorated ... Bravo !
Tuesday 4th January 1977 -
Back to work at Papi after sending dozens of New-Year’s cards. Next Thursday, a “poilu” says he will give a talk on E. Allan Poe. I shall thus tackle sideways the problem of Mallarmé, since it is difficult to mention ex abrupto the suicides of colleagues, with the posthumous benediction of an administration closer to pharisianism than to supposedly christian charity.
The humiliations Mallarmé had to suffer at the Lycée ... Papi. I was looking this morning at the yellow photographs of an old album (1884-1885). Does Mallarmé pose for the good looks of the bourgeoisie which so elegantly was to hound him out of this place after a few months’ presence - with the help of the Inspectorate General - for excess of intelligence ?
Curriculum vitae - Peter Turf, average frenchman, had introduced himself to me under the titles of Mirotons-Navets, although he was only an Academical Inspector at best in charge of a mission for the Inspection General. He had called in like the wind to see this one here and that one there. The object of the said visit : a definitive transfer of a distant lady from the Caribbean on the point of divorce and whose discipline was vacillating to the rythm of her loose teeth and because of the colour of her skin.
One Monday morning he came to me into a class of Upper Sixth mathematics, found it very hard to follow the explanations of the “black holes” and opened up to me on the difficulty of the demonstration, thus prompting an offer from a pupil, his next-door neighbour in Chelsey : “Do you want us to transfer him for you ?”
* Mirotons-Navets = SIU=Special Investigation Unit = Rat Squad
** Cf. Lycée Méliès
Georges Méliès (1861-1938) producer of French films, father of special effects, creator of the first film studio in France. Journey to the Moon (1902).The Méliès prize crowns every year the best French or French coproduced film. Charlie Chaplin : “ He is the alchimist of light!”.
*** Cf. Arielle Street
Ariel = Bad angel. Aerial spirit under the command of Prospero, a character in Shakespeare’s Tempest.
**** Cf. Adret
mountain slope exposed to the sun, from Old French adrecht. The ubac (or “reverse side”) is a geographical term derived from Franco-Provençal (originally opacus : obscure, dark) designating those slopes of a mountain valley which enjoy the shortest exposure to the sun. Ubac – Soulane (Soulan : a borough of the Ariège in the Pyrenees).
***** Cf. Faculty of Avernes
Lake Averne (Averno) is a volcanic lake situated in Campania near Naples (Italy). Situated well inside the Gulf of Baia, it has the shape of a deep well. Because of sulphureous vapours formerly emanating from it, the people of antiquity considered it the entrance to the Underworld. The cavern of the Sibyl of Cumae (Aeneid) was on its banks.
****** Cf. Gravelotte
Village on the plateau Messin (324 meters), on the road Metz-Verdun. There is intensive farming of beet, cereals and livestock. (Known in 1137 under the name Graevium). During the franco-prusian war, the area of Gravelotte-Saint Privat was the scene of a bloody battle from 16 to 18 August 1870, with 53.000 dead, 14.500 injured on the prussian side; 1.200 dead, 4.420 missing and 6.700 injured on the French side. William I called the battle-field “the grave of my Guard”. Of a very dense rain people in France say: “ It’s falling like at Gravelotte”.
Claude d’Esplas (Les Merlufleaux)
All rights reserved
Translation : Dagmar Coward Kuschke (Tübingen)