À la recherche du temps restant
MADAME LA CONCIERGE PUTS OUT HER HEAD AND DEMANDS TO KNOW what we are doing in her house with a camera at the ready? We explain our intentions. She nods a restrained “bienvenue” and closes the window of her combined home and workplace.
One floor up, Floc’h opens the door and throws out his arms. His welcome is almost overwhelming. We enter his combined home and workplace. The few steps through the hallway is like traveling in a time machine. In fact, it takes a while before we can identify one single contemporary item among the antique furniture, books, rugs, paintings and artifacts that surround us in the pleasant semi-darkness where even the infiltrating rays of sun become an accent in the decor.
Not even the most skilled set decorator could create a more suitable stage design for the story of Floc’h. The entire milieu is like a wide open window into the dreamworld that is his reality. This is the home of a man who seems to have parted ways with both the present and everyday life, for the sake of freedom and art. Or just because it’s fun and that he can do it? You can never be completely sure in the company of Floc’h.
When his obituary was published in 2007 in the peculiar book ”Une vie de rêve: Fragments d’une autobiographie idéale”, it claimed that he was over 2000 years old when he died on the 4th May 2046. In the text he was described by his friend, the writer Olivia Sturgess as “quite his own person and truly the architect of his own destiny”, much thanks to his classical training under the wings and patronage of Greek philosopher Plato. The fictional obituary also emphasizes his pronounced fondness for Britain. ”
A seemingly indefatigable globetrotter, Floc’h was most at home in Paris and Great Britain, a country without which, he often sighed, “life would not be worth living”.
Back in the real world: after a short handover of gifts where both the gin bottle and the silk handkerchief seem to be to his liking, Floc’h reads a passage from a book in which he is described like this:
“The Parisian illustrator Floc’h was born in 1953. Old enough to have experienced the end of modernity and be a little wistful. Immaculately dressed in a suit that echoes the 1930’s without stooping to fancy dress, he claims to have stopped wearing jeans after a bad LSD trip…”
Floc’h pauses and draws his breath before, with the broadest of smiles, delivering his punch line:
“So if you want to terminate our rendezvous right now, it’s alright with me!”
Roaring laughter rolls around the room. The atmosphere is established. The eccentric exhibitionist excels and we are excited. But hungry. We’ll go out for lunch. Floc’h has booked a table and we’ll leave in a minute, but first we must talk a bit more about books that give meaning to life and about how time can not be stopped even with old-fashioned suits and entertaining anecdotes.
“I had my birthday last Sunday. It feels quite strange to be 63 years old, but I would never want to return to the person I was yesterday. This time of life is very good. Too bad it will end so badly. Can I tell you a little story? One of the great advantages of being old is all the stories you can tell …”
Floc’h begins to tell his story. It begins with actor Tony Curtis stepping into the shower in a cheap motel but something happens and the story is placed on the back burner while we leave the flat to go for lunch.
Sunrays flood the streets where we meander between honking cars and though we certainly are in a hurry for lunch, here is the world famous Deyrolle with their stuffed animals and amazing collections of natural wonders so we run inside where lions and giraffes and unicorns stare at us with glazed eyes and now we are actually in such a hurry that Floc’h steps off the sidewalk and strides along in the middle of the street with his trouser legs flapping and the boyish fringe flying and finally we arrive and step into yet another pocket of elapsed time where a new story begins.
We are at Ladurée, an equally legendary, ultra-parisian combination of bakery, pastry shop and restaurant. Elegant is a suitable description. We are shown to our chambre separée upstairs and order food and wine. Floc’h asks the waiter to turn off the music and instead we listen to his story about Madeleine Castaing, the teenage bride who became the silent film star who became the patron and friend to all major cultural profiles of the time: Erik Satie, Chaim Soutine, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Henry Miller.
“Look here,” he says, letting his arm sweep across the room where the beautiful carpet is designed by Madeleine Castaing in the style that made her a legend in the international world of interior design. She actually lived one floor up from where we are sitting, and there is no doubt that Floc’h is emotionally moved by the whole context. “Look at this incredibly delicious little chair”. There is no doubt about his love affair with culture, with the beautiful and the artistic. That’s why he lives.
But he would never call himself an artist. It would probably be both trite and pretentious, misleading.
“Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper were amazing at portraying different people through themselves. I’m very good at playing Floc’h. We are all here on this earth to do something, and it’s up to you to discover what your true role is. Me, I am on earth to be Floc’h. My job is to be Floc’h.” He will hardly get fired.
