BIOGRAPHY FEBRUARY 2, 2010
Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin || by Pierre Assouline
(Apostolides) Stanford University Press, 312 pp., $24.95 || (Assouline) Oxford University Press, 276 pp.,
To really write for children, you have to think like a child. And to read a children’s book, you probably have to let go of grown-up reasoning. These thoughts occurred to me as I read two newly-translated books about Tintin and his creator, Georges Remi, better known to the world as Hergé. (The pen name is composed of Remi’s initials backwards, pronounced as in French.) There is much to be learned from these studies and others by “Tintinologists”—about Hergé, about the “world” of Tintin, even about twentieth-century politics. But as I read Pierre Assouline’s well-written biography of Hergé and Jean-Marie Apostolidès’s erudite study of the Tintin books, a version of the question we Jews love to ask kept coming to mind: Are they good for Tintin?
As Assouline admits in the preface to his book, Georges Remi is not the easiest subject for a biography. Born in Brussels in 1907, he had a conventional bourgeois childhood, only temporarily interrupted by World War I. He fully and unquestioningly imbibed the right-wing Catholic politics of that milieu. In adulthood, he was a workaholic and a private man: he left behind no personal journal and his letters, which Assouline employs liberally, offer little insight into his inner life. He lived even his most passionate love affairs with a quiet complacency. And he rarely left Belgium before the last decades of his life. A reader cannot help but feel a deep blandness in Remi.
Assouline, a journalist, makes the best of the grey-all-over Georges Remi by exploring the contrasts between his life and the colorful figures he invented, Tintin and Hergé. The boy reporter, unlike Remi, is virtually stateless and always ready to set out across the globe on a new adventure. They were physical opposites as well: fans who met the lanky, long-faced Remi were sometimes surprised to find that he did not have Tintin’s round face, small stature, or tuft of blond hair. But the most extreme contrast between them, as Assouline tells it, was moral. Although Remi and Tintin had a similar moral code, rooted in the Catholic scout movement of Remi’s childhood, they felt and acted in very different ways. Remi seemed to experience injustice only obliquely and he very rarely took action against it. Tintin, on the other hand, always leaps to the defense of an injured party and metes out instant, rough justice.
The moral divide between Remi and Tintin-Hergé yawned widest during and after World War II. Remi chose to spend the war in his German-occupied homeland, where he continued to work unmolested, thanks to longtime links to right-wing figures. The help of powerful collaborators enabled him to publish new adventures in spite of a severe wartime paper shortage. Most damningly, he accepted work with a Belgian newspaper, Le Soir, which had been confiscated by the authorities to serve as a propaganda organ. The German-controlled paper published, among other things, defenses of fascism and anti-Semitic screeds. Hergé’s cartoons provided a great boost to the paper’s popularity in the face of a boycott of its pages by many well-known Belgian writers and artists. Indeed, his role led the resistance, on the eve of the liberation, to brand him one of the forty leading journalist collaborators.
After the war, as he sought to defend himself from charges of incivisme (which may be roughly translated as “disloyalty”), Remi explained his conduct during the war as a kind of aesthetic quietism. Artists such as himself, he argued, had no special obligation to take a stand against political evil: they had a higher calling. This stance did not prevent him from being arrested, nor did it get him out of jail—his fame as the father of Tintin eventually got the charges dropped—but it did apparently assuage his own conscience. To the end of his life, he took virtually no responsibility for his wartime behavior.
Even as a collaborator, Remi was relatively innocuous. His worst crime was going along where he ought to have resisted. He is a study not in the banality of evil but simply in the banality of the banal. But Tintin himself is anything but banal, and Assouline devotes much of his book to analyzing him. Over the last decades of his life, Hergé worked hard to revise the Tintin adventures into a single, seamless tale. He erased as much as possible the evidence that his hero had changed between his first appearance in Le Petit Vingtième, in 1929, and the publication of Tintin and the Picaros in 1976. Assouline digs beneath this reverse-engineered unity to reveal a Tintin who evolved a great deal over time. He traces how Hergé developed and gradually added new characters to Tintin’s “family,” from the irascible Captain Haddock to the daft Professor Calculus. Politically, he charts the boy hero’s transformation from a political partisan fighting communism, Belgian colonialism and American capitalism in his first three adventures (all bugbears of the Catholic right in the early twentieth century) into a populist champion of the little guy, battling gangs, cartels, and villains. He even charts a deepening of Tintin’s emotional engagement, which culminated in 1960 in Tintin in Tibet, a highly personal book with echoes of Hergé’s real-life friendship with a Chinese art student, Chang Chong-Chen.
This part of Hergé follows in the footsteps of a number of other “diachronic” analyses of the adventures, notably Jean-Marie Apostolidès’s Les Métamorphoses de Tintin, which was published in 1984 and now appears in English as The Metamorphoses of Tintin or Tintin for Adults. Apostolidès’s book is a psycho-political study of Tintin’s growth over the course of the entire series. In the early books, he argues, the boy hero espouses a Manichean ideology, which acknowledges only Good and Evil. Apostolidès associates this attitude with authoritarianism. In the later books, Tintin grows increasingly committed to constructing a private life and a “family.” The ambiguities and compromises inherent in building a private family life, he suggests, are characteristic of modern liberalism.
Apostolidès’s book is not for the faint of heart: it is densely-packed with close textual analysis and laden with psychological jargon. Discussing Haddock, for example, he writes: “In contrast to his usual hypermasculinized behavior, the captain sometimes acts in a more 'feminine' way, suggesting a certain ambivalent identification with the mother figure.” This academic dress will make it tough going for the general reader. But Tintin for Adults does contain valuable insights. It made me realize how important dream sequences are to Hergé’s narrative technique. And Apostolidès’s account of the turn toward private life that Tintin took in his later years suggests a closing of the gap between artist and creation.
Still, as much as I learned from them, I could not resist feeling slightly irritated by both these volumes. By tracing Tintin’s evolution, it seems to me, Assouline and Apostolidès fight against his marvelous, essential timelessness. Hergé’s characters never age, of course. Their clothing and their speech belong to the early twentieth century, but the exact year and the progression of time always remain opaque. And Tintin is always focused on the mystery at hand; he is never held back by fears or experiences or anything else with a past. Most crucially, at the end of each adventure, the protagonists return to their original state. Nothing, in Tintin’s world, ever goes so wrong that it cannot be fixed. Even The Shooting Star (1941), a story shadowed through most of its pages by the threat of apocalypse, concludes with Tintin and his friends coming home safe, sound, and victorious.
This sense of being outside of time, which Hergé worked so hard to create, is one of the deep springs of Tintin’s popularity. Children, who have a similar sense of existing outside of normal adult time, identify with it. For them, as for Tintin, what matters are the attachments and attractions that surround them here and now. And though I no longer think like that, Hergé’s work is so skilful that when I read Tintin today, I slip back into his timeless world. Apostolidès and Assouline try valiantly to pull back the curtain and show us the ropes and pulleys of Hergé’s magic act. But I am not sure that we want this. Tintin is too good a trick to spoil with explanations.
Nathan Perl-Rosenthal is a PhD candidate at Columbia University in American and European history.