by Lisa Peet
Midway through François Truffaut’s 1962 film “Jules et Jim,” after the two eponymous friends have returned from fighting on opposite sides during World War I, Jim tells Jules a sad tale of unrequited love: A soldier meets a girl one day on a train, and the two strike up a correspondence. Over time their letters become increasingly romantic; they fall in love, and make plans to marry. But then the soldier is injured in combat and dies of a head wound the day before the Armistice, without ever having seen her again.
The story is borrowed from the life of the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire, with one major difference: Apollinaire did not die before being reunited with his letter-writing love, but after breaking it off with her and marrying another woman. (His side of the correspondence can be read in the recently translated Letters to Madeleine.) Critics often cite the anecdote, as told in the film, to be at least in part an homage to Henri-Pierre Roché—author of the original Jules et Jim—who died before ever seeing his novel adapted into one of the French New Wave’s most celebrated films.
Truffaut discovered Roché’s novel in the mid-1950s, in a secondhand bookstore across from the Palais-Royal. He was initially drawn to the title, then the subject matter—a love triangle between two young men and the free-spirited woman who cared for them both—and finally to the fact that this was the first novel of a man in his 70s. Despite the author’s age, Truffaut found the book fresh and contemporary.
At that point the 24-year-old future auteur had never made a feature of his own, but was earning his living writing film criticism, and he mentioned the book in a 1956 review he wrote of Edgar G. Ulmer’s “The Naked Dawn,” an American film that involved a love triangle of its own:
One of the most beautiful modern novels I know is Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roché, which shows how, over a lifetime, two friends and the woman companion they share love one another with tenderness and almost no harshness, thanks to an esthetic morality constantly reconsidered. “The Naked Dawn” is the first film that has made me think that Jules et Jim could be done as a film.
Roché wrote him an appreciative letter after reading the review, and Truffaut paid him a visit. “Charming visit with François Truffaut,” Roché wrote in his diary. “Young. Good-looking. Vivacious.” The following year Truffaut made a short film based on a story by Maurice Pons, “Les Mistons” (“The Mischief Makers”), about a group of adolescent boys infatuated with an older woman, and after seeing it Roché was convinced that he was the right man to adapt his novel.
Roché may have been a senior citizen when he wrote Jules et Jim in 1943—it was eventually published by Gallimard some ten years later—but he was young at heart. He was in the right place at the right Bohemian time for most of his life. Born in Paris in 1879, he studied painting at the Académie Julian, an alternative to the more established École des Beaux-Arts. The Académie was where the avante-garde group of artists known as Les Nabis, which included Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, originated in the late 1880s, and although they were before Roché’s time, he assembled his own circle of trendsetters and radical artists over the years.
As it turned out he didn’t become a painter, but rather a journalist, collector, advisor, and art dealer. Even more than that, Roché was what you might call a macher, a man who knew everyone. Gertrude Stein referred to him as “a general introducer”—he reportedly arranged the first meeting of Stein and Pablo Picasso—and in a 2003 New York Times article, writer Carlton Lake is quoted, declaring him “above all a charmer.” Roché—handsome, well-dressed, and multi-lingual—was also friendly with Gertrude Stein’s brother Leo, Francis Picabia, Constantin Brancusi, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Erik Satie, and Marie Vassilieff. He traveled to New York with Marcel Duchamp, where they published a Dadaist magazine, The Blind Man (in which Roché wrote a passionate screed defending Duchamp’s controversial urinal/sculpture “Fountain”). He boxed with the Fauvist André Derain—“afterwards billiards and dinner”—and the Cubist Georges Braque, who was sleeping with the painter Marie Laurencin at the same time as Roché.
In fact, love triangles were something of a habit of his. In addition to carrying on with Laurencin along with Braque (though Roché claimed to be her “first”), he and Duchamp were both involved with the third cofounder of The Blind Man, ceramicist Beatrice Wood. (A late bloomer herself, Wood only discovered ceramics in her 40s, after taking a pottery course while trying to match some neo-rococo luster-glaze plates she had collected.) And while many thought the Duchamp-Wood ménage was the basis for Jules et Jim, the novel actually took its storyline from one of Roché’s most important tangled relationships, his alliance with Franz Hessel and his wife Helen.
Hessel was from Berlin originally, a writer and translator; he collaborated with Walter Benjamin on the first German edition of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. He and Roché met in Montparnasse in 1906—as young men in their late twenties—and immediately fell into an energetic, decadent friendship, sharing their love of literature and travel and women alike (including the ever-present Marie Laurencin). But when Hessel fell in love with Helen Grund, a fellow German expat who had come to Paris to study painting with Fernand Léger, he reportedly admonished Roché with the line given to Jules in the film: “Not this one.”
