Gilles, chapter I

Pierre Drieu la Rochelle

Best known in the English speaking world for his book Le Feu Follet, which has been adopted into several films, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle considered the semi-autobiographical Gilles to be his greatest work. The literary critic Gaëtan Picon wrote that Gilles “is, without any doubt, one of the greatest novels of the century—and one of those books in which the disarming sincerity of a man rises to the grandeur usually reserved to literary transpositions.”

Gilles, by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle
Chapter I

On a winter’s eve in 1917, a train unloaded at the gare de l’Est with a large group of soldiers on leave. There were, mixed in with people from the rear, many men from the front, soldiers and officers, recognizable by their tanned faces and tattered jackets.

The fever-dream that had been going on for so long, a hundred kilometers from Paris, died there on this quay. The young non-commissioned officer’s face changed from second to second, as he passed the ticket office, put his notice of leave back in his pocket and descended the outside steps. His eyes were suddenly filled with lights, cabs, women.

“The land of women”, he murmured. He didn’t linger on this remark; a word, a thought could only delay the sensation.

The infantrymen and artillerymen, already domesticated, were hurrying off with their parents into the mouth of the metro. He was alone and took a cab.

Where to go? He was alone, he was free, he could go anywhere. He had nowhere to go, he had no money. The only person in the world who could give him money, his guardian, was in America. His tour of leave had been brought forward by the recent losses his battalion had suffered, so he had not foreseen it, he had not even considered it. Only his pay. Bah! it was at least one evening. Tomorrow, he’d see. He had ideas, and above all a passionate confidence: nothing would resist the violence of his appetite. He might not be able to resist it himself. But the follies of the rear could only be a trifle: they’d always be too happy to send him back to the front, where a shell would fix everything.

What worried him was his outfit. It’s all very well to be a real infantryman, with ribbons and a cross, and to wear the fourragère of a famous shock regiment, but you still have to show that you’re not a bumpkin. On the train, he had thought of everything, everything his poverty could afford. The cab dropped him off on Rue de la Paix; it was late and he forced his way into Charvet’s as the doors were closing.

“I need a shirt” he said, with a residue of the jovial roughness he’d gained in the bistros on the front.

“We don’t have any ready-made shirts, sir,” replied M. Charvet himself, with great respect for the soldier and a hint of concern about the social standing the uniform might conceal.

Gilles blushed. It was certainly the first time he’d entered such an establishment; he’d heard about it from airmen on the train. Obviously, Charvet’s customers only ordered shirts by the dozen; he should have thought about that.

Mr. Charvet took on a disappointed expression of pity.

“Listen, monsieur. A customer left me an order here… He’s suddenly left on a mission to the United States… If these shirts suited you…”

Gilles was delighted to see what the customer, no doubt a gentleman of taste, had chosen.

“But do you have anything to wear with…?”

M. Charvet’s customers may have been heroes, but in Paris, they had better outfits than this this.

“No, I’m working on it… It’s to wear with another…”

“An open jacket?”

“… Yes.”

The shirts were a fine blue fabric. Gilles ran his hand over them, caressing them. There were matching hunting ties.

“I’ll take one,” exclaimed Gilles.

“Just one?”

Gilles blushed and stammered.

“Yes, I have others. It’s only for tonight.”

“But will it fit, sir? I’m afraid the sleeves…”

Gilles was so fascinated by the delicacy of the color and the fabric, it aroused such a lust in him that he couldn’t believe himself.

“Yes, it will.”

“But, sir…”

The store had to be closed,; M. Charvet let the simpleton go. In the street, Gilles looked around with a triumphant smile. A woman passed by, two women passed by, looking ravishing. But now he needed a hairdresser. His entrance was noticed. It was unusual to see such a tall, lithe infantryman under a heavy cap. He savored the warm, perfumed atmosphere, as much as the softness of the shirt.

“A haircut, a shave.”


“… No.”

He’d answered mechanically: no, as if by habit. He regretted it, then congratulated himself, for the shirt had been very expensive. When he emerged from the white shroud in which he had been so wonderfully enveloped, he was transformed. Clean-shaven, his cheeks were narrow but full and bronzed. His blond hair blew softly in the breeze. Blue eyes, white teeth. His nose a little too round, a little cooked.

