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In April 1960, Gallimard, the most influential literary publisher in France, released a new novel, La Route Bleue (The Blue Road). Gallimard promoted the novel as a migration romance set in a strange land — Australia.

La Route Bleue’s author, Hélène Bessette, was an award-winning but controversial French avant-garde novelist, poet and literary theorist. Her Sydney novel is based on her own experiences living and working in the city between 1948 and 1949. In the first six months of 1949, Bessette lived in a boarding house not far from Hurlstone Park railway station, in Sydney’s Inner West. Every morning, Hélène rose early to travel by tram along New Canterbury Road to work at the Colgate-Palmolive factory in Balmain.

In her nine months living in Sydney, Hélène Bessette crisscrossed the city from east to west and north to south, walking or travelling by car, train, tram and ferry. The urban geography and landscape of Sydney is embedded into the literary structure of her novel. There are sections called ‘Le banc de Nelson Park’ (Nelson — rather than the correct Nielsen — park bench) and ‘Le Botanic’ (Botanic Gardens), where main characters Emera and Joris have some of their most intense conversations. Smaller chapters nestled within those sections have names including Maroubra, Balmain, Parramatta, Pymble and the misspelt Eartwood. A very floral, leafy North Shore features: Chatswood, Roseville, Killara, Gordon, Pymble, Turramurra. Autant de fleurs dans la verdure. Autant de jeunes filles en fleurs. Autant de villes en fleurs parees pour la douceur de vivre. (‘So many flowers within the greenery. So many young girls in bloom. So many suburbs in bloom, adorned to be ready for life’s sweetness.’)

In the novel, as in real life, the ‘poetic romance’ between two young French migrants, Joris and Emera, is doomed to fail. The bisexual Joris is not only involved with Emera, but with Jeff, an older Australian man, and Maggy, a young Australian woman. Emera, exhausted by the sexual and emotional complications of the relationship, takes ‘la route bleue’ — the long sea voyage back to France.

Who was Hélène Bessette and why was her Sydney novel forgotten in Australia?

There’s really no mystery because, until the early twenty-first century, Hélène Bessette’s literary career was also forgotten in France. In August 2021, the French newspaper Le Monde published a double-page profile of Bessette headlined, ‘Hélène Bessette, ecrivaine avant-gardiste devoree par ses demons’. (‘Hélène Bessette, avant-garde writer devoured by her demons.’) Journalist Luc Bronner noted that she died at the age of 82, anonymous after a poor, sick, forgotten end of life without a line in the newspapers, including Le Monde, where his article about Bessette appeared. In his final paragraph, he repeated one of Bessette’s memorable comments to her children: ‘Je serai reconnue cinquate ans apres ma mort’. (‘I will be recognised 50 years after my death.’)

Bessette published 13 novels, books of poetry, a radio drama and a play. In 1954 she’d won a literary prize, the Prix Cazes, for her novel Lili Pleure and been twice runner-up for the prestigious Prix Goncourt. In the 1950s and 1960s, she was a prominent member of the post-war French literary avant-garde, but her work often frustrated her supporters. Novelist and critic Alain Bosquet wrote in 1959 that Hélène Bessette did not have ‘the patience to write like everyone else’, which may or may not have been a compliment.

After her death in October 2000, her children found boxes of unpublished poems, stories, letters, memoirs and photographs. Since her death, her literary reputation has been restored by a dedicated group of writers who call themselves ‘Bessettians’. One prominent member, critic Julien Doussinault, wrote a biography of Bessette, published in 2008. In late 2019 he told me that if I wanted more information about Hélène Bessette’s time in Australia I should contact her son, Patrick Brabant. Patrick was only a baby in 1948 when his mother left him, and his older brother Eric, with a Kanak nanny in Nouméa. Hélène had arrived in New Caledonia in 1946 to live with her husband, Protestant missionary Rene Brabant. (In Sydney she went by her married name Brabant.) She obtained permission from Baptist missionaries in Nouméa to travel to Australia for medical treatment after a miscarriage.

Vintage passport open to personal information page with a picture.

Hélène Brabant’s passport, with New Caledonia stamp. Courtesy Patrick Brabant.

Among her letters is a remarkable literary and personal correspondence with an older woman she met when she lived in Sydney. Anne-Marie Haslett, Swiss born and French speaking, lived with her husband, Thomas Haslett, in Roseville on Sydney’s North Shore. After Bessette returned to France in late 1949, she corresponded with Haslett about the origins of her Sydney-based novel, and her personal problems, for the next 20 years.

