Despite his father’s insistence on a commercial career, French illustrator Jean Effel (1908-1982) pursued studies in music, art and philosophy. When his attempts to become a theatrical writer failed, he switched gears and started working as a caricaturist for newspapers in the 1930s. By the 1940s, his work was widely known and widely published, mostly in socialist/communist newspapers sponsored by the French Communist Party. After the second World War, he also branched out into book illustration (his work on Fables de la Fontaine is quite charming). Today, he’s mostly remembered (if barely) for his La création du monde (The Creation of the World).
I learned about Jean Effel (a nom de plume; François Lejeune was his true name) from a couple of books my parents had lying around when I was growing up. He was, I believe, my first exposure to cartoons, and the warm place his work holds in my heart is partly dictated by nostalgia. Only in part, however; few would deny that Effel’s animals and humans, his God, his Devil and his various angels are charming in that plump, childlike way that young animals are irresistibly cute. Some grouchy contrarians might get annoyed by that cuteness; the rest of us will enjoy his kind world. Oh, vexations and sarcasm are part of its tapestry, but nobody stays angry for long, pranks are witty but inoffensive, and problems are creatively resolved. Effel was an atheist, but his God was so kind and paternal that even priests didn’t object to their parishioners reading his work.
To come back to my childhood, the twist in the story is that the books were in Russian: Soviet translations from French. The main collection of Jean Effel’s work was published in 1963 by the Hermitage Museum’s publishing press. The introduction calls him a « sincere friend of the Soviet Union », pointing out that Effel even learned to use Russian letters. In 1967, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, which was mostly reserved for non-Soviets, foreign prominent Communists and supporters of the Soviet Union. (Nelson Mandela also had one, as did Linus Pauling and Pablo Picasso.
It’s odd, but I can’t give you the exact date of the conception or publication of The Creation of the World: the Soviet book mentions that it was begun in 1950, English Wiki gives the date as 1945, French Wiki says 1953, Encyclopaedia Universalis (a French site) posits 1937, etc. Rather absurdly, there are a lot more detailed articles about Effel in Russian than in French, so for once I actually tend to trust the Russian side of things. It was clear that Effel genuinely liked Russians, and admired what he saw on his many visits to the U.S.S.R. I assume he only saw what he wanted to see (or what he was shown by his tour guides); still, he was clearly an idealist, a kind and gentle man by all accounts who believed in pacifism and loved animals.
A few pages from my 1963 Soviet edition:
A few years ago, I found another Russian edition in some Canadian (how books travel..) second hand bookstore, a collection in four volumes:
The back covers are also worth a look:
Oddly, Animals and Plants is marked as costing 75 kopecks, and the other three are 80 kopecks each, though this was clearly sold as a set with a slipcase.
A few other odds and ends from Effel’s multi-faceted career…
The French Postal Service issued a stamp in 1983 to celebrate Jean Effel and his sweet version of Marianne, a cheerful young woman with a red cap who symbolized the new French Republic.