But now it was time to change his shirt: so he had to get a room. What was the point? Wouldn’t he sleep with a woman? He had taken a bath in Bar-le-Duc. Spurred by necessity, he entered a hotel. Shit! The shirt’s sleeves were too short. On the other hand, the tie draped round his neck worked wonders, brightening up the skimpy tunic. On the boulevard, he looked again at his shoes. Not too bad, bought in the North from an English officer for a few dollars. He had them waxed…

Finally, he allowed himself to look around, to desire. This whole world, which he had disdained for so many months, appeared new. He could have hated men, but he only saw the women, whom he adored. It was a balmy evening. If he had looked at the horizon, as he did at the front, but immediately forgot to do in that grand city that demands the attention of all a man’s senses, he would have seen a charming sky. A starless Paris sky. It was a mild evening, slightly veined with cold. The women were opening their furs. They were glancing at him. Workers and girls. The girls tempted him more than the workers, and he wanted to play with his desire to the point of grinding his teeth or fainting. Everyone seemed to be moving towards a goal. And he, too, had a goal, the form of which was still unknown to him. Sooner or later, that shape would reveal itself.

He walked down the Rue Royale and found himself in front of Maxim. He’d never been there before, but before the war he’d passed it with some envy when, as an austere student, he ventured onto the right bank. Today, he would enter it.

He was a little disappointed: the bar seemed narrow, as did the passageway leading to the back room. It was full of officers, and especially airmen. Here again, he was a little surprised: one wasn’t used to seeing a “gentleman” who was an infantryman without at least being an officer. There were a few whores: they weren’t beautiful, or even elegant. But they looked at him with a hard audacity that imposed itself on him.

He couldn’t go near the bar and asked in vain for a Martini. Suddenly, a woman put her glass to his mouth.

“Here, if you’re thirsty.”

“I’ll take it.”

“Then buy me another.”

He had to comply, but he didn’t like being taken for a fool. The bartender suddenly took an interest in him and they drank. There were only a hundred or so francs left in his old wallet.

He didn’t like this whore, but she turned him on. She was a brunette, still young, but already fat, with an unattractive plumpness, a bad complexion and unkempt teeth; she was dressed like an overdressed cook. He drank, and all the delight of that first evening flowed through his veins. He was warm, among lively, well-dressed, clean, laughing bodies; he was at peace. Peace was, above all, the domain of women. They were completely unaware of that other domain just outside Paris, that realm of bloodthirsty troglodytes, that realm of men—the Argonne forest, the Champagne desert, the Picardy marshes, the Vosges mountains. There, men had left in their strength, their joy, their pain. They had left their workshops, their offices, their households, their routine, their money, their women, especially their women. And he, who had been intoxicated by this prodigious recurrence of nature and the past, who had long clutched to his heart the sudden, incredibly realized dream of children faithful to their origins, of children playing savages and soldiers, was returning to women. He was hungry for women, and also for peace, enjoyment, ease, luxury, all the things he had hated, the deprivation of which he had accepted with resolve even before the war, but which went with women. He was hungry for women, for the infinite sweetness of the orgasm they lavished on him. Another aspect, which he knew little about, was death.

One minute, alcohol was bringing him closer to women; the next, it was taking him further away. Alcohol took him back to that station he’d boarded in the morning, even further than that station. “There’s a little sunken path. And then a little bridge. Beyond the bridge, there’s a rusty Kraut machine-gun stand. The machine gun they left behind when we crossed the bridge again. And then to the right, the short gut and the second-line trench.” And that shelter where he slept so much and read Pascal with passionate disgust. Disgust for words so true, but so powerless in the face of a truth of a completely different degree. What are words compared to sensation? “Ah! we’ve lived. And obviously, we don’t live here, it’s not life. I know that from the depths of my soul, from the depths of alcohol.”

This woman was filthy and he wanted her. And it was also from the depths of his soul. Of his childlike soul. He needed so badly to take her in his arms so he could be in hers and slide into the endless pit of pleasure. They call it pleasure, but it’s the heart that melts, that breaks, it’s like tears. It’s the heart that pours out infinitely, forever. She was filthy. All she thought about was eating and drinking; she needed money for her old age. She had ugly teeth she’d never cleaned when she was a worker. Now she was more bourgeois than all the bourgeois: stick it in her and then nothing else; he knew people, their weakness.

“Gilles, you’re here!”

Someone pulled him by the arm.

Gilles was astonished to be called Gilles; he couldn’t remember anyone who wasn’t dead having such a right over him. He turned around and saw a boy whom he’d befriended during his short stay in a hospital at the rear. He was an Algerian Jew, short on legs, broad of back and neck, with very white teeth and very blue eyes in a very brown face.

“Well, you’re in the machine-gun business now!” said Gilles, a little distant.

“My man, I’ve had enough of the 120mms. That’s what we’ve been taking for some time.”

They chatted away. Gilles was delighted to have found a comrade; he had great indulgence for this Benedict, who appealed to women.