In the role of Floc’h, he has since 1975 created more than 30 books, sometimes in cooperation with like-minded people such as Jean-Luc Fromental and François Rivière, numerous comic books and hundreds of commercial illustrations, all in the typical style known as ligne claire, the old and widespread tradition in France and Belgium most often associated with Tintin’s creator Hergé. Today Floc’h is one of the style’s most prominent practitioners with recurrent illustration assignments for The New Yorker, Elle, Le Monde, GQ and many other magazines, movie posters for directors such as Woody Allen, Mike Leigh and Alain Resnais and a large number of book covers.
“We are all here on this earth to do something, and it’s up to you to discover what your true role is.
Me, I am on earth to be Floc’h. My job is to be Floc’h.”
Lunch is, of course, delicious and the cozy room is made for talking about life and art. It was not randomly selected. Jean-Claude Floc’h – which is his full and real name – does not leave such choices to chance. He lets a ray of sunlight catch his well manicured left hand.
“Here begins my story,” he says, showing a thick signet ring in gold, decorated with a heraldic badge. The ring is a Cartier 1948, and the emblem is the very same that adorned his grandfather’s printing plant in northwestern France, where the Celtic language is still alive with distinct cultural strings to the British Isles. It seems like a reasonable explanation for his fascination with all things British, although he claims it started with number plates.
“When I was ten years old, I realized that the number plates on British cars were pure poetry and beauty compared to the terrible signs that adorned the cars in France. I felt ashamed of our number plates. Same thing with our flag compared to the Union Jack, or how beautiful British shop fronts are while ours are ugly.”
But, like so many probably have asked many times before, why don’t you live in London or Edinburgh that you love so much?
“I love caviar, but I don’t eat it every day,”
Floc’h explains with a shrewd smile.
“And London is not the same city it used to be. Nowadays it’s full of Frenchmen everywhere – and sunny too! And all the same shops everywhere, it’s so boring. ”
Floc’h’s love of Edinburgh is less bruised. A few years ago, Louis Vuitton offered Floc’h to illustrate the luxury brand’s own guide to the Scottish capital, one of several editions in an exclusive series of guidebooks. In addition to a generous fee Floc’h would be accommodated in the five-star Balmoral Hotel and let to roam freely around the city for three weeks.
“No thanks, I’m not a tourist guide”, Floc’h replied – to the publisher’s surprise and his wife’s despair: you must be completely daft, you love Edinburgh and Scotland!
Floc’h called back to Louis Vuitton and resumed negotiations. “Okay, I can take on the assignment if I also get to write the book. There must be words in the book, otherwise it will be just a flip chart. And besides, I also want my daughter with me.”
Louis Vuitton chose to accept Floc’h’s conditions. The result is a charming combination of travelogue and textbook, in which the author takes his daughter on a journey through Scottish history, from Viking times to the present day. Nothing is made up, everything is true. Floc’h himself plays the main character as in most of his books and illustrations. For it is his job to be Floc’h and reality is always more interesting than imagination. And people with imagination are boring.
Floc’h is chock-full of such statements. After a day in his company, ones notebook is full of drastic one-liners:
Whisky is for fat people who have too much time.
If you have a good eye your hearing is often bad.
My great artistic expectations go perfectly well with my laziness.
To be excited is ridiculous.
Money is a boring subject.
And the favorite theme par excellence:
Hollywood was fantastic as long as its directors were from Europe. Then came Steven Spielberg …
After a number of scattered hints and references, it becomes obvious that Floc’h loves to use Spielberg as analogy for everything that is bad, trite, uninteresting and stupid in contemporary culture. He goes into a lengthy lecture on director John Ford and his horizon line as the sign of a great artist – which Spielberg would never comprehend. But, Floc’h admits, it is also about the sheer pleasure of saying bad things about Spielberg.
The lunch has settled. Floc’h had a simple but elegant salad. Our conversation shall continue in the streets where the man who is not a tourist guide will show us some favorite places in his neighborhood. First the Delacroix museum in the house on Place de Furstenberg where the great painter and illustrator lived, then L’Hôtel on Rue des Beaux Arts where Oscar Wilde drew his last breath, and also where the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges always resided whenever he was in Paris.
The daughter, who now knows everything about Edinburgh, was born in Floc’h’s first marriage. Today he is married for the second time and wakes his wife Marion up each morning with breakfast in bed. Himself, he hates to sleep. Or as he puts it, to be in bed just to sleep. Marion is a researcher in Roman law, and has introduced “new modernity” in Floc’h’s otherwise rather anachronistic existence. Namely a computer and a professional knowledge of digital graphic design. Floc’h has neither computer, mobile phone, driving license, car and claims he has never owned a TV.
“Life is short and you have to choose. I only put things I like into my brain. I find it quite puzzling when people spend 2-3 hours a day watching TV. You can do so much in a day if you don’t waste time.”
