French police files prove juicy read

LITERARY WITNESSES: Bruno Fuligni has published the contents of long-forgotten files that Paris police kept on some 19th and 20th century writers and poets

AFP , PARIS

Wed, Sep 27, 2006 - Page 6

Victor Hugo was a miserly money-grubber, poet Arthur Rimbaud was "a monstrosity" and Paul Verlaine was "a worthless human being" -- according to Paris police.

The unflattering portraits of France's 19th century literary giants are just some of the juicy morsels found in long-forgotten Paris police files recently published in book form.

Bruno Fuligni, an employee at the French parliament who discovered the dust-covered files and compiled them, says what is even more startling is the vigor and thoroughness with which the most revered writers of that era were spied upon by snitches and secret police.

"Beyond criminals and political figures, there are files on writers and artists. In some cases, they go quite far in their indiscretions," Fuligni said.

Some of the tidbits in Fuligni's book, The Writers' Police, were collected from 1879 through 1891 under police chief Louis Andrieux -- father of one of France's most famous novelists and poets of the next generation, Louis Aragon.

As Andrieux wrote in his memoirs, "All of Paris, in the end, is on file."

The notes and reports on Hugo, the Les Miserables author and tireless campaigner for social justice who lived in exile for two decades after calling the self-proclaimed Emperor Louis Napoleon a traitor, take up three voluminous boxes, Fuligni said.

The police monitoring the larger-than-life figure overlooked nothing: his ideas, his breaches of conventional morality, the company he kept -- what Fuligni prefers to see as "the little weaknesses of this great genius."

The book, for example, reproduces a detailed description of how Hugo was blackmailed by a mistress after she found out that her lover was, in fact, an illustrious poet and writer.

Hugo is described in the files as "someone who exploits democracy" and as being obsessed by money, a trait born out by others.

"What is worrying is not the information itself but the way it is exploited," Fuligni says.

The spies who kept tabs on writers and artists at the end of the 19th century were, in effect, their first biographers, and besides the sometimes parochial moral judgments, they came up with some startling insights.

Police began watching Rimbaud -- the hard-living, drug-taking boy genius who delighted in shocking bourgeois sensibilities -- when he was only 15, even though they found his behavior repugnant and his work impenetrable.

"They immediately saw that this young man was enormously talented. The police spotted him before the literary inner circle did," Fuligni said.

In a similar way, they targeted Verlaine, one of France's most famous and popular poets and -- after both men manned the barricades of the Paris Commune in 1871 -- Rimbaud's lover.

There are also intercepted letters among the police files, and a few misjudgments. Verlaine, observed one snitch, "is someone not worth bothering about, but holds dangerous personal views."

The files continue well into the 20th century, and include a 1937 report on Andre Breton, a founder of the surrealist movement, who is described as "conducting anti-national activities."

Police files after that date are no longer accessible, but Fuligni has raised the question of whether such spying has stopped.

"Why would practices so easily carried out in the era of pen and ink suddenly stop in the era of the telephone and the Internet?" he asked.