“You’re dining with me,” Gilles said after some time.

“No, old friend, I’ve got to have dinner with my mother. After dinner, if you like.”

“But no, I insist, have dinner with me.”

Benedict decided to telephone his mother. This morning, all these people were in that hellhole a hundred kilometers from Paris, but in the evening, they returned to their bourgeois habits. War had no effect on men.

They sat down at a table on the sidewalk. Gilles thought they looked good together. Benedict also had two or three citations. Brave on occasion, he didn’t like war. He had an avowed distaste for the idea of war, even more than for the reality of it. In fact, he’d had a thigh torn to shreds. Gilles moved seamlessly from a thoughtful asceticism to a niggardly, treacherous pride. He was a decorated young soldier who accepted to be paid—for such a gratuitous act—by the gaze of civilians and women. He envied Benedict’s finely woven cheviote uniform.

Benedict said to him:

“You’re very clever, you’ve put together an elegant little whore-house costume.”

Gilles smiled beatifically.

They drank more cocktails. Gilles was on his fourth. Although he had become accustomed to alcohol over the past two years, he was buzzed. The women around them, of a different class from those in the bar, women in the company of their lovers, still weren’t very beautiful. But all of a sudden, at the next table, two lone women sat down. Not prostitutes. But what were they? One was prettier than the other, and she was the one Benedict immediately fell for. It was a common occurrence in the small town where they’d been frolicking, on the outskirts of the hospital. A voluptuous girl spilling out of her clothes. She was browned by the sun, as was the older, smaller one. They’d probably come from the south of France, the sluts. The younger one was more authoritative, more adventurous, more vicious. Gilles looked at her casually, but it was the fat, beautiful one he admired. He didn’t covet her, since she was for his comrade. They also had a glass up to their nose and were looking at each other a lot.

It was Gilles who initiated the conversation because he was more tipsy, more distracted by the evening and also, more ready to put his balls to the fire.

“What are you doing tonight?”

He immediately thought of the drinks, the dinner to pay for, the evening. Benedict’s parents were wealthy, but that was no reason. Bah! everything would work out. And if someone wasn’t happy, he’d say so. He saw, through the alcohol, that prejudice was close to taking him back. The war hadn’t broken the bonds; his selfishness, his lust, his greed could retreat in the face of what people might say.

The question made both women laugh out loud, because of the answer they were about to give:

“We’re going to the Comédie-Française, to see Bernstein’s L’Élévation.”

“No kidding. That bastard,” exclaimed Benedict.

“It must be funny,” replied the beautiful fat girl. “Shall we take them along?” she asked her friend. “We’ve got a loge.”

“Of course,” said the friend, who had a kind of English accent and an air of detached enjoyment.

Gilles realized that they could be actresses.

“I wouldn’t go and see that rubbish for the world,” cried Benedict again. “But if you’ve got a box, we can work something out.”

The beautiful fat girl received his gaze and laughed with all her teeth. They drank and chatted a lot, and ate too. The men didn’t much care who the women were, and vice versa.

It was time for the bill.

“It’s nearly nine o’clock, you have to see an act of this…”

“… shit.”

Gilles foolishly prepared to pay. Doubtless Benedict remembered his confidences from the hospital, that he had no money; or perhaps he was acting on principle. But just as the older of the two women was putting a bill on the plate that had been placed in front of them, he moved two fingers from one table to the other and passed the bill to another plate where their bill was. The woman barely laughed and put down another bill, saying:

“I wonder if this one will stay.”

Gilles gasped in admiration.

They laughed, and then moved on to Le Français.

In the cab, Benedict and the beautiful fat girl immediately kissed each other full on the lips. Gilles didn’t like the other one who decided she didn’t like him either.

The Comédie-Française was filled with sepulchral silence. On stage, the suffering body of the soldier was presented like a soiled host to the devouring pity of the audience. The audience, half of whom were soldiers and soldiers’ parents, were ecstatic. What scandalized them were the jeers coming from a dressing room full of women of ill repute and soldiers too elegant and mocking not to be high-flying ambushers.

Gilles was envious of the beautiful fat girl, but she was mainly looking at Benedict. Yet she also stole curious glances at Gilles; perhaps she felt a certain displeasure that he wasn’t wrestling with Benedict. Gilles had dreamed too much in the trenches and was falling back into his routine; however, he took the beautiful fat girl’s looks as an invitation to be polite to the other; in the half-light, it became easier. He strove to kiss her, and she gave him an expert, reluctant mouth. The two couples took turns looking after themselves and the room. It was an alternation of kisses, murmurs and giggles, fought from time to time by a wave of indignant “shush” from across the room.

