"Un an dans la forêt" from François Sureau

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« Un an dans la forêt » from François Sureau

Un an dans la forêt from François Sureau

“Un an dans la forêt” from François Sureau released in November 2022

I became aware of this book – published on November 3, 2022 – while exploring the lives of two personalities, Blaise Cendrars and Élisabeth Prévost, somewhat by chance, in the end. In 2021, I had (and still have!) the project of highlighting the inhabitants of Brognon, both those who are « native » and familiar with the village and its history, as well as those who have moved in more recently, bringing with them their culture, passion, and a desire to integrate into the village.

By posting this photo (shown here) in December 2021, which incidentally received significant attention and pride from the Mahoudeaux family, I did not expect to receive so many comments and words of encouragement to continue in this direction. Among the comments, someone referred to Élisabeth Prévost and Blaise Cendrars – completely unknown to me at the time – and urged me to highlight this exceptional story that took place in our small village, Brognon, hinting that letters between the two characters might still exist somewhere!

Curious to learn more, I questioned some longtime residents, and I was naturally advised to visit the village’s elder, Mrs. Jeanine Cochart, who was about to celebrate her 95th spring. In early 2022, I had the opportunity to speak with her. She knew well the person she affectionately called « Babeth », but unfortunately, Jeanine began to experience health issues, and things did not improve. She left us last September, may she rest in peace…

Renée and Mireille Mahoudeaux in Brognon, at their family home

Renée and Mireille Mahoudeaux in Brognon, at their family home

So, a realization emerges: these testimonials, narratives, anecdotes, treasures, and knowledge must be preserved in writing before the elders disappear. It’s not a new idea, and yet, all this knowledge, in whatever form, is disappearing rapidly. A local publication has already been made, and it deserves recognition: Jacques Hannotier published « Si Brognon m’était conté » in 2005, a collection of rich accounts of Brognon’s history and those who experienced the less glorious times, particularly during the war, where Jeanine Cochart and her husband Paul, the former mayor of the village, share their testimonies.

Later that year, in early November, while discussing the topic again with Florence Simon, a resident and deputy councillor of Brognon, she mentioned the Podcasts (digital audio content – see below) on France Inter that featured a book titled « Un an dans la forêt », dedicated to the period when Élisabeth and Blaise lived together in Brognon! Coincidentally, the next day, on November 4th, I was tuning into France Culture in my car while going to get bread, and, indeed, François Sureau was presenting his work again! It seemed like a too strong coincidence to ignore: the message was clear, I needed to delve into this subject and explore it further! I was equally fascinated by Élisabeth’s adventurous spirit, reminiscent of the rebellious Ardennes mentality, and Blaise’s mysterious and more discreet side, finding inspiration in the silence and immortality of the Ardennes forest. A few weeks later, I acquired the book through the Signy-Le-Petit library.

Our meeting with François Sureau

Rencontre entre François Sureau, Thierry Hubert et Adeline Grulet

Meeting between François Sureau, Thierry Hubert, and Adeline Grulet on Saturday, December 16, 2023, in Charleville-Mézières during the presentation of his book.

With the mayor of our village, Brognon, Mr. Thierry Hubert, we had the chance and honor to meet François Sureau in person during the presentation of his book at the Voyelles media library in Charleville-Mézières on Saturday, December 16, 2023. A unique moment where François Sureau naturally discusses the history of his book, the special one with the meeting between Élisabeth Prévost and Blaise Cendrars, and his love for the Ardennes and its mystical forest. He is truly passionate about the exceptional journey of Élisabeth Prévost, still so little known today, and encourages us to extend her destiny by continuing research on her life.

Here are my impressions of the book

After the initial reading, I must admit I was left wanting more. Despite the title, the book simultaneously narrates the lives of the two individuals, and it’s only two-thirds into the book that their meeting takes place, incorporating events that occur outside the Ardennes.

Élisabeth Prévost and Blaise Cendrars at the Pavillon des Aiguillettes in Brognon, Ardennes, in the late 1930s © Alamy Stock Photo

Élisabeth Prévost and Blaise Cendrars at the Pavillon des Aiguillettes in Brognon, Ardennes, in the late 1930s © Alamy Stock Photo

The anecdotes recounted at the Pavillon des Aiguillettes are ultimately not very detailed; we know very little, or rather, I was already familiar with them. The « local and juicy » anecdotes had already been narrated, particularly through François Sureau’s Podcasts (see excerpts at the bottom of the page) – brilliantly told by the academician – and punctuated by rare interviews with Élisabeth Prévost and Blaise Cendrars. I embark on a second, more in-depth reading to take notes and immerse myself more in the book, and I confess to enjoying it more. Between the two readings, I re-listen to the three Podcasts (see at the bottom of the page) to get back into the atmosphere, and it works!
The literary references mentioned in the book are numerous, and as I know very few of them, they didn’t necessarily help me better understand the destinies of Élisabeth and Blaise. Here too, it is probably necessary to delve into these references to better understand their subtleties and connections, I think. « Culture is like jam: the less you have, the more you spread it!» An expression that is said to have been tagged on a wall in May 1968 by Jean Delacour and is also attributed to Pierre Desproges. However, I remember it mainly because I learned it from my history/geography teacher in middle school, Mr. Coquillard, whom I greatly appreciated.
This is probably the occasion, and even an encouragement, to dig deeper into this story, either through people who were close or distant witnesses – they are becoming increasingly rare – or through archives that may be consulted, especially in Charleville-Mézières, if, of course, they exist.

