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Reviewed by:
  • Paul Vigné d’Octon, 1859–1943: les combats d’un esprit libre, de l’anticolonialisme au naturisme, and: Vigné d’Octon: un utopiste contre les crimes de la République
  • Roger Little
Paul Vigné d’Octon, 1859–1943: les combats d’un esprit libre, de l’anticolonialisme au naturisme. By Christian Roche. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2009. 173 pp., ill. Pb €16.50.
Vigné d’Octon: un utopiste contre les crimes de la République. By Marie-Joëlle Rupp. Préface de JEAN LACOUTURE. (Témoin et acteur). Paris: Ibis, 2009. 177 pp., ill. €16.00.

The sesquicentenary in 2009 of Vigné d’Octon’s birth, which these two biographies commemorate, provided a salutary reminder of this colourful and eccentric medical doctor, fiercely republican politician, virulent pamphleteer, multi-faceted novelist, and, towards the end of his life, militant naturist. He made selfless efforts to combat the 1893 cholera epidemic in the Hérault department, which he would later represent at various levels (up to the Assemblée nationale). His overlapping roles as novelist, politician, and pamphleteer legitimately interest us here, and while many of his novels can be categorized as regionalist, treating as they do various aspects of life in the Languedoc where he lived most of his life (taking his pen-name from his father’s village of Octon some 50 km west of Montpellier), others reflect his extended stay in West Africa. They incorporate some of his outspoken criticisms of French colonial practices developed both in parliamentary speeches and in two searing texts denouncing them: La Gloire du sabre and La Sueur du burnous. These books created a considerable stir on publication, in 1900 and 1911 respectively, and, having recently been republished, they tend to be his best-known works. They are based on officially supported ‘missions’ to North Africa, but that support was withdrawn when the ministerial authorities deemed their content unacceptable. A third work in a similar vein has proved elusive (see French Studies Bulletin, 30.113 (2009), 87–90): Terre à galons, listed in various bibliographies, purports to date from 1900, but while both of the present biographers refer to it as having appeared in Le Petit Méridional in the 1920s (Roche, p. 111; Rupp, p. 125), neither quotes from it or gives precise details to prove its existence. Vigné’s withdrawal from public life after 1911 afforded him time to concentrate on his writing, especially of reams of unpublished political and personal memoirs. It is on these, held at the Archives départementales de l’Hérault, that Christian Roche draws extensively for much of his evidence. Reliance on lengthy quotations from Vigné’s own accounts raises doubts, however: they do not always respect the distinction between fact and fiction. Roche provides thumbnail sketches of some of the politicians and other personalities with whom Vigné crossed swords (and that included many of his own left-wing persuasion as his sympathies evolved from republicanism through radical socialism to anarchism), and corroborates some evidence from material in the Senegalese national archives. But if his book is welcome, its readability is seriously impaired by atrocious proof-reading, and its critical apparatus is less than might be expected of an academic study. This last comment is also true of Marie-Joëlle Rupp’s book. Rather than delving into public archives, however, she seems to have relied largely on material provided by a descendant of her subject. Her use of Vigné’s serialized ‘Quarante ans de vie publique’ is more discreet than Roche’s: less prone to long quotation, she summarizes Vigné’s often florid prose and her choice of material interestingly complements Roche’s. So while both books shed some light on their maverick subject, they leave ample room for a full-scale biography of a fascinating character who in various respects is forgotten because he anticipated ideas that became current only decades later. [End Page 362]

Roger Little
Trinity College Dublin


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