The Bettier Dossier

PAUL BETTIER
(July 20, 1898, Edinburgh - November 29, 1957, Edinburgh)

What I am thinking about is naturally of no importance. I can't describe the things everybody knows: morning papers, flowers, bookshops full of arcana, celebrated places full of celebrated people. Give me a definition of the creative urge. I want to write. I am idling away my time, that's what I normally do when I am alone. I write in French because the words in my head are rather embarrassing and I wouldn't like others to be able to read them. Yet I'm fully aware there's someone who can read what my distraught fancy may divulge in this manner. I always hope these graphomaniacal enthusiasms will result in a piece of art of unquestionable value. Vanity. (Epigraph to Juvenilia)

The feeling of being special always prevented me from going down in madness and mediocrity. Any moment I could determine what made me different from others, from tout le monde: at the age of eighteen it was the premonition that if I had neglected my razor I might have seen my stubble (objectionably odd in any case) grow into a regular beard (the very regularity was unbearably fantastic); and now - though it has been tasted several times in my youth - it is a strong and solid affection of which I scarce can talk or write┘ (From a letter addressed to Father)

Bettier's syndrome: patient constantly mixes up antonyms in his speech, patient fears to be taken for a homosexual. (From a psychiatric case history)

Last night I became terrified when I saw a grey light somehow (incomprehensibly) penetrating my room. It turned out to be the dawn. As a certain physical inconvenience, the feeling of immortality of my own desires impeded my falling asleep: for now I shall never die┘ (Diaries, 12 July 1932)

As far as I remember myself, I have been collecting sounds all my life. Well, to make it worse, at this moment of acrimonious desolation, I must say those were mostly alien sounds. Jean-Baptiste Pébuchet had never mastered English, although we know he had several times started and restarted to learn the language. And thus I had to do it for him, instead of him actually. My father was a descendent of Huguenots, of noble family, who had emigrated to Holland and then to England in the XVIth century. My paternal grandfather moved to Scotland in the early 1860s from southern England as he married a Scotswoman and took charge of her estate. He never came back; indeed, he had nothing to come back for: by that time the family was very poor. He was well educated, noble in mind and deeds, and, despite some chilliness in his relationships with his father and especially elder brother (the politician Albert Bettier, knighted in 1887), was respected and pronounced a brooch of all the clan. His only son, my father, inherited his probity, apart from a large fortune. Edwin St John Bettier was not inclined, however, to follow his father's example and to spend his entire life en se couchant dans le marais, as he put it. He graduated from King's College, Cambridge, and embarked on a bizarre journey across the Continent, mainly to practise his linguistic skills. On his return after five years of extensive travelling, he had to find a position, for vast sums had been expended in Europe and he decided to marry. He was called to the bar but soon grew tired of the routine, and his restless nature compelled him to seek for other delights in life. Four years after my birth, he died, with no debts, a child, an unfinished book on demonology and a loving woman, my mother and his wife, left behind him. I have been exposed to the French language ever since I was born; it was part of our household life in Edinburgh, as well as German, Italian and Greek. At St Andrew's I studied law, sustained pecuniarily by my mother's family. My maternal grandfather, Robert Vanbrugh, was a teacher of chemistry in a provincial boarding school. He believed in a family legend that said they were kin to Sir John Vanbrugh, the seventeenth-century dramatist and architect. When I was sixteen, I found a vague reference to a French doctor named J.-B. Pébuchet in some book from the library in our Edinburgh house. He seemed to have written a book of verse, unsurpassed in verbal beauty. In a year, the library disintegrated and I began to write poetry myself, as a recompense. (An autobiographical draft, "On Being Asked Whether I Have Seen the World")

I know him in person and learn of his proceedings from our common friends. He seems to take an interest in demoniac manifestations of all sorts, has developed an intense passion for the arcane (magic, apocripha, barely known languages, and suchlike). Rumour has it that he talks with his dead father like Hamlet. His eccentricity does not make him any prettier, I must admit. He lacks the genuine originality of mind, which is very typical of these blue-blooded dilettanti. (Joseph Markheim, The Journal, 12 July 1932)

Q. How did it come about that nobody liked him? Was he really such a killjoy as Ewan O'Leary, for example, says he was? Or is it because of his rather unexpected posthumous fame, which he never desired and which his friends thought they deserved so much more?

