Vallès was born Louis-Jules Vallez in Puy-en-Velay, in the Auvergne, in France, on June 11, 1832. Vallès’s last name was wrongly entered on his birth certificate, and in young adulthood he embraced this mistake and used it as a revolt against his father.
Jules’s father was a pion, a teaching assistant or class supervisor who descended from a farming family, and pursued a career as a teacher in order to obtain social status. He was never able to rise above the lowest level of the teaching profession. His mother came from a peasant family of even lower social standing. The family atmosphere was one of bitterness. This was in the context of a France ruled by Louis–Phillippe known as the “bourgeois king” who defended the interests of that class and called on people to enrich themselves. This is what the Vallez family sought to do but with little success.
From an early age Jules was brutally beaten by his mother and these beatings continued into his teens. Later on his father started administering beatings too. At the same time his father made sure that he received a classical education, as part of the family plan for social aspiration, and as a child Jules was an excellent student, doing very well in Greek, Latin and rhetoric. Jules was deeply unhappy at home, but inwardly he harboured a spirit of resistance to the harshness and cruelty of his life. It was not surprising that he was to develop as an intransigent enemy of authority and oppression, that he was to generalise his own desire for kindness, freedom and justice to freedom and justice for all. He also developed caustic and cutting senses of humour and irony which sustained him through his childhood and indeed the rest of his life.
Jules witnessed with enthusiasm the fall of Louis-Phillippe whilst in Nantes. The establishment of the Second Republic led on to an uprising of the workers and Jules’ enthusiasm turned from delight to consternation as he saw captured workers being marched down the street, especially in the wake of the 1848 uprising of students, artisans, and unemployed workers in Paris. He took part in the unrest of 1848, joining a republican circle and putting forward motions, tellingly, on the abolition of the baccalaureate and the absolute liberty of childhood. He increasingly rebelled against his father’s insistence on the need to pass the baccalaureate and pursue a career in teaching.
He was sent to Paris in September 1848 to study. He became increasingly involved in republican groups. He had a deep seated love for the masses, for the downtrodden and oppressed. At the same time he rejected revolutionary idols such as Robespierre and was later to write that he was the elder brother of Bonaparte, that is a betrayer of the Revolution. He similarly disliked another idol of the republican revolutionaries, Rousseau, who he regarded as a hypocrite.
He increasingly neglected his studies and by necessity started living a bohemian existence. With the coup d’etat by Louis Napoleon in 1851, Vallès attempted to rally resistance and fought on one of the rare barricades at that time. Fleeing to Nantes, he ended up being sent to a mental asylum by his father. This may have been to protect him from pursuit by the authorities, but nevertheless Jules managed to be released early next year. He then passed his baccalaureate and returned to Paris. However he could not obtain any worthwhile job and returned to a bohemian existence, becoming part of the expanding “intellectual proletariat” of the period, graduates unable to obtain work and forced into unemployment or low-paid jobs.
He tried to get a job as a bricklayer but was rejected, the employer realising that he was educated. He worked at a number of secretarial and tutoring jobs and started writing to obtain the odd bit of money, putting his hand to dictionary entries (where he made up literary references!), jingles, tour guides, and articles in newspapers. It should be remembered that Louis Napoleon who had now proclaimed himself Napoleon III, kept a tight grip on the press and all articles were heavily censored.
Jules’s father died in 1857 and he was deeply affected by this. Despite the harsh treatment he had received from his parents, he still retained a love for them and was to recognise in his novel Le Bachelier (The Graduate) that his father was just as much a victim of exploitation as himself and others.
Vallès continued to be involved in republican activity and in several abortive plots against Louis Napoleon. He became an admirer of the thinker Proudhon, opposing himself to Jacobin currents. He had a fierce hatred of religion and of the police and this often got him into trouble. He got various jobs working for liberal dailies and produced a book called L’Argent (Money), financed by an industrialist, which made out it was about how to use the stock exchange but was in fact a disguised attack on finance that was full of sarcasm and irony.
