In the summer of 1974 I was staying with some friends in Lausanne, high above the lake in the east of the town on Avenue de l’Esplanade. One day I walked out to the village of Pully, where by chance there was an exhibition on the surrealist poet Paul Éluard - about whom I knew nothing - in a barn-shaped room/building in the centre of the village, as far as I remember. I went in, was enthralled by the beauty and passion of his voice reading poems over the loudspeakers, especially his deeply emotional renditions of ‘Courage’ and ‘Liberté’, and was also fascinated by the books, manuscripts and letters by him and his friends on display. His friends included Picasso, André Breton and Louis Aragon; his great love Gala later became the wife of Max Ernst, and then of Salvador Dali.
Being Switzerland, the exhibition closed for lunch at 12.00pm while I was still looking around (the only “customer”) and a very kind oldish man obviously happy to see someone enjoying it all apologised for the closing and invited me to join him and the staff for lunch in a restaurant nearby. He turned out to have been a personal friend of Éluard, who he had met during the Resistance. He had helped to organise the exhibition, drank a lot of red wine during lunch, and told me stories about their times together.
His name was Claude Roy, and during lunch, which went on until 2pm, he generated in me an enthusiasm for Éluard which I still possess. From that day, when I bought several books and records, only one survives in rather frail condition, fortunately the best, Au Rendez-vouz Allemand (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1945, with the bonus of a pen-and-ink portrait of Éluard by Picasso). More recently, I discovered that Claude Roy had been - like many French communists of the time - on a trip to China in the early Fifties and had written a book about it, Clefs pour la Chine (Gallimard, 1953). I wish I'd been interested in China then, so that I could have asked some questions!
There is a deeper understanding of Chinese people and culture - not to mention sheer good sense and empathy - in these 400 pages written during and after a journey of a few weeks than I have seen in many books by sinologists and "experts" who have spent much longer there. Not only did he meet Zhou Enlai, but he dined with the singer Mei Langfang - who I discover was also a well-known calligrapher.
This morning in Beijing I found and immediately bought a lovely copy of the English translation, the first edition hardback complete with the colourful original dust jacket, Into China (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1955). Battered but beautiful; clean and perfect between the covers.