A. Well, I feel incompetent to speak for his friends, for I hadn't known Mr. Bettier that long. I did read Mr. O'Leary's book and to me it was a revelation, I learned a lot about Bettier's personality. I can't say he was necessarily "a madman mistaken for a writer of genius", he always seemed to me human, normal, sometimes even banal and boring. There was something about him that made you see he was the shadow of a great man. Hardly more than that. Yes, he was something of a wet blanket, a party pooper or whatever you call it, only insofar as those whom you call his friends were sometimes even dumber and more conforming than he was. He didn't care what everybody did or thought or wrote. Of course, some of his former pals were furious upon learning that that freak, their neighbour, turned out to be a great poet. But this is all only natural, don't you think? Even I became suspicious about a Mrs. Roy Anderson next door - she once produced a novel about the four elements.

Q. What books did he read? Did he ever discuss with you his literary likes and dislikes?

A. Among his favorites were Shakespeare, Byron and Hardy, although he himself wrote more in the manner of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Philip Larkin, as literary names go. The former three I heard him mention in a table talk in the late 1930s. I didn't know he'd had so much French until I read O'Leary's memoir. And he never talked about literature unless he was a bit tight, and even then he just closed himself up, when he saw somebody began to heed his mumblings.

Q. So you hit it off with him. Tell me, what was it that brought you two together?

A. Well, we both attended St Andrew's but didn't know each other then. Later we both went to the insurance business, and both took an amateurish interest in literature. We met for the first time, I believe, at a party, in the house of one of the most distinguished Scottish literati. Bettier was by that time an accomplished poet. I wouldn't say he went unrecognised, for his fame appeared adequate to his talent, and it was not until he had died and the best of his work had been published that we realised that the man's work, if not the man himself, was well worth a greater acclaim. I was a poor tenderfoot, a "rhyming barrister" or a "barring rhymester" as he was pleased to dub me. We became friends outside our literary aspirations, and scarcely argued about anything except races, sorts of beer and that sort of things. All of it lasted until I moved to the United States in 1956, and in a year he died. (From a 1962 interview with R. J. Troy)

Perhaps the poet's accidie prevented us from enjoying a perfectly rounded off masterpiece, into which this crude outline certainly promised to evolve. Maybe it was the sin of hubris that drained the author's imagination. None of our surmises can possibly succeed in explaining the mystery of creation. Only God knows. Let us pray. (From a sketchbook)

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Bring me a golden goblet brimful of blood! You have come to take me, my lord. Your blood is so much like wine. You have become an animal. Take me, oh, take me, I implore you! The floor sprinkled with blood sways under my feet. Animality, oh, animality, I worship you! (From The Gooseflesh of Passion, a novel (1958) by Catherine Lorraine. Mrs. Lorraine wrote the passage presented here [courtesy of Jacques Lorraine] in November 1957 in an Edinburgh hotel. Her room was adjacent to the room of Paul Bettier, where he died on November 29. His last written words were: "That woman shrieks abominably," which presumably referred to Mrs. Lorraine's coital cries.)

In 1912, at the age of fourteen, Paul Bettier composed and mimeographed a book of translations (from French and German modernist poetry) entitled The Fifth of Fourth with Walter Sellar, his fellow-student at Fettes College. (An item from the "Miscellanies" column in the Republic, 1978)

<...> His obsession with death is something absolutely unbearable. But he does not care about his reader here any more than in giving oppressive physiological descriptions, and we are forced to go through a gallery of suicides, senseless murders, unnatural demises and so forth. To read his work is to endure harrowing hell. <...> Mr. Bettier does not offer his exhausted reader any comfort, at the end he does not absolve the hero who has come all the way from the mild apprehensions of an unhappy childhood and the maddening fears of an adult life to the cut-off of death. He handles us into believing that what we read is an account of a luckless fellow's life, or, to be sure, a life-long torture of a "bad guy" of sorts, and that it serves him right for aught we know, whilst at the same time we stand convinced, quite independently of the author's designs, that the hero is but a victim and a person capable of evolving great passions (however kitschy that may sound in our surfeited age). The author seems to blame his hero for creating a universe of his own and taking refuge in it from his perennial fears. But is it not what our host does when he writes? On probing a little bit deeper into the story, we can distinguish a tone of bitter self-accusation, which only disgusts. Then we finally see that the whole affair was not worth it, both morally and aesthetically. We ally with the unjustly tormented protagonist against the author. We are willing to tell the author that he has bungled his job and could have spared at least one life in the novel. Still, the hero is immolated to Mr. Bettier's mania for meaningless death. I feel all but ashamed to have read this novel. This was truly one of the worst books I have ever read. Such distrust, despair and senselessness as shown in it cannot be appreciated, let alone rewarded, in the literary world. It was a failure and little wonder a writer of such perverse and blood-thirsty genius has not been able to write anything else at all. (Paul Bettier, "The Diabolical Mouse", London: Adrian Leigh, 1977. An anonymous review in the Hastings' Journal, February 1977.)

