The Malta Independent 23 February 2020, Sunday

How I Write - prof. alain blondy

Malta Independent Saturday, 20 March 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

For a French university professor, writing is an obligation. Indeed we are compelled to give only 125 hours of lectures a year, and it is research and publications, which are the key to promotion.

My academic career started more than 40 years ago, but since the beginning, I could not imagine myself confined between four academic walls, prestigious as the walls of the Sorbonne are. So, during 25 years, besides the work of professor, I also worked as a senior civil servant, either at the Ministry of Education or at the Ministry of Works. Writing was not, for me, and for many of my colleagues neither, a part of the job, but a respite from legislative or administrative work.

When I go to the Archives, to me the temple of research, I spend a whole day there and I leave when they are about to close. When I emerge into the streets, it takes a certain amount of time to leave the ghosts with whom I had lived for hours, in the archives behind me.

History, to my mind, has never been simply the tale of past events. Writing means to me retracing the life of forgotten friends with whom I had spent a while.

When I write, I isolate myself and I empty my brain of everything, which is contemporary. I choose a room without telephone and I switch off my mobile, so I can immerse myself in the past and have just to tap on my keyboard the words which come pouring out. I hate to be disturbed and woe betide those who would dare interrupt me!

I begin writing when the article or the book is ready in my mind. So, many weeks (if not many months) before, I think of the subject I shall treat and during the long hours we, poor Parisians are constrained to spend in the metro or the bus, organise my thoughts. This is the “summer” of my work, which ripens progressively. Then, when I estimate it to be ripe and rosy enough, I translate it into words. I write at a stretch to keep the homogeneity of my thoughts as intact as possible. I truly immerse myself in my subject.

So although this act of writing does not take too long, however, when I have finished, my brain is like a pumice stone, floating on everything, and I land in the present as if after taking speed.

For many days, I forget what I would have written. It is not unlike when one prepares pastry: one mixes flour, yeast, salt, and so on, and then leaves it to settle in a fresh corner of the kitchen. It is the same with my writing.

It is several days later that I turn back to what I have written and try to read it with new eyes and to correct it, because after all, the historian is not a philosopher, nor a writer, or a journalist. He does not have the pretension of writing what he thinks, but only of thinking of what he has to write. So writing is for me a very precious moment. I enjoy handing over to those who were too humble at the time to speak, because the history of a country is not only the history of its rulers but also, and perhaps mainly, the history of its people who were made to believe that the rulers were important.

I try to bring back to life all these poor actors whose lives were anonymous. I push them on a bridge between the past and the present and feel like a man who is very proud of his career and thinks of his humble ancestors while he sits down on an armchair and enjoys some ephemeral glory. I have brought to light those who were not important enough to give their name to a street or a square like many others and are largely forgotten by posterity. So, writing is for me a kind of religious moment (pontiff means “who make the bridge” and religion “what links up”).

However, I do not forget that I am also a professor of history and I try also to write, not to give my students the fruit of thoughts which are already overripe, but mainly historical documents and testimonies useful for their own research; because an academic is only a relay.

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