‘The narrator of Chien de printemps could not have chosen a more mysterious and elusive subject for his biographical project than Francis Jansen. ’ Discuss. This novel opens up with the simple straightford lines « J’ai connu Francis Jansen quand j’avais dix-neuf ands, au printemps de 1964, et je veux dire aujourd’hui le peu de choses que je sais de lui. » the author’s intent is to put down in black and white all his memorys of jansen. He wants to catagorise, and organize his memories and by making them tangiable he feels that in doing this they will be reaffirmed.
His time spent with jansen was so brief, yet significant and he wants to validate his memories to try and gain some closure from this elusive mentor figure that he had known when he was young. The author always had a passion for organizing things, and we can see this as he volunteers himself to categorize all of jansens photos which are strewn haphazard between 3 suitcases. it was while doing this job that the author began to get close to jansen and admire him immensely.
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This novel has no chapters, it is formed from a series of memories, each of different length all strung together and giving us snapshots of information from the author’s past. In fact, reading this novel is much like leafing through a photo album. In a photo we see a frozen memory that is boarded on all sides and in this novel we are given snippets of information here and there and must essentially fill in the blanks ourselves to complete the story. Jansen is a very mysterious character throughout this novel and we never gain a true insight into his complex personality.
From the mere glimpses we are shown we may deduce that jansen is a very solitary man who enjoys his own company. He is minimalistic in his decor and does not care for material possessions. We can also see that he is a different man from who he used to be. It is clear to us that jansen has lost his spark, his enthusiasm and his joie-de-vivre. As the story progresses it becomes apparent to us that jansen was only ever truly close to 2 people in his life, his mentor in photography Robert Capa and his lover Collette Laurant.
Unfortunately both of these people died in circumstances unbeknownst to us and it is clear that jansen has never been the same since. In losing these people he lost what he cares about most in the world. Jansen slips into a form of depression and isolation which he describes as ‘trous noires. ’ He loses interest in the world and doesn’t even like contact from other people- no phne calls, no answering the door. Jansen is a very private person and as few friends so it is no surprise then, that the author finds so it so difficult to get jansen to open up to him. Jansen is the polar opposite to ‘la lumiere natural qui baignait chacune de ses photos’ as he himself is shorouded in mystery. We can, however gain many clues into this ambiguous character through thorough examination of the text. Jansen’s atelier provides many clues about this character. His decor is minimalistic with only a few sofa’s and pictures in the room, whether this minimalism is by choice or by lack of money we are never told.
He has no whiskey left to offer the author a drink which would suggest that he does not have much money, although later in the novel we learn that he frequently checks into a hotel for nights at a time which would cost a lot! This shows that once we think we are on track for discovering a bit about jansen and being able to pin him down in our minds, something else will be uncovered which will discredit our theory entirely. In jansens apartment there hangs a picture of him and Capa. From reading jansens expression we see that he is ‘timide et melancolique, et ne semblait pas tout a fait a son aise. Capa has his hand on his shoulder and ‘on aurait dit qui’il le soutenait. ’ Although we never find out the circumstances of jansens unhappy adolescence this portrait provides us with the key to jansens love and affity for his mentor Robert Capa. It is ironic then that now jansen is ‘une sorte de double de Capa’ who now has a protige of his own. There is a lot of similarity in fact, including the ages of the author when he started working for jansen and jansen when he started working with capa.
Also as the novel progresses we can see that in both cases, once the mentor figure is taken away from from the protige, darkness and confusion become a dominant feature of their lives. ‘moi aussi il m’est souvent arrive de tomber dans des trous noirs…’ Throughout his time spent with jansen the author learns various facts about jansen’s life which he is able to recall and write down… ‘il etait ne en 1920 a Anvers…sa mere et lui avaient la nationalite italienne…il a passe quelques annees d’etudes a Bruxelles… but these mere facts do not satisfy the author.
He knows the facts and that’s it. What he craves to know is the person and he is using this ‘biographical project’ on jansen in order to piece together all the information he has in order to get some kind of answers. This does prove difficult for him as jansen is a difficult person to get information from – ‘il se replia de plus en plus sur lui meme…c’etait un home qui parlait peu. ’ Jansen did not reveal much information about himself to the author, in fact ‘la qualite qu’il possedait dans son art et dans la vie qui est si precieuse mais si dificile a acquerir: garder le silence. Une photographie peut exprimer le silence, mais un ecrivan utilise les mots pour s’exprimer. It is mentioned in the novel que ‘de tout les caracteres d’imprimerie, il [jansen] m’avait dit qu’il preferait les points de suspension’ this is mirrored in his life when we see him leave the author on a point of suspension when he departs for mexico. This suspense and unfinished business is what contributes to the inspiration of the author to write the book. It proves increasingly difficult for the author to understand francis jansen.
His photos seem to serve as a painful reminder of something in his past ‘je ne supporte plus de les voir…chacune de ces photos etait pour moi un remords…il vaut mieux faire table rase. ’ He carries immense burden with him which has caused him to lose his joie de vivre and become a very complex person. Although no definitive explanation to the reason behind this is offered, it is strongly suggestedque ‘c’est peut-etre a cause de certains eventements de sa vie…’ His whole life fell apart when he lost his lover collete laurant and his dear friend and mentor Robert Capa.
Their deaths ‘avaient produit une cassure dans sa vie’ and now his life seems to have no importance or purpose. We see that jansen is becoming increasingly depressed and losing interest in life. Il excerce de moins en moins son metier. ’ He wants to start anew. He wants to escape. It is so difficult for the author to find out about jansens past because jansen himself is trying to forget but the author wants to remember.
Finally, 30 years later, the author successfully collects all his thoughts and experiences of jansen and finally puts them on paper, in doing this he begins to contemplate and think and it suddenly becomes clear to him why jansen left the way he did. Jansen pensait qu’un photographe n’est rien, qu’il doit se fondre dans le decor et devinir invisible pour mieux travailler et capter ‘la lumiere naturelle’ he pulls away from people because the best way to experience life is to ‘fondre dans le decor’ and observe and quietly appreciate things without a fuss.
His life was dedicated to fighting the bleakness of reality with photography and jansen found that the only way to find ‘natural light’ both in terms of photographs and indeed happiness in life is to remain silent and in the background. After realizing this, the author is finally at peace and can, at least to some extent, comprehend the person that was the elusive Francis Jansen.