I can describe him only in terms of what he was not. He was not a spaniel that if displeased turned to bite you. (Bettier's former landlady's interview, 1960)

The collector of rare posthumous references in print to the name and works of Paul Bettier and of still rarer ones that appeared du vivant de Paul, believes that the reader should pay attention to the following coincidence, much to the taste of Vladimir Nabokov, Russian-American writer and thinker.
In a 1962 interview a friend of Bettier's Ronald Jameson Troy mentioned his, Troy's, neighbour, a Mrs. Roy Anderson, who had written, according to his words, a novel about the four elements. On the list of the distinguished pupils of Fettes College, besides Walter Sellar, co-author of 1066 and All That, and Bettier himself, author of a book of French poems (Les Jours Anciens, 1924), a book of English poetry (Poems, posthumously 1958) and a novel (The Diabolical Mouse, posthumously 1977), there is the name of Very Rev. Dr. Roy Sanderson, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

I must apologize for being so inconsistent. The two citations by which the novel commences were supposed to lead the narrative originally, but as the growing monster had failed to comply with my intentions and plunged shamelessly into despicable 'human interest,' I decided to cast the burden of responsibility off my shoulders. I was even more tempted to do so as I realised that the chances of the work passing the press were very slim. I have always been famous for my unstable character, and now, when I say that what I write I write for my friends only, one should not give much credence to this statement, for there lurks a mad hope in my head that ┘ (The French Cuisine, a draft of the foreword to The Diabolical Mouse, marked 'Princes Street Gardens, September 4, [1951], noon').

This note was published, if memory serves, in the weekly New Hastings Book Review in the 1920s. It was one of the rare references to the English (Scottish, to be exact) poet Paul Bettier. By that time he had published a tiny collection of poetry dedicated in its entirety to his existence as a sixteenth-century French doctor (notorious, by the way, for practising occult sciences and Kabbalah, but in fact a quiet and demure person). Bettier, a lawyer in an insurance company in Edinburgh, had never left his Scotland and found inspiration mainly in the French translations of medieval Latin texts (Syntagma, Tetragrammaton - the titles according to some queer fashion had been given in Greek) from the Edinburgh public library.
The New Hastings Book Review was issued in London and, when Bettier had received a small literary prize for his poetry, dedicated a few lines to the young homme de lettres (he was 27 then). The poetry was, without a doubt, great and its main inimitable quality was that it wonderfully conveyed the luminous fragrance of dust and grapes which was unknown among the moors and which beggared the English language. However, the critic confined himself to this as far as poetry was concerned. He remembered Bettier: congratulated him on his prize and, awkwardly stamping on the islet of what had been said, deeply sighed (who?) and croaked (what?). He spent a lifetime bothering about the extent of intimacy between Bettier and Pébuchet (the doctor from Dogogne) and summarised by saying that perhaps in the future, "readers may hope," Bettier would run upon the possession of his own voice, the voice of his people and country, "articulated by his notable talent."
After this note, as far as I know, nothing was heard of Paul Bettier for at least thirty years. Bettier died of a heart attack in 1957. And in 1973 in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris Pébuchet's Les Chants Doux was accidentally discovered - the poetry which was luminous and enigmatic, and which conveyed all the scents of the skies above a little town and the smiles of dogs in its narrow streets.

'They say he was thrawn.'
'How do you mean?'
'He was queer, Mr Paul Bettier. He was queer.'
(Lionel Dummel's Conversations with Sean Casey)

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