A farmer whose romantic commitment made him an author of tremendously popular bestsellers, Claude Michelet died on May 26 in Brive-la-Gaillarde (Corrèze), on the eve of his 84th birthday.

Even if he was born, the last of seven siblings, on May 30, 1938, in Brive, nothing destined him to return there as an adult. Admittedly, his ancestors settled there in the middle of the 19th century, but it was then a playground for hunters and the place, only accessible by mule tracks, remained without comfort, without heating or running water, when the his mother’s enthusiasm made it a summer vacation spot that contrasted with the Parisian life of the family.

This home base proved precious when the year 1940 led the family to a strategic retreat. His father, Edmond, a prosperous food trader, took up residence in Paris, but it was from Brive that he fought on June 17, 1940, then was arrested by the Gestapo one morning in February 1943. He did not return from Dachau until two years later, promoted by his commitment to the rank of baron of Gaullism, and logically appointed under de Gaulle, then Pompidou, to the highest ministerial functions. Claude attended posh Catholic schools in Paris, but was bored and preferred boarding at the Lancosme agricultural school (Indre). Finally, his parents give in and accept this choice of land.

“Tough and true language”

Called to Algeria under the contingent, the aspiring farmer returned after twenty-seven months, in 1960, took over a 20-hectare farm and settled six Limousin cows there. At the cost of an unfailing commitment, the business prospers, but Claude also intends to make his voice heard. By the pen.

The literary commitment of Claude Michelet is not so surprising when we know that his grandfather, doctor Fernand Vialle, created in Brive in 1901 a literary review, La Brise, where poems by Francis Carco appeared, later the first poems of Georges-Emmanuel Clancier and texts by Michel Peyramaure.

When very young, Claude devoured Hector Malot, Alphonse Daudet and Robert Louis Stevenson, Henri Barbusse and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. And the taste for reading is doubled, as an adult, by that of writing. He, who writes without lukewarm editorials in professional journals, tries his hand at the novel, “for fun”. Seven or eight, including two whodunnits, all of which were refused and burned without remorse in the fireplace. Until the publication of The Earth that Remains (1965), then, above all, of The Great Wall (Julliard, 1969), praised by the serialist of Le Monde, Pierre-Henri Simon, for his “thick and true language”, his story “original in invention and gripping in meaning”.

But success is slow. His defense and illustration of his profession as a farmer, I chose the earth (1975), received a promising welcome, but it was the publication of Les Grives aux loups (Laffont, 1979) that changed the situation. Little critical reception but very favorable word-of-mouth – the recent success of Pierre-Jakez Hélias’ autobiography, Le Cheval d’orgueil (Plon, 1975), has reawakened interest in a fading rurality – ordered reprints, and winning the Prix des Libraires 1980 amplified the reputation of the work. Will follow Les doves no longer pass (1980), L’Appel des goulevents (1990) and La Terre des Vialhe (1998), all published by Robert Laffont and composing the saga of the People of Saint-Libéral, an imaginary village which is the transfer of Perpezac-le-Blanc (Corrèze), village of his wife, Bernadette, where their marriage was celebrated in April 1961.

Popular success, all the more insolent as the Parisian critics ignored it, led Claude Michelet to undertake another novelistic project with a broader horizon since Sous le soleil des Andes, the Leyrac saga (Les Promesses du ciel et de la terre, 1985, Pour un arpent de terre, 1986, Le Grand Sillon, 1988 and La Nuit de Calama, 1994) – all still published by Robert Laffont – set sail for Andean America, Chile and the Panamanian isthmus , at the time of the opening of the channel.

Leader of the Brive school

A very sustained pace of publication, which is explained by the sudden change that reorients the life of Claude Michelet. The man who, a farmer by day, wrote by night, had to give up his job as a breeder in 1982, following a heart attack. Freeing up his time for writing and broadening his horizons both geographically and chronologically, with scrupulous documentation.

This admirer of the medievalist Georges Duby will dare, in addition to Histories of the peasants of France (Robert Laffont, 1996), echo of the monumental sum History of rural France, a novel on Benedictines who undertake to revive a monastery in the abandoned at the time of the Viking invasions (Les Défricheurs d’éternité, Robert Laffont, 2000).

Rebellious to labels, he was promoted, by an editor’s trick relayed by the press anxious to give outlines to the new craze for “terroir novels”, to the rank of leader of a school of Brive which would link Christian Signol, Michel Peyramaure, Gilbert Bordes, Denis Tillinac and a few others. He only subscribes to it if these “letters of nobility” disqualify the pejorative side that marginalized them.

A free spirit that no contract ever constrained, he knew how to seduce a vast readership without ever renouncing to denounce the mistakes of those who, in Paris as in Brussels, misunderstood the dramas of the rural world that everyone measures today. Very late.