The Ardennes Forest

However, I really appreciated the way the Ardennes Forest is described, both by François Sureau and Blaise Cendrars: « One does not approach this forest stealthily, but head-on. It is an immense dark line crowning a hill, extending towards the horizon, and at the foot of which the villages below resemble the land disappearing from the view of a sailor.» « The silent forest, in its enigmatic immortality, sends us a persistent call to remember the present, and in that very memory, to envision, for the future, other adventures. »

Ardennes Forest between Signy-Le-Petit and Brognon © Adeline Grulet

Ardennes Forest between Signy-Le-Petit and Brognon © Adeline Grulet

For François Sureau, « the forest is the place where one escapes the imposture of the world, where the relationship with the natural world occurs through quite mysterious, close, immediate exchanges, renewed every hundred meters according to the species of trees and different animals that one can see there. Therefore, for me, the forest is truly the workshop of inner freedom. » François Sureau about the Pavillon des Aiguillettes, Élisabeth Prévost’s former residence: « I imagine this house at the edge of the forest, the dreams a child can have there. » « In the Ardennes, however, [Blaise Cendrars] remained still, for the first time happy to be so, and that also touches us. He would go with Élisabeth to the Trappists of Chimay and on Sundays to the sung Mass where she accompanied the service on the harmonium. »

I also appreciate this quote from François Sureau, who knows the Ardennes Forest well, having been conscripted there in the late seventies. « You know the story of Little Thumb: I am a fan of Little Thumb, and I think the opposite in terms of fairy tales. I believe that, in reality, what he wants is to enter the forest. This story of breadcrumbs is nonsense », he says. « I have always found that the forest was a kind of refuge; I have had wonderful experiences there, a way of finding a sense of the world and of life that is quite unique and detached from arbitrary quarrels. And I find it striking that Cendrars, who spent most of his life on the shores of the sea, found a kind of human faith and the strength to write in the silence and stillness of the forest. »

Portrait of Blaise Cendrars in his Parisian apartment in 1960 ©Getty - Keystone-France

Portrait of Blaise Cendrars in his Parisian apartment in 1960 ©Getty – Keystone-France

There are also references to the Trappist Abbey of Chimay that Élisabeth and Blaise used to visit, the experience of smuggling, especially concerning « gris », as Cendrars called it to describe the Semois tobacco, which, according to him, was incomparable. There’s also the amusing story with potatoes used as a form of currency to settle Blaise’s bar tabs in Paris! Élisabeth has been hunting since she was very young, a widespread activity in the region, giving her an image of a strong and rebellious woman, much like most Ardennes women! I also appreciate her solitary and independent side, which is also one of my traits, probably explaining my empathy for her, that and her numerous travels, even if mine were carried out with much more ease than in her time! I strongly encourage you to read this book, which, beyond the deep and unique story of Élisabeth and Blaise, is an invitation to immerse yourself in the majestic Ardennes Forest.

Adeline GRULET

Podcasts

Podcast of July 2, 2022, « “Un an dans la forêt”, the story of Blaise Cendrars and Élisabeth Prévost by François Sureau :
https://www.radiofrance.fr/franceinter/podcasts/breve-rencontre/breve-rencontre-du-samedi-02-juillet-2022-6937893

Podcast of October 28, 2022 « François Sureau: “The forest is a refuge, a place to find a unique sense of the world”»: https://www.radiofrance.fr/franceinter/podcasts/l-invite-de-8h20-le-grand-entretien/l-invite-de-8h20-le-grand-entretien-du-vendredi-28-octobre-2022-3611300

Podcast of November 4, 2022, « La liberté selon Blaise Cendrars » : https://www.radiofrance.fr/franceculture/podcasts/l-invite-e-des-matins/la-liberte-selon-blaise-cendrars-6352520

Book references (non-exhaustive)

« Mademoiselle mon copain » from Monique Chefdor : Élisabeth Prévost’s journal with excerpts from the correspondence with Blaise Cendrars

Blaise Cendrars’ books

« L’homme foudroyé » : Diane de la Panne,” an imaginary character referring to Élisabeth Prévost. This book was written upon her return from the Pavillon des Aiguillettes

« J’ai saigné »  / « Bourlinguer » / « La main coupée » / « Moravagine »

« Les Pâques à New York » / « Prose du Transsibérien » : Blaise Cendrars’ poems

Élisabeth Prévost’s books

« Les Carottes au Plaza »

To stay in Brognon

Igl'houx à Brognon dans les ArdennesIf you wish to visit the places where Élisabeth Prévost and Blaise Cendrars lived and spend one or more nights, there are cottages and bed and breakfasts available, including the Igl’houx, a unique accommodation for 2 people located a few kilometers from Domaine Saint Antoine.

A hike, which I named « Hike by the Saint Antoine Chapel », is also offered from the Igl’houx and passes by Domaine Saint Antoine (rebuilt since the one where Élisabeth Prévost lived was destroyed during the war).

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