The couple recently bought a summer house in Biarritz where Floc’h tries to live as a normal vacationer, without much success. He understands the concept of vacation just as little as he understands the concept of work.
“I do hate the idea of work. I never work but I always have something to do. Therefore, I don’t like being on holiday, it takes far too much time from more sensible things. I always do exactly what I want to do for the moment, and the illustrations don’t always win. ”
As an example, he tells of how Cartier contacted him in 2007 asking him to do illustrations for the launch of their now legendary watch Ballon Bleu. At the instant, Floc’h was fully occupied with carpentry that gave him so much pleasure that he was about to say no to the lucrative assignment.
He has always been sure of his own judgment, whether it corresponds with the general opinion or not.
Floc’h smiles almost triumphant. It’s so easy when you decide who you want to be in your own life. He talks about his newfound friendship with Jack Carlson, three time member of the national US rowing team, doctor of archeology at Oxford and author of the book “Rowing Blazers”, the definitive standard work on the blazer in both rowing and academia. Jack Carlson is 29 years old.
“We hit it off immediately. It was so simple, so perfect. We have the same approach to life,” says Floc’h, leaning on a quote from Voltaire himself:
“I decided to be happy because it’s good for my health.”
To regard Floc’h as a dandy or a fop is a normal human reaction, because he is generally more extravagant, expressive, expansive and extroverted than most.
Ever the gentleman, he takes that kind of categorization with elevated calm.
“People say I’m always elegant, but I say that I’m just being my usual, well-groomed self. I have a tailor and I shop clothes if I see something I like, but I already have everything. Sometimes I buy a tie, though I already have two hundred.”
“I do hate the idea of work.
I never work but I always have something to do.”
Beat on the brat,
beat on the brat,
beat on the brat
with a baseball bat,
In the company of Floc’h, it is easy to forget that he has not always been a 63-year-old man with trousers well above his waistline, well-polished welted shoes and a shiny watch chain. But later in the evening, at a completely different restaurant, he suddenly begins to sing the chorus from one of The Ramones classic punk songs: “Beat on the brat, beat on the brat, beat on the brat with a baseball bat, oh yeah!”. Soon his love of rock music creeps to the front, just as deep as his interest of beautiful art and classical culture.
“Rock music saved some of my life, too, with Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and other bands who were underground at the time. Back then we had no mobile phones or digital toys. But we had the girls, art and music. To be and not to have”, he cleverly sums up the subject. Underground as concept and direction is a thing of the past, according to Floc’h who is happy to talk about his longing for the virginity and innocence he recalls from the early years of art and culture. It was eventually broken by challenging artists, musicians and directors who certainly made great art (he mentions names like Lichtenstein, Warhol and Arthur Penn), but innocence is and remains broken. Says Floc’h while simultaneously going on about how he constantly wants to defy the habitual and conventional old habits. He has always been sure of his own judgment, whether it corresponds with the general opinion or not.
Already as a teenager, he turned and went in the opposite direction whenever he came upon a crowd of people. His tendency to do the opposite is well known, and almost as a kind of scientific proof he refers to a study he’d recently read about businessmen choosing to follow their inner voice and leaving the world of business in order to realize their true calling. The survey found that over 80 percent of those that take the step had great success in their new lives, and never wanted to go back.
But first a few words about nostalgia,
this misunderstood and misinterpreted concept so dear to Floc’h.
“I met an architect who said that the quality of a given project depends on its ability to create a sense of nostalgia. The word nostalgia in French means a happy and joyful feeling, a timeless quality that will retain its value over time. I’m not afraid of that word. You know that I’m not a modern person, but try to find a modern guy who is better than me at being happy. He would not have a chance! ”
Roaring laughter rolls around the room. The eccentric exhibitionist excels and we are still excited.
It is unclear whether anyone actually asks the question about which are the world’s best books, but Floc’h answers anyway:
“The best books? Not with me, boys. But you can get my own favorites in five minutes. I always read and often have multiple books going at once. I know exactly where I am in each book. And so here it is:
All my favorites reflects my two personalities; the seeking and the joie de vivre. Therefore, I love to listen to both Erik Satie and the Velvet Underground. I love to read “Finnegan’s Wake” by James Joyce, which is almost incomprehensible – but I also love … (pausing for effect) … P.G. Wodehouse!”
And thus we arrive at Floc’h’s next project, a real labour of love with his lifelong friends, the books in the centre. A book about 50 or so of the books he has read and loved all through his life, carefully selected, described and illustrated by a 63-year-old man who no longer has the slightest doubt about what he likes and has strong feelings about.
“Sometimes I sit alone reading and cry because I get so touched. When I presented the idea to my publisher, I had three people crying.
Because feelings are hot stuff…”
Writer: Anders Westgårdh
Photographer: Håkan Ludwigson