Before being a Disney movie, Bambi was an adult novel by Felix Salten, successfully published in Vienna, Austria, in 1923. Felix Salten – real name Siegmund Salzmann – saw his book banned and burned by the Nazis, according to whom Bambi was an allegory about the treatment of Jews in Europe. A magnificent reissue in French of Bambi has just been published by Albin Michel. Press joined Benjamin Lacombe, illustrator and initiator of the project, by videoconference in Paris.
Feel the life of an oppressed
For several years, Benjamin Lacombe, 38, wanted to address the rise of extremism in a children’s book. Notably since he received an anti-Semitic drawing in a class where he had been invited. Simply because he had come to present Shadow of the Golem, published by Flammarion jeunesse. “This is absolutely not a book on religion,” said the illustrator, in an interview for the workshop he shares with his two dogs. There were Jews in history. ”
“It’s something that touches me in my flesh, because on my mother’s side, my family has been partially deported,” says Benjamin Lacombe. His will was to make people feel what it is to be oppressed – because of their religion, their exile, their sexual orientation, whatever. “The strength of children’s literature and the illustrated is the ability to convey emotion,” he underlines. To convey the emotion, so that we become more empathetic towards each other.
Bright and dark forest
Bambi, the story of a life in the woods (the full title of Salten’s novel) allows you to approach both the beauty of nature and the dangers that lie in wait. According to Maxime Rovere, French philosopher who signs the preface to the reissue of Bambi, “ Salten thus shifts to the forest, in more or less painful and sometimes enchanting experiences, the fears of the Viennese Jewish milieu of this period ”.
The threat comes from the hunter, named He or Him, and his dogs. ” You have no shame… ? You traitor! A fox calls a dog. “It is you who deliver us to Him… we who are all your parents… I who am almost your brother…”, continues the fox. Written after an author’s trip to the Alps, Bambi is also a naturalistic tribute to life in the forest (where animals speak, it is true).
Tribute to Disney
Benjamin Lacombe had obviously already seen the Bambi from Disney, a masterpiece from 1942. “I thought it was magnificent,” he recalls. It seems to me that this is the first animated film that really shocked me and made me cry. The death of Bambi’s mother is hard. ”
In the book, the disappearance of the mother is mentioned more than at length. However, large illustrated pages to unfold allow you to discover a small abandoned Bambi. Then, it is the agony of a hare hit by a bullet that breaks the heart. “We realize how much mourning is something extremely personal, in which we find ourselves very alone,” observes Benjamin Lacombe.
To illustrate Bambi, Benjamin Lacombe used two techniques. “There are strong variations in tempo, between very soft moments, with small birds and the little squirrel, then comes the noise, the thunder, the hare with its bloody paw, describes the artist. We switch from extreme beauty to horror. ”
Beauty is illustrated with paintings colored in oil and gouache, while danger is in black and white, in charcoal. As for the movement of branches and leaves, it is reproduced by delicate laser-cut pages. Bambi is the seventh book in the Les classiques illustrés collection, directed by Benjamin Lacombe at Albin Michel.
Candid and resilient, Bambi allows children to face their fears, many in times of a pandemic. “Last week, I was in Isère for school meetings,” says Benjamin Lacombe. For the first time in 15 years that I go to classes, loneliness was the theme chosen by the students when they created a story together. ”
The scenario ? “A little boy wears a mask and glasses, because the ambient air is no longer breathable,” describes the illustrator. One day, he falls from his balcony and lands in forbidden territory, which has become the territory of wolves. It is their way of expressing their fears. The kids aren’t going to talk about it every day, they’re going to live like it’s normal, but in fact, they have understood very well what the stakes are now. ”
Bambi. Text by Felix Salten. Translation by Nicolas Waquet. Illustrations by Benjamin Lacombe. The illustrated classics collection. Albin Michel editions. 176 pages. From 10 years old.
Pierre Anctil’s opinion
“Like many of his co-religionists born in Austria-Hungary [avant 1918] or in Germany, like Stephan Zweig and Albert Einstein, Salten was very well integrated into the life of his country, says Pierre Anctil, professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ottawa. He had made a career in German-language newspapers, in the theater and in the cinema before writing his novel. Bambi. “
“It is therefore difficult to attribute a very strong link between the history of Bambi and the Jewish origins of its creator, who essentially wanted to describe animal life in the still wild regions of Europe, ”says the professor.
“People quickly forget and today only remember the Disney film, agrees Pierre Anctil. It is doing Salten justice to republish his work today, without which there would not have been the Disney film and the global career it has known. ”