Pierre Assouline – Investigating Herge

Glancing down Pierre Assouline’s own history, it is clear he is perfectly suited for writing a biography of Herge. The targets of his five other biographical studies read like the cast list for a Tintin story: Marcel Dassault (aeronautics pioneer), Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (art dealer), Gaston Gallimard (publisher), Henri Cartier-Bresson (photographer) and Georges Simenon (detective novelist). But in tackling Georges Remi, Assouline is not documenting the life story of one man, but the story of Georges Remi, his public persona of Herge and his creation Tintin.

With the translation of Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin, English speakers get a chance to read Assouline’s take on this remarkable man and his creation. Thanks to the publishers, Oxford University Press, I got a chance to ask the man himself some questions about the book and his take on Herge.

Remi’s life (1907 – 1983) covered a turbulent time in history and the biography tells the story well over its 235 pages, splitting Herge’s life into three phases: the early years up until 1944; the dark years of isolation and rejection from 1944 to 1950, and the final years of reconciliation and personal growth until his death. Assuoline had full access to the Moulinsart archives and interviewed many people closely associated to Remi. However the results he draws are not flattering to the man.

Compared to the avuncular persona of Herge, Remi is a very different man. He appears a workaholic and a control freak, overly protective of his work, and later his Herge persona. Something that persists today in Moulinsart’s approach to his memory. Even his admirable qualities, such as his loyalty, are flawed and lead into his wartime choices and post-war problems. However Assouline believes this blind loyal was core to who Remi was.

“HergĂ© has never been a traitor to his country, to his faith, to his friends. [It is ] impossible to separate all his loyalties. That’s the man.”

One area where Assouline’s biography does fall down is his avoidance of Remi’s personal life. His first marriage lasted some thirty years but Germaine rarely is mention, despite his several affairs. When queried about this omission Pierre said “[The] french biographer will be always more discreet about private life than an Amercian or an English one…”. Which certainly is true but in missing an important part of a man’s life out of the book it leaves the reader unable to form a full picture of the man.

If the avoidance of Remi’s private life is an omission, the book excels during the coverage of the most provocative aspect his life, his wartime record. It is here that the friendly image of Herge that he and later Moulinsart tried to create is most at odds with reality.

The facts are not disputed. When the newspaper he was working on was shutdown by the German occupying forces, Remi went to work at the leading french language Belgium daily paper, Le Soir. Whilst not run by the Nazis, it was certainly an approved paper and its content heavily controlled, having been seized from its rightful owners. For producing Tintin (already a national figure) in a German controlled newpaper for four years, Herge was branded a collaborator.

Herge himself explained that he never considered his work any different from being a tram driver or coal miner and they were not called collaborators for working under German rule. However Remi did for work for a right-wing newspaper before the war and his seeming obliviousness to the how other people saw his collaboration will always raise questions about his motives. Assouline’s remarks that Herge “… never expressed any regrets. He never thought he was wrong.”.

We may be judging Remi too harshly. According to Assouline “About the concentration camps, [Herge] always said afterwards that, at the time, it was impossible to know anything about the holocaust”. To Remi, a man devoted to boy scout ethics, it probably seemed natural to keep working and to trust is superiors. In the biographer’s words “… he was loyal to his youth ideas and ideals, loyal to his friends …”

In dealing with this subject, and the similar hot potato of racism / anti-sematism, this biography does not draw any conclusions itself. It presents the facts but does so in a way that that is unflattering to Remi. Whether the man was criminally naive, willfully ignorant or had right-wing sypathies is left for the reader to decide.

This is both the great strength and weakness of the biography. It tells the story of three people: George’s Remi, the public persona of Herge, and Tintin but it never declares an opinion about any them. This is refreshing compared to the near hagiographies some writers have produced but it does leave the reader wanting more.