Vallès became an early pioneer of reportage, writing a series of articles in various papers on Les Irreguliers (The Irregulars), people marginalised by society and including musicians, tumblers, jugglers and boxers. He also began a series on Les Réfractaires (Objectors) people like him who refused to follow the careers they were meant to, bohemian outcasts who lived lives on the edge.
Vallès was a great walker and used his observations of street life to put together a number of articles that were collated in the 1866 book La Rue (The Street). Between 1867 and 1871 he established seven newspapers that had short lives because they were shut down by the authorities because of what were seen as subversive articles. In fact Vallès served a sentence of a month in prison and then later in the same year of 1868, two months of prison for his articles.
Vallès opposed himself to the outbreak of the war between Prussia and France in 1870, standing as one of the minority against the mass war hysteria. The war was disastrous for the French regime and Napoleon III was overthrown. The new regime at Versailles attempted to remove artillery paid for by public subscription from the heights of Montmartre. This led on to the declaration of the Paris Commune in that year of 1871.
He was one of the editors of L’Affiche Rouge (The Red Poster) which proclaimed the Commune in January 1871. He founded a new paper Le Cri Du Peuple (The Cry of The People) which became very popular in Paris and he served on the education commission of the Commune. He was one of the minority who opposed the setting up of a Committee of Public Safety (shades of the hated Robespierre!) alongside others like the painter Gustave Courbet and the worker Eugene Varlin (see Organise!77 for a biography of Varlin). The Committee banned all newspapers and Le Cri was one of those shut down, despite its revolutionary message of self-organisation. During the Bloody Week of May 1871 which led to the crushing of the Commune and shootings of thousands of Communards, Vallès fought on the barricades up to the last.
He fled to London in October, and was sentenced to death in his absence. He spent nine years in London, often in dire circumstances. There he started writing the first book of what was to become his masterpiece, the Jacques Vingtras trilogy. This was L’Enfant (The Child) where he described his unfortunate childhood. He dedicated the book “to all those who were bored stiff at school or reduced to tears at home, who in childhood were bullied by their teachers or thrashed by their parents”. Despite the scenes of brutality the book is laced with humour and brimming with humanity.
After the amnesty for the Communards in 1880, Vallès returned to Paris and began publishing works he had written in exile, including Le Bachelier (The Graduate) dedicated to “those who nourished by Greek and Latin are dead of hunger”. This book has never been translated into English unlike the other two books of the trilogy. In this writer’s opinion it stands as tall as the other two books, describing a bohemian existence, often with days without food, an experience that was lived not just by Vallès but by many other members of the “intellectual proletariat”. It has not received as much recognition as it should.
Vallès now began to suffer from the years of ill-treatment and bad diet and contracted diabetes. He died after many weeks of pain, saying on his deathbed that “I have suffered very much” a comment that could be applied as much to his whole life as to his last days. A few days before his death the hated police raided the flat where he was being nursed, even searching under the mattress where he lay. We can imagine that Vallès might have appreciated the irony of this event!
The funeral of Vallès was attended by 10,000 and the appearance of the coffin greeted by cries of “Long Live the Commune! Long Live the Social Revolution! Long Live Anarchy!”
The third book of the trilogy was released after his death. This is L’Insurgé (The Insurrectionist) which describes Vallès’s growing powers as a writer and the unfolding and then crushing of the Commune. It is dedicated “To the dead of 1871. To all those who, victims of social injustice, took up arms against a badly made world and formed the great federation of sorrows beneath the flag of the Commune.”
Vallès deserves to be discovered. His literary innovations pre-dated many modern writers like Sarraute, Céline, Queneau, and Beckett. He is a thoroughly modern writer, with his self-referencing and his ironic asides addressed to himself. He speaks to us over the centuries, to all of us who feel profoundly ill at ease in this society, who are agonised by injustice and inequality. He celebrates the resistance of the human being to such injustice and inequality. As Charles Stivale wrote in 1992 Vallès “forcefully introduces the possibility of resistance and the necessity of history.”