Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pulp fiction

In the French-speaking world, one of the best loved and longest-lasting fictional heroes is Bob Morane. If you imagine Indiana Jones, Biggles, James Bond and Buck Rogers rolled into one, you'll have a fair idea of the character. Here's an interview I conducted in October 2006 with his creator. It was originally published in The Bulletin magazine.

A hero of our time

Henri Vernès’ novels have sold some 40 million copies around the world. As he publishes his 200th book, he tells Jeremy Duns what keeps him writing

Charles Dewisme’s living room is a mess. 'I don’t have enough space!' says the 88-year-old, who has lived in the same Brussels apartment for the last 25 years. In that time, he has accumulated oil paintings, Japanese lacquered wardrobes, swords from the Middle Ages, wayang puppets, antique cigarette lighters and much more besides. But Dewisme is not just any octogenarian Brussels resident with a storage problem. Under the pseudonym Henri Vernès he has sold around 40 million books, making him one of the world’s best-selling writers, and Belgium’s second most successful novelist of all time, after Georges Simenon.

And while most people his age would be happy to manage a trip to the supermarket and back unaided, the man seated on the sofa opposite me is still working: he has just published the 200th novel in a series he began in 1953.

Charles-Henri-Jean Dewisme was born in Ath in 1918, but his family moved to Tournai when he was a few weeks old. As a boy, he loved reading, lapping up everything from Ivanhoe to American detective stories. After a six-month trip to China at 18, he returned to Belgium, shortly after which war broke out. Working for the Resistance in Brussels, his job was to feed information back to British intelligence in London. 'When you told Brits you were in military intelligence they always laughed,' he says, throwing his head back in an impression of a chinless army officer type. 'They had a strange sense of humour. During the war, the BBC ran the same joke on the wireless almost every day: "What do you see when you see the sea?" Answer: "I see the sea!" They laughed at that every day for four years!'

After the war, Dewisme put his experience in espionage to good use. Following a short-lived marriage to a diamond-cutter’s daughter, he plunged into a new career as a reporter, working for the American agency Overseas News and freelancing for several French newspapers. He then published three literary novels, although none were best-sellers (and are now very hard to find), as well as short adventure stories for weekly magazines under various pen names. In 1952, the Belgian publishing firm Marabout invited him to create a hero for the company’s new division, aimed at the youth market.

And so one of the great characters of popular fiction was born: Bob Morane. A Frenchman who served in Britain’s RAF during the war (later changed to the French air force), Morane is forever 33 years old, with short dark hair and steely grey eyes. A part-time journalist, he travels the world with his loyal sidekick, a massive red-haired Scot called Bill Ballantine, foiling villainous plots and saving damsels in distress.

Dewisme chose the name Henri Vernès as his pseudonym, but says he was not especially inspired by Jules Verne in doing so. His hero’s antecedents were Allan Quartermain, Biggles and Tintin, but the books were also innovative: in the 1958 novel Les Géants de la taïga (The Giants of the Taiga), for example, Morane battled prehistoric creatures that had been cloned by humans, predating Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park by nearly four decades (although the book’s monsters are mammoths, rather than dinosaurs).
From the start, the series was an enormous success, with Dewisme writing a new novel every two months or less. Morane and Ballantine travelled all over the world, and before the 1950s were out Dewisme had brought in science-fiction elements, including time-travel and other dimensions. In 1959, he introduced his best known villain, Monsieur Ming, the Yellow Shadow, a more physically menacing version of the Oriental mastermind stereotype popularised by Sax Rohmer. 'My inspiration wasn’t [Rohmer’s] Fu Manchu,' says Dewisme, 'but the cover of a French translation of a 1920s novel, The Black Magician by RTM Scott. That picture led me somewhere else entirely.'

In 1983, Dewisme created a new series under the pseudonym Jacques Colombo: Don featured a CIA agent with Mafia roots and was a radical departure, as it entered the realm of erotica. 'I had written for youngsters for so many years that I needed to work off a lot of tension,' Dewisme laughs. He wrote 11 of the books, before returning to Morane with renewed gusto.

Since the '50s, comic book adaptations of each Morane novel had appeared a few years after initial publication, and they were later joined by radio shows, a TV series and a computer game; the character was even the subject of a hit song by French band Indochine.

To date, the books have been translated into 16 languages, including Thai, Turkish and Icelandic. In the US, the character was renamed ‘Moran’, became an American and had blond hair on the jackets, but the series never sold in huge numbers either there or in Britain. 'The English-speaking world is a very tough market,' says Dewisme. 'It’s quite easy to translate a book from English into French, but much harder to do it the other way round. There are also two very different markets within the English-speaking world. Oscar Wilde once said that the only difference between America and Britain was their language!'

In the French-speaking world, Morane is still going strong, with millions of avid fans. 'Most of my readers are adults these days,' says Dewisme. 'They’ve grown up with the character.' The Brussels-based Club Bob Morane is in healthy shape, producing a quarterly magazine as well as holding regular dinners, which Dewisme sometimes attends. A separate fan club in Canada also has a regular publication, and there are dozens of websites devoted to the minutiae of the series.

This weekend, Dewisme will be granted a citizen’s medal of honour by Brussels' Saint-Gilles commune, and will also be the special guest at the annual Comics Festival, both of which will take place in the commune’s town hall. At the same time, the 200th Morane adventure, Les Secrets de l’ombre jaune, will be launched, in which our intrepid hero travels to Tibet to fight his old nemesis once more (first taking the Thalys to Brussels so he can look up some secret documents in the Cinquantenaire museum). Les Murailles d’Ananké, the latest to get the comic book treatment, has also just been published, with a new illustrator, Frank Leclercq.

Has he thought about retiring? He shakes his head. 'What for? This way, I get to meet new people: readers, people like yourself. It’s an interesting life, and far more appealing than being a shrivelled up old man. I intend to write until I can’t any longer.' I mention that Georges Simenon, although a genre writer, is today seen as one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists. 'They’ll be saying the same thing about me once I’m gone,' he says, quick as a flash. Who’d dare bet against him?

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