The Hasletts were Presbyterian social activists involved in the Young Christian movement. Former missionaries in Shanghai in the early 1930s, where they ran a school, they left because of political turmoil caused by war and revolution. In Bessette’s memoirs she describes the impact of their time in China, mentioning the Chinese furniture in their home, which she said lent ‘une ambiance de haute culture’.

Tom Haslett was headmaster at Knox College for a short period and later taught at another exclusive boys’ school, Scotch College. Hélène’s relationship with the Hasletts takes us into a powerful and little-known world, ‘le Protestante voie’ — the Protestant way. Since the 1930s, Tom Haslett had been the Sydney contact for the seemingly endless number of Protestant missionaries heading for the South Pacific to compete with Catholic missionaries for the souls of the people there.

In June 1958, Hélène wrote to Anne-Marie about what she was writing. She had settled on a name for a new novel of 200 pages, ‘uniquely about Sydney’, she said. Contrary to her friend’s advice she said she wanted to stick with the approach of her earlier books and thought she might ‘risk doing something interesting if I continued in the same vein’. That book with its surreal, poetic and what we might call queer overtones was, of course, La Route Bleue.

For many decades, I worked at ABC Radio National as an investigative journalist and documentary maker. I started there in 1975 and, in those pre-internet days, doing research meant lots of phone calls, and digging at libraries. One day, idly browsing while waiting at the UNSW library, I spotted a now-defunct Monash University literary journal, Margin. What attracted me was an essay by Patricia Clancy, an Australian academic and translator in French studies, called ‘Hélène Bessette’s Land of Smiles: The Utopian Image of Post-war Sydney in La Route Bleue’. Clancy’s description of the novel, with its wildly utopian vision of Sydney after the war, fascinated me. Who was Bessette and why wasn’t the novel better known?

Clancy wasn’t to blame for the lack of biographical background about the subject of her article because, as I would discover, by the 1980s Hélène Bessette had become a literary non-person in France.

I searched for a copy of the novel in second-hand bookshops without success. Given La Route Bleue was set in Australia, I knew one place where I was certain to find it: the State Library of NSW. The Library was my first employer and funded my university education while I worked there during summer vacations between 1970 and 1972. Sure enough, the Library is one of two libraries in the country that holds a copy of La Route Bleue. The stamp on the inside cover notes the book was acquired in 1962, just two years after its publication by Gallimard.

I could now read what Patricia Clancy had described as a ‘utopian image of post-war Sydney’. But as the decades passed, I filed away ‘Hélène Bessette’s Land of Smiles’, expecting that someone with better knowledge of the French language than me would pick up Clancy’s brilliant article and write something more about this unusual surrealist prose poem. Even though Bessette's book is written in French, it is interspersed with her unique version of Australian colloquial English.

Patricia Clancy had written in her 1986 article that Bessette was ‘not interested in presenting a realistic picture of Sydney’. Actions, and descriptions of people and place, are not presented realistically or systematically, but through disconnected scenes, impressionistic writing, fragmented thoughts and conversations.

Clancy was less interested in taking apart Bessette’s literary style than in finding out how Bessette had created her ‘Land of Smiles’ in post-war Sydney. Of Bessette’s happy workers, singing and dancing on the factory floor, or the general happy disposition of every Australian or ‘English’ person, as Bessette called Australians, Clancy wrote ‘All this is written with no hint of irony’ but ‘rather with a sense of wonderthat such a simple, happy existence could be possible.’

Characters Joris and Emera’s angst about their life as outsiders in Sydney is compared to the Australian middle and working classes, who seem to be smiling and happy all the time. Clancy concluded that Bessette is ‘idealising and romanticising life in and around a big city in a settled country, albeit the Antipodes, whose remoteness allows for the exotic in the French mind, even today’.

Clancy considered La Route Bleue’s ‘Balmain’ chapter to be the most romanticised in the novel, calling it ‘Almost a poem with questions and answers in English’. At the time, the Colgate-Palmolive factory in Balmain, now an apartment complex, was one of the largest employers in Sydney. In early 1949, Hélène Bessette wrote to her sister in France, ‘Did I tell you I’m working?’ ‘Je suis ouvrière chez Palmolive.’ Her job, she said, was filling jars of cream.

Bessette got the job through her close friend Andre Cayrol who, although registered as a student, worked at the factory along with other French New Caledonian migrants. Work started at 8 am and Hélène had to make the journey by tram from Hurlstone Park to Balmain.

In 1949, the year Hélène worked at the Colgate- Palmolive factory, the Australian photo magazine PIX ran an article called ‘The Make-Up Factory’ that shows a young woman filling pots with cream. This task was allocated to all new workers and, because of Hélène’s lack of English, it was the only job for her.

