“Le Solitaire”, the novel that inspired Fritz Lang’s “Manhunt”

Hitler is in sight. One push of the trigger and the job is done. No war, no SS, no death camps, no Totenkopf, no Eva Braun, no Vichy… Mr. terribly The British, aiming the Führer in his telescopic sight in 1939, is acting for the sheer pleasure of the hunt. He says it himself in the opening lines of Geoffrey Household’s Solitaire: “Obviously I’m not an anarchist or a fanatic, nor do I look like anyone interested in politics in any way.”† Unfortunately, our adventurer in tweed will fail: then begins a frenzied hunt, led by the Nazis and by an enemy fighter, Major Quive-Smith, goddamn soul of Adolf’s henchmen. And this thriller, published in 1988 in a French translation by Christian Bourgois (but pre-war) turns into an incredible cat-and-mouse game, the pinnacle of the “man-stalked-by-bastards” genre. Adapted to the cinema by Fritz Lang (“Manhunt” in 1941, with Water Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders), the book sank into casual oblivion. Shoot the bastards that beat history, the fantasy is current though. I have names to propose.

Geoffrey Household was an English bank clerk, stationed somewhere in Romania in the 1920s. After becoming a banana trader in France, he had only one ambition: to run away from bananas and write. 1929: He quits his job, swearing he’d never eat a tad again Musa acuminata (nice name of banana) and moved to New York to write short stories for the pulp. In 1933 he broke like a rose, he returned to London, walked with his hands in his pockets in Dorset, found a job with a printing ink manufacturer and worked as a salesman in the Baltic countries and in South America. On the way, by boat, train, cart or sloop, he writes. Finally, in the spring of 1939, just before the war, he managed to publish “Rogue Male” (“The Solitaire”). Result: direct bestseller.

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20th Century Fox buys the rights and Fritz Lang is commissioned to edit. Good choice: The filmmaker has just left Germany after discovering that his wife, Théa Von Harbou, was an avid Nazi. The completed script is submitted to the Breen Office, the US Censorship Commission, before being recorded. This one is alarmed: in 1940, without upsetting the Germans, the cinematographic market is juicy. Joseph Breen (who was a big jerk of the Legion of Decency and the Eucharistic Congress. An anti-Semite and a high point in Hollywood, too) disagrees: he likes this story “hate movie”† The Nazis should not be portrayed as barbarians who torture and sputter their prisoners. Since George Sanders is the actor who best plays gentle (yet relentless) cynicism, Fritz Lang knows how to suggest anything. Fox boss Darryl Zanuck forbids the filmmaker from appearing in the editing room. Fritz Lang returns at night, on tiptoe.

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“The bastard son of Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad”

Geoffrey Household described himself late as: “the bastard son of Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad”† Well spotted. He had not remained inactive during the war: recruited by the Field Security (“the defense of the army against enemy agents”), commanded a unit in Greece in 1941, was a spy in the Middle East, was one of the go-betweens between Free France and the Vichy government, then moved to Dorset to write twenty-seven more novels (including a sequel to ” Rogue Male” titled “Rogue Justice”). None of this has been translated, save for three short stories (in the “Mystery Magazine”, a monthly magazine that delighted teenagers in the 1950s and 60s, before disappearing in 1976) and this “Solitaire” selected by Jean-Claude Zylberstein and translated by Patrick Signard. Household’s first text, in 1920, was entitled: “El Quixode del cine”. The Quixote of the Cinema? This is a qualification that does not suit Fritz Lang.

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I would add that our writer (a reissue of “Solitaire” would be welcome) has awakened vocations. The best known is that of General Mason-Macfarlane, who proposed to assassinate Hitler during the celebration of his fiftieth birthday on April 20, 1939. His minister, Lord Halifax, an aristocratic supporter of an agreement with the Fuhrer, haughtily replied: ‘We are not yet ready to use murder as a substitute for diplomacy’† Geoffrey Household, he had a vision of humanity that, personally, suits me better. He writes in “Le Solitaire”:

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I’ve found that what cats like most about humans isn’t their ability to feed them – which goes without saying – but the fact that they are entertaining.

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the lonely oneGeoffrey Household, translated by Patrick Signard, Christian Bourgois, 1988.

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