“I think in hieroglyphics.” The writer Christian Jacq is a unique case of popular novelist. He is also a leader in his scientific field: Egyptology.
At 76, the author of Champollion the Egyptian, the best-selling book that launched him in 1987, has cultivated enough familiarity with the civilization of the pharaohs to think in its language. These hieroglyphs, “it’s like a comic strip, with a very strong, very subtle symbolism,” explains this French citizen, naturalized Swiss, from Lausanne, the city on the shores of Lake Geneva where he meets the journalists. He learned to decipher this spelling with the most eminent professors at the Sorbonne. Then, through reading it, the writing of ancient Egypt ended up populating his thoughts and dreams.
“I always said I was an old scribe, 3,500 years old. But I feel them now, these 3,500 years,” he jokes, interviewed by AFP. Before forging the legend of the reincarnated Egyptian, he was the grandson, on his mother's side, of a Pole who emigrated to France just before the Second World War, who exercised a similar profession: public writer. And the child from a disappeared working-class neighborhood of Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, according to him, a very good student in French and languages, but terrible in mathematics and sciences. Hence his reluctance to take over his father's pharmacy, “which still exists”.
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He cites as a turning point his 13th birthday, in 1961, when he devoured the first volume of a History of the Civilization of Ancient Egypt by the Belgian Jacques Pirenne. His vocation was born. Married at 17, with a doctorate in history at 32, he became a writer almost by chance, at 40, after having looked through the notebooks of Jean-François Champollion in the archives of the Collège de France. It will make a superb adventure novel, whose attention to authentic detail even the experts recognize.
It's an unexpected bestseller, propelled by a appearance on Yves Mourousi's 13H00. “At that time, in the dictionary, there was “Champollion: discovered hieroglyphics”, period,” the writer remembers. Same flair with Ramses II, to whom he devoted five volumes in 1995 and 1996, pharaoh celebrates “without any book that tells the story of his life”, underlines the author. Ramses III, the last of the giants was released by XO in 2023. Christian Jacq is also behind an exceptionally long series of detective novels, a good part of which published under a pseudonym, The Investigations of Inspector Higgins. Latest delivery, the 52nd: Crime connected in January.
He also published, in 2022 and 2023, two volumes of an illustrated encyclopedia which summarizes his immense knowledge, Pharaonic Egypt. The third and last arrives in 2024. Extremely prolific, it would therefore be “more than 30 million” books sold worldwide, in around thirty languages. Including, he regrets, “only one title in Arabic”, the language of contemporary Egypt, but, he adds, several in Icelandic, Mandarin, Brazilian Portuguese, etc.
When asked where this longevity comes from, he retorts: “You know what Gabin said? The three conditions for making a good film... First condition, a good story. Second condition, a good story, and third condition, a good story. Among his research peers, he is not unanimously accepted as a novelist. But even those who despise his literature admit the extent of his knowledge. His secret is in a collection of thousands of index cards, where he accumulates notes on every possible Egyptian subject.
What he rarely recounted, however, were his own travels. This will soon be repaired: he is writing his memoirs, where he could tell, for example, how a reception in his honor on the banks of the Nile, which he was convinced would be spoiled by an icy wind, was a success. His publisher, Bernard Fixot, advised him to “pray to the god of the wind, Amon”.