She stayed at the factory for six months because, she said, ‘I felt good there’. But when she arrived, Bessette had a lot to be unhappy about. Her letters to her sister talk about her plans to bring her two boys to Australia, and how her relationship with Andre was complicated by his other friendships, male and female. But Hélène enjoyed working at the Colgate Factory, and her enjoyment is reflected in the Balmain chapter of La Route Bleue, where Bessette’s version of Australian English clashes with stream-of-consciousness thoughts in French about the meaning of love:

Emera sings a song and every girl sings a song.
With the wareless.
‘Let us [missing word] the rest of the world go by’
A marvellous song.
Listen the girls working in music ….
D’nt work anymore dear, that’s tea time.
Dear! I am so tired ! D’nt work anymore.
Come on love, we are your friends.
Toute la vie a ‘Palmolive factory’
Balmain, Sydney, NSW

Having read Bessette’s own letters and memoirs, it’s difficult to disagree with Patricia Clancy’s depiction of Bessette’s utopian image of post-war Sydney. Blackouts are mentioned but there’s no sense of political or social divisions and tensions, no mention of the poverty — food rationing, strikes, the rising fear of communism.

Scene from the Colgate-Palmolive factory from Pix magazine. Photo by C (Les) Lynch.
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Remarkably, the Library has another source of information that supports Bessette’s interpretation of life in the Colgate factory: oral history interviews done with workers. Oral historian Rosemary Block wrote an essay based on the interviews she did called ‘Everybody had a Cousin at Colgates’. She writes about industrial accidents, machinery breakdowns with hot soap overflowing onto the factory floor, union disputes and strikes. These problems may not appear in La Route Bleue, but Block’s interviews suggest that Bessette’s depiction of life on the factory floor isn’t utopian, but close to reality.

Like all good writers, Bessette listened to what was happening around her — talk of romance, storytelling and music from the factory floor in industrial Balmain in the 1940s. The oral history interviews contain stories of women discussing relationships—‘Don’t put up with this, with men’ —and ways to avoid pregnancy. An interview with Joyce Isaac, who would have been at Colgates when Hélène was there in 1949, describes the fun in the toothpaste-packing room:

One of the girls who was a good storyteller might recount the plot of the latest romance she had read. Later they used to have the wireless on for the girls to listen to and they would write in to Don Arnott’s program and request a favourite song to be broadcast ... So we would get a favourite song. Well when your song came on, you would be singing away and tubes would be going everywhere. We’d play around for a while.

La Route Bleue attracted positive reviews in France when it was published in 1960. Claude Mauriac and Alain Bosquet, both novelists and literary critics, wrote respectively that Bessette was ‘at the forefront of French authors’ and of ‘her fundamental originality’.

Another significant reader and critic of La Route Bleue was Anne-Marie Haslett in Roseville. Bessette had sent a copy to the Hasletts and must have expected a reaction as, thinly disguised, they feature as characters, one of the ‘happy bourgeois couples’ Patricia Clancy described. Anne-Marie’s critical style echoes Clancy’s comments about Bessette’s literary method. She herself employs ‘fragmented thoughts and conversations’ to illustrate what she and her husband think about the novel:

Roseville 1960
Thank you for your letter which just arrived this week. To be exact, only the day before I’d finished the last page of ‘La route bleue.’ It’s a book which we both found very interesting! We read it separately, we read some pages out loud, like the ones where you describe the Palmolive Factory, Sydney NSW. That chapter is wonderful … and some of those descriptions of nature while you are out on your walks are so charmingly evocative. I took great pleasure in them.

Anne-Marie suggested, however, that if Hélène wanted to use English in her novels, she should get the assistance of someone who understood the language and could correct her mistakes, including the examples of wireless instead of ‘wareless’ and quiet time instead of ‘quite time’. She then added a harsh critique of Bessette’s autobiographical approach to literature:

Indeed, it would be better not to talk about ‘La route bleue’ with people who might recognise themselves in it! Just flicking through the book, I see them appear – It’s a real shame.

In her literary archives, there’s a scribbled note in French and English which captures how Hélène Bessette saw herself and her writing, which she described elsewhere as ‘auto-biographie realiste, non fantaisiste’: The biggest novel of the world by the smallest novelist of that world.

Black and white photograph of two women walking down the street

Hélène Bessette (right) with Anne-Marie Haslett on the streets of Sydney in 1949. Photographer unknown.

Stan Correy is an investigative journalist and documentary maker who worked for ABC Radio for 45 years before retiring in 2020. He was one of the founding producers of Radio National’s investigative program Background Briefing in 1980.

This story appears in Openbook summer 2022.