For a while, it seemed as though everyone would tread carefully. Franz and Helen married in 1913, and the three remained close friends until the advent of World War I. The Hessels returned to Germany, where Franz joined the army; Roché was exempted from service due to a knee injury (sustained in a fall from a garden trapeze). While the two never fought on opposite sides, as in Truffaut’s adaptation, Hessel’s letters to his friend were intercepted, and Roché was jailed for two weeks on suspicion of being a German spy.
Roché spent the remainder of the war in New York. After the Armistice, he visited with the Hessels and their two sons in Germany, at which point he and Helen—apparently with Franz’s blessing—began an affair that continued, in all its volatile glory, for more than a decade. In 1927 Roché married his longtime mistress Germaine Bonnard while still involved with Helen. Two years later he took another lover, Denise Renard—he was 50 years old—who became pregnant with his son, Jean-Claude, in 1931. Both Helen and Germaine left him when they learned of the child. But his wife refused to divorce him, and he was only able to marry Denise upon Germaine’s death, in 1948.
Unlike their fictional counterparts, the players all went on to productive lives after their ménage had run its course and they had gone their separate ways. Roché went on to teach English, gym, and chess in southern France, and eventually try his hand at writing. Franz died of a stroke in a French internment camp in 1941, but Helen lived to be 96. At first angry at Roché’s very public exposure of their private lives, she eventually warmed to the idea. On seeing the film, says Hessels’ son Stéphane—who went on to become a writer, French Resistance fighter, and diplomat—“the first thing she did was write a very charming letter to Truffaut. . . . She was much happier about the film than the book.”
In fact, the film is appealing in almost direct inverse to its themes of infidelity, volatility, and need. In another director’s hands it could have easily been dark or tawdry. But Jules et Jim is above all a gentle, affectionate love story—not only about the passions shifting between the two men and Catherine, but of the unwavering love Jules and Jim have for each other. In the book’s first chapter, Roché tells how
Jules and Jim saw each other every day. They sat up late at night, each teaching the other the language and literature of his own country. They showed each other one another’s poems and translated them together. Their talk was leisurely; neither had ever found so attentive a listener.
Truffaut’s adaptation was ultimately as much about his own life as the author’s: he identified strongly with Jules, and wrote Jim’s character to reflect Roché. (Henri Serre, the actor who played Jim, resembled Roché physically as well.) Jules is a novelist in the book, but Truffaut made this Jim’s vocation. In the film, Jules is a translator—in an added scene, he asks to translate Jim’s clearly autobiographical novel, “Jacques et Julien,” into German—much as Truffaut’s job was to translate Roché’s book.
Truffaut said, memorably, “The art of film can only really exist through a highly organized betrayal of reality.” But rather than a betrayal, “Jules et Jim” was an enhancement of an enhancement, an extension of the novelist’s process of life-into-art—or, as Stuart Y. MacDougal describes it in his essay “Adaptation of an Auteur”:
His film resembles a series of reflecting mirrors: a semiautobiographical film creating a work of art out of a semiautobiographical novel which creates a work of art out of the lives of the author’s friends, who themselves are engaged in the same process.
In 1959, Truffaut was at work on his first full-length feature, “Les Quatres Cent Coups” (The 400 Blows). But he was thinking about Jules et Jim, and sent a copy of the book to Jeanne Moreau, an up-and-coming actress who had done good work for Louis Malle and Roger Vadim, among others, and whom he had in mind as Catherine—Kathe in the novel. She loved the story, and wanted the part, so Truffaut sent her picture along to Roché for his approval. In early April, Roché wrote back, “Dear young friend. A big thank you for the photos of Jeanne Moreau. She pleases me. I am delighted that she likes Kathe!” Five days later Roché died, at the age of 79. He would never see his novel translated into film, nor enjoy its sudden surge in popularity afterward.
Roché kept detailed diaries for nearly 60 years, 346 notebooks’ worth, which he would eventually distill into his novels: Jules et Jim and the 1956 Deux Anglaises et le Continent (Two English Girls), based on—yes, yet another love triangle, between Roché and two English sisters. A third book, Victor, based on Marcel Duchamp, remained unfinished at the time of his death. His exploits were the raw material from which his fiction was fashioned, and ultimately he ran out of the time he needed to transcribe them. But his was certainly a life lived to the fullest, and Truffaut was fortunate to recognize what he found in that used bookstore. As Daria Galatiera put it in her 1997 essay in la Repubblica,
[Truffaut] understood that the lightness and grace of that burning story could have come only after a very long decanting, one that went on for half a century.
Lisa Peet is a writer, editor, artist, recent recipient of a Masters in Library & Information Science, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Lisa Peet’s previous features: Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown, Experience Required: The Middle of the Road, Thomas Van Essen: The Ekphrasis of Ecstasy, Experience Required: Back to School, Jon Clinch: Telling Stories on His Own Terms, Kate Chopin’s Artistic Awakenings, Deborah Eisenberg: Small-World Stories, The Bitten Word: Dracula for Everyone, Isak Dinesen: Her Own Heroine, Walker Percy: The Original Moviegoer