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French spy novelist De Villiers dies at 83

Prolific spy novelist Gerard De Villiers, the creator of the top-selling SAS series with a hero often described as France's answer to James Bond, has died aged 83 in Paris.

French spy novelist De Villiers dies at 83
French spy thrillers writer and 'SAS' series book editor Gerard de Villiers poses in his home in 2007 in Paris. Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP

Prolific spy novelist Gerard De Villiers, the creator of the top-selling SAS series with a hero often described as France's answer to James Bond, has died aged 83 in Paris.

Friends and family said he had died on Thursday after being diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.

Never a darling of the critics, De Villiers was nonetheless a publishing phenomenon, claiming his thrillers sold up to 150 million copies worldwide.

The 200th book in the series — "SAS: The Kremlin's Revenge" — was released last month.

Instantly recognizable by their lurid covers inevitably featuring a femme fatale brandishing a handgun or assault rifle, his work was shunned by France's literary establishment.

But outside literary circles, De Villiers was often praised for his geopolitical insights and was known for cultivating a vast network of intelligence officials, diplomats and journalists who fed him information.

In a profile early this year headlined "The Spy Novelist Who Knows Too Much", The New York Times said his books were "ahead of the news" and "regularly contain information about terror plots, espionage and wars that has never appeared elsewhere".

His death came as he seemed on the verge of realizing a long-cherished dream of breaking into the English-language market, with reports he was working on a deal with a major US publisher.

In an interview with newspaper Le Monde this summer, De Villiers said Random House had offered him $350,000 (260,000 euros) for the rights to five SAS books that would be translated into English. He said he hoped the deal would eventually lead to Hollywood films.

De Villiers gleaned much of his information from field trips around the world, giving credence to the exploits of his aristocratic Austrian hero, Malko Linge, who works as a freelance agent for the CIA to fund the restoration of his family chateau.

The books stuck to a well-trod formula — fast-moving plots, exotic locales and generous doses of graphic sex.

"I never had any pretensions of being a literary writer," De Villiers told AFP in an interview this year. "I consider myself a storyteller who writes to amuse people."

He was also considered eerily prophetic, detailing a plot to kill the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat a year before his actual assassination in 1981 and describing a secret CIA command centre in the Libyan city of Benghazi in early 2012.

The true existence of the CIA site eventually came to light after an attack on US facilities in Benghazi in September 2012 that left four dead, including US ambassador Christopher Stevens.

His work was reportedly required reading in some intelligence circles and followed by spies far outside France.

"The (intelligence) services used SAS novels countless times to send messages to their counterparts," said De Villiers's longtime lawyer, Eric Morain.

Born in Paris on December 8, 1929, De Villiers was working as a journalist when he drew inspiration from the success of Ian Fleming's James Bond series to write his first novel, "SAS in Istanbul", in 1965.

He went on to publish an average of four SAS novels — so-called after Linge's honorific "Son Altesse Serenissime" (His Most Serene Highness) — every year, writing them over a month on an aged typewriter.

He was often lambasted for his right-wing views and his overtly sexual portrayals of women, and accused of racism.

But De Villiers was unapologetic.

"Some women are sexual objects in my books but others are beautiful, intelligent and brave. And I am always warmly welcomed in Africa, where I have very many readers," he said.

De Villiers's wife Christine said he had been undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer since May.

"The last weeks he was conscious but very weak. He could not endure the chemotherapy," she told AFP. "It is exactly the death that he did not want."

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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