The soul of a child, Hergé
Georges Prosper Remi, better known to the world as Hergé, was born on 22 May 1907. A Belgian comic book artist with almost no formal training, he is best remembered for the enduring character of Tintin. The boy adventurer with his trusted dog, Snowy, at his side has captured the hearts and minds of children and adults across the world. Nevertheless, from Steven Spielberg’s 3D film to the controversy over Tintin au Congo, Tintin’s creator remains elusive. We offer a glimpse into the life and personality of the “father of Tintin” with an excerpt from Hergé by Pierre Assouline:
Hergé had retained the soul of a child and never had to put Tintin in perspective; they were the same age. He considered Che Guevara a hero of Scouting. He was superstitious, having his fortune read on the eve of making a major decision. He consulted fortune-tellers, believed in auguries and the evil eye, and was drawn to the esoteric and paranormal. He believed himself different from the ordinary, which is perhaps why he looked on the royal family with both respect and a secret sense of identification.
He felt more a native of Brussels than a true Walloon and above all else was francophone. When in an exuberant good mood he spoke the Brussels dialect with a strong accent. He worried about the future of his country; he believed in the unity of the Belgian nation and was distressed to see signs of its coming apart. He became increasingly critical of his fellow countrymen, in the same way that he would not stand for shoddy workmanship. He often used the uneven pavement of the alley behind Avenue Louise as a metaphor of this. He was too much of a perfectionist to love his country without reservation. And yet, paradoxically, he was the personification of Belgium.
He had always been haunted by the fear of ending up like his mother, locked in a home for the clinically depressed. She had languished there much of her life, her condition untreatable, in the clinic of Doctor Titeca, a name that could not be pronounced in Hergé’s presence because it stirred up such painful memories. He was especially anguished by the specter of old age, easily becoming despondent about the future. His optimism hid a tragic vision of life. He did not have a vocation for happiness.
His friends did not know everything about him. Each knew only a portion of the truth, though he never compartmentalized his relationships. Rare were those to whom he opened himself up. There were certain subjects that were taboo and never mentioned in his presence, such as his mysterious grandfather and the last years of his mother. Another was children.
Officially, of course, he liked children. He even held them in high esteem, as his correspondence testifies. In the minds of most people, “Hergé” meant “children.” The image of his hero was superimposed on his own, and sometimes substituted for it. However, as his colleagues at the Studios knew, he systematically refused school visits. And it happened that he treated children who spontaneously came to greet him with impatience. One day, irritated by the noise of children playing in the courtyard of a special education school located just behind the Studios, he went to the police station and filed a complaint.
In all these cases these were other people’s children. “What I dislike the most are all these little babies and these old ladies,” he once said. When Numa Sadoul asked him if he thought of Tintin as his son, he answered, “That’s possible. I nourished and raised him. But despite all that, I think that I am enough of an adult to do without adopted children.” He erased these lines and replaced them with innocuous comments about being the father of Tintin.
In the early fifties, finding his brother Paul’s behavior toward his family completely irresponsible, Hergé proposed to legally adopt Paul’s two young children. He would see to their needs and give them a solid education, which they were missing, according to him. But their mother refused.
Much later, in 1978, there appeared a surrogate son. Hergé had taken on a second secretary to assist with his daily tasks. Alain Baran, the son of his old friend Dominique de Wespin, was born in 1951 and had recently left the world of dance. Though two generations apart, Hergé and Alain worked so well together that the young man soon represented Hergé in business matters. Hergé trusted him as if he were a member of the family. Their relationship became filial. Hergé had watched Alain, who had lost his father at an early age, grow up, and there was even talk in the Studios of an adoption. Some wondered if Alain were an illegitimate son. Baran found this so flattering that he did not deny it.
All this highlighted the fact that the only thing Hergé had not created was a real family. Twice married (he married Fanny in 1977), Hergé never had children. Germaine and Fanny both wanted to have a family. The problem was that Hergé was sterile due to the secondary effects of the use of radiation to treat a severe rash. It remained his secret. If he suffered from it, it was never enough to make him consult a doctor and seek treatment. Even with his intimate partners he avoided the subject. Yet it makes it easier to understand what a number of his friends knew, without ever admitting it openly: the father of Tintin did not like children, didn’t know how to behave toward them.
One of the most beloved characters in all of comics, Tintin won an enormous international following. Translated into dozens of languages, Tintin’s adventures have sold millions of copies. Yet, despite Tintin’s enduring popularity, Americans know almost nothing about his gifted creator, Georges Remi–better known as Hergé. Granted unprecedented access to thousands of the cartoonist’s unpublished letters, author Pierre Assouline gets behind the genial public mask to take full measure of Hergé’s life and art and the fascinating ways in which the two intertwine. Pierre Assouline is a prominent French journalist and writer. His has written several novels as well as acclaimed biographies of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and detective novelist Georges Simenon. He is also a film producer and was the 2007 winner of the prestigious Prix de la Langue Française. Translator Charles Ruas is the author of Conversations with American Writers and a frequent contributor to ArtNews and Art in America.