The “shushes” were suddenly covered by the alarm sirens in the street. A raid.

Gilles and Benedict laughed.

“A bomb in the middle of this bloody heroic play,” exclaimed Benedict, “that would be too good.”

There’s always a moment when even a pacifist wants blood.

“Let’s go outside and see what’s going on.”

They set off. The sky didn’t look like anything. An explosion was heard somewhere. Gilles remembered a ready-made phrase: “The gods are impassive.” Another: “God is pure spirit.” The idea of God had taken on a singular reality for him, a reality he’d sought in vain at school, when he’d struggled to pray. The priests had been able to make him understand what virtue was an effort against everything, but they hadn’t been able to make him understand God. For him, now, it was an atrocious mystery, thrilling and palpable, not in heaven, but on earth.

A council was held. “Where do we go next?” They were thirsty.

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” exclaimed Benedict, “I forgot I am expected.” Listen, I’ve got a lovely friend waiting for me at home. Let’s go and see her.

“It’s not us she’s waiting for,” snapped the fat beauty.

“She’ll be delighted. You’ll see. She’s got whisky, champagne, lots of stuff.”

The alarm went off very quickly and they hopped into a cab, where Benedict and the fat lady devoured each other again. Later, we arrived at a street in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, a dignified, dreary street. It could have been the Rue de l’Université. The doorbell rang, and we entered the cold, sonorous stone. The little group suddenly fell silent. Benedict struck matches and found the staircase door by kicking his feet against the dark wall.

As he passed the concierge, he called out a name that immediately caused embarrassment and reverence among the others, while the electric lights flickered.

“Madame de Membray.”

They climbed a wide staircase, slowly.

“I’m not sure this will be much fun. I don’t really like visitors,” said the other woman.

“Neither do I,” added the fat woman whose waist Benedict was clutching and who stepped away, a little frightened.

“I’m not going further,” said the other suddenly.

“Let’s go,” demanded Benedict in an altered but obstinate voice.

The electricity went out. On a landing, with the light of a match, they saw a door ajar.

They entered an apartment as dark as the rest of the house. Benedict turned the knob. They admired the high ceilings and majestic furniture.

All of a sudden, and Gilles didn’t immediately understand why, the women stopped thinking about backing out and stepped forward, fascinated. Benedict opened a door and they groped again in the dark. Benedict murmured in an altered voice.

“Please, follow on tiptoe.”

The recommendation was useless.

Benedict opened a door. While the others lingered on this new threshold, he moved on and opened yet another. Then, in this last room, a woman’s muffled voice was heard, and the light came on.

A woman, naked from the waist up, sat up in her bed. They saw her surprised breasts and her bewildered face, and at the same time, two sleeping children. Mother’s breast. The fat lady and the other’s eyes widened with furious curiosity about the woman’s body; her intimacy, her weakness. Then they decided to blame Benedict. Meanwhile, the woman, who shouted “It’s you,” had jumped up and closed the door. They found themselves in the dark with the children, who were about to wake up. They stood motionless against each other for a second; then, panic-stricken, they hurried back to the antechamber.

“That’s not allowed,” said the other woman.

“What a bastard,” cooed the beautiful fat woman, appalled, but all the more seduced.

With that, the visitors retreated, and the sirens began their serenade again.

They descended the stairs among the tenants rushing to the cellar.

“Let’s go to the cellar, it’ll be fun,” declared Benedict, who was delighted with the scandal he had caused among his compatriots.

All the society of the Faubourg Saint-Germain was in that cellar, lords and knaves alike. And soon the children they hadn’t woken up upstairs appeared, urged on by their mother. The woman was beautiful, but there was a disturbed severity about her that was hard on the eyes.

Benedict whispered to Gilles:

“She used to be my nurse. She’s a bore. Except in bed.”

As long as the alert lasted, she remained standing, not far from them, without speaking, clutching her children to her thighs. Benedict began to speak to her. She answered loudly:

“Come and see me tomorrow; I don’t feel like talking to you tonight.”

The wounded tone made Gilles shudder. He was falling into a state of confusion caused by the drop in alcohol, the boredom of this aristocratic cellar, the fatigue of following his gang, the silliness of these plane raids which had no other result for the Germans than to make Parisian defeatism impossible. The suspicion that the Germans were as stupid or stupider than the French saddened him. He approached the lady and whispered:

“That plane raid had us all in a panic; we couldn’t tell the difference between the cellar and the attic.”

“It’s horrible to love someone you despise,” replied the lady after a moment, with an abandon that touched Gilles.

However, he soon fled with the others.

