The curious case of Minou Drouet

February 08, 2009

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LATIN Quarter intellectuals had qualified it as the Dreyfus Affair of the literary world. To get a real load of this you have to bring to your imagination a still un-Americanised Paris of half a century ago. No obscenities on the walls, no junk food joints, no monkey-dance on 24-hour TV networks.

Writers and poets spent entire days in cafés, working on their novels, plays, short stories and poems; drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and dying young, hoping to leave something ponderous for posterity.

In such an ambiance a little blond girl was introduced to the literary circles of Paris by her foster mother. A youthful prodigy was not something unheard of in 1956 when a collection of poems entitled Arbre Mon Ami ('Tree, My Friend'), was published. Only a year earlier Françoise Sagan had rocked France, and the world, by her first novel Bonjour Tristesse. But Françoise Sagan was 18 while the poetess in question, Minou Drouet, was only eight.

While everyone agreed that Minou's poems, and the letters that she avidly wrote to anyone who got in contact with her, had great literary quality, not everyone was convinced that it was actually Minou who wrote them. France was split in two. It's Madame (Mme) Drouet who does all the writing, said the ladies' weekly Elle. “Is Minou Drouet a fraud or a genius?” asked Time magazine. The storm broke out with such intensity that there was no French newspaper or magazine — Le Monde, Le Figaro, L'Express and Paris Match included — that did not take a pro- or anti-Minou stand.

A few lines from Arbre Mon Ami

'Tree/ drawn by a clumsy child/ a child too poor to buy colour crayons. /Tree, I come to thee./ Console me/ for being only me.'

The biggest literary scam of the century! The rumpus rose to such a level that the French authors, composers and music publishers' association felt compelled to propose a public test to put the controversy to rest, once and for all. Minou was left alone in a room with no telephone but only pen and paper for company and with the subject 'Paris sky' to

try her by now much in doubt poetic gift. Her poem was ready in 25 minutes. Literally moved to tears the chairman of the association offered Minou honorary membership. Her poem, translated into English by Life magazine, is as follows

'Paris sky, secret weight/ flesh which in hiccups spits into our faces./ Through open jaws, the rows of houses/ a stream of blood between its luminous teeth./ Paris sky, a cocktail of night and of fear that one savours with licks of the tongue/ with little catches of the heart/ from the tip of a neon straw....'

Newspapers were to discover later that Minou was almost blind by birth and that her vision was only recovered following a series of operations. She took piano lessons and, though she was no Mozart, she played well. Later, she would learn to play guitar just as expertly.

Soon after the publication of her book of poetry that immediately sold 40,000 copies, Minou was hobnobbing with the high and the mighty of the cultural world. Celebrity magazines carried her photographs in the company of actor-singer Maurice Chevalier, movie director Vittorio de Sica and the legendary cello player Pablo Casals. Her most ardent fan, however, proved to be the greatest multi-disciplined living French genius at the time, the poet-writer-painter-actor-movie director Jean Cocteau. He paid her the ultimate compliment, though in his own incomparable, inverse diction “All the children are geniuses, all except Minou Drouet!”

Not yet a teenager, Minou Drouet was now leading the life of a celebrity. Her visit to London resulted in the following verse

'Mischievous country/ where early every morning/ pink and golden on the plate/ two eggs sing a duet/ lying in the wait.'

And then, one day in Rome, Minou Drouet was bewildered to hear Pius XII saying to her, during a private audience at the Vatican, that he loved her poems. She had enough presence of mind to return the compliment to the holy father on his papal robe. “It is very well cut” she informed a surprised pope. Much moved by this he said “I'll pray to God you always stay the way you are.”

But that was not to be. As a published author of poetry and fiction books and as an accomplished pianist and guitarist by the time she was in her early twenties, Minou, now married, could be seen flaunting leather jacket and high boots, riding a motorcycle and leading a bohemian Left Bank life with all its possible blessings and pitfalls, and forever ready to plunge headlong into picaresque adventures that were very much the fever of the day.

In the mid-1960s, Minou's life took a dramatic turn. Her grandmother fell ill and she took care of her until she breathed her last. Then she decided to study nursing, professionally. She used her newly acquired skills caring for the elderly, terminally ill children and pregnant women for two years working in a hospital as a nurse.

She made another attempt to get back to her bohemian life, giving guitar performances in Left Bank cafés, writing novels and children's books.

When Mme Drouet was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Minou was in her early thirties. She was divorced and her heart was no longer in the arts. She returned with her foster mother to her native Brittany, taking care of her, marrying a local businessman and refusing to write or to see any journalists.

Upon insistence of her publishers, Minou started working on a somewhat indifferent account of her life, Ma Vérité (My Truth). When the memoir came up on bookstands in 1993, nobody paid attention. It was a different generation of junk-food eaters and rap lovers. Besides, those few who knew about Minou and cared, agreed that the muse had abandoned her, this time definitively.

The inhabitants of the small Brittany town Guerche-de-Bretagne are used to seeing a handsome blond woman in her early sixties going to the market and doing her chores unobtrusively. Neighbours know her by the name of Mme Le Canu. But few know about her past.

And the former Minou Drouet, bohemian, singer, guitar and piano player and author of eight books, would rather have it that way.

The writer is a journalist based in Paris.