Decidedly thirsty, they headed for one of those dodgy hotels where you could drink at any hour, in spite of all prohibitions. They had to get a room, and champagne was brought in. They began drinking in earnest, looking at each other more closely, disillusioned. Gilles wondered why he’d come to Paris at all, and was planning to leave the next morning for the countryside, where shells flourished and death was the great interest of life.

While the other woman seemed preoccupied with something that was going on elsewhere, the fat beauty drank heavily and, sitting on Benedict’s lap, rolled in his arms.

“When it comes to filth,” she exclaimed, pulling her bust away from Benedict’s mouth, which was nibbling and sucking it through the fabric, “you’re as good at it as the Bernstein. That was a terrible adventure you took us on. You’re a real bastard.”

“Anyways,” Gilles shouted unexpectedly, “I don’t know why you drug us through this shit. She’s completely right. These are feelings that exist and that many people experience in this way.”

“They’re vile feelings.”

“Can you imagine someone who doesn’t believe in patriotism, sacrifice and devotion?”

“No one does.”

“So what happens?”

“They force us.”

“Who does?”

“Some people.”

“Which people?”

“Barrès,1 General Cherfils.”

“But why?”


“Idiot yourself.”

“Shut up,” protested the fat girl, “kiss me. I like you.

“What about me? Don’t you like me?

Gilles asked the other, through his teeth, without touching her.

“I’m preoccupied. There’s someone waiting for me, I have to go home.”

“Why do you ask her if she likes you, if you don’t like us?”

It was the fat beauty who spoke, and this astonished Gilles. Benedick looked at her, perplexed. Still sitting on his lap, she turned her back to him and looked at Gilles with a vexed expression.

“But you like me,” cried Benedict, who spread his knees and sent her tumbling to the floor.

Then, spreading her out on the carpet, he threw himself on top of her.

She looked again over Benedick’s shoulder at Gilles, who was still astonished. Yet he returned to the other:

“Would you like me to take you home?”

“No, I’ll stay.”

“Yes, stay, I’ll get naked. I want to be naked,” cried the fat girl, tearing herself away from Benedick and rising to her feet.

She looked at Gilles with drunken eyes, where a tired but obstinate provocation wavered.

Benedict scolded her. He was discovering that Gilles had interested her all evening.

With a pasty but suddenly swift gesture, the fat woman removed the dress Benedict had wrinkled. Then her shirt. She was naked. How could a woman be so fat and so thin? She said in a sudden dramatic tone:

“I’m eight months pregnant. My lover has been killed. I’m a slut too.”

“And me,” burst out the other suddenly, “there’s a man who’s going back to the front tomorrow and he’s waiting for me at the hotel. I don’t love him anymore.”

Gilles and Benedict looked at each other They laughed like schoolboys in the class of cynicism. Then they shivered, thinking of the dead lover. Gilles so obviously preferred a thought of melancholy to an act of joy that, jealous, the fat woman said to him:

“Do you like me?”

Gilles stared in awe at this magnificent, full, well-baked body, which for a moment had seemed enveloped in a sacred glow.

She explained:

“I’ve just spent two months in Tunisia with my girlfriend. She was amazing, she consoled me. I’ve had a lot of grief, but now I want to make love. Take me, you bastard.”

She threw herself onto the bed and Benedict in turn threw himself onto her. Her breasts were inhuman in their beauty, their fullness, the breasts of a goddess, where the force of nature comes through.

The other woman cried out:

“Think of your kid.”

The fat woman didn’t seem to hear: she had turned her head away and was beginning to sigh breathily.

“Would you like me to take you home?” said Gilles.

“Yes,” said the other woman, who was suddenly sad and looked at him with affection.

With affection, but not at all with love.

Gilles and her left. Gilles wanted to find a cab.

No, I’m next door at the Crillon. Let’s walk.

They were close to rue Scribe and followed rue Tronchet, rue Boissy-d’Anglas. She said nothing, but gave him her arm. Gilles looked at her from time to time. She looked glum.

They arrived at the Crillon. As they turned under the gallery, an officer, who seemed to be pacing up and down, came briskly towards them. He was a chasseur à pied commander. His face was fine, but tired and pained. Gilles saluted. The commander responded mechanically, but hardly looked at him. He had eyes only for the woman.

She suddenly cried out in hysterical rage, heedless of the night porter who opened the door:

“I’m telling you that I don’t love you anymore, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. Just because you’re leaving tomorrow…:

Gilles took a bow and exited.

What was left of the night?

1Maurice Barrès was a French surrealist and politician. He became a leading anti-Dreyfusard during The Dreyfus Affair, and is credited with popularizing the term nationalisme to describe his opinions.