Out on the left bank of the spirit (Part I)

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

Paris in the 1940s. Occupation. Resistance. Liberation, existentialism, jazz. Cafés and hotel rooms were hotbeds of intellectual, literary, and political pursuits fueled by coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, and amphetamines. To be engagé, engaged, politically committed, was de rigueur. Friendships, relationships, alliances, feuds, and affairs of the heart, love triangles, quadrangles, and more complex configurations, played out in shades of ambiguity, and contingency.


Never were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces…They deported us en masse…And because of all this we were free…


The more the Nazi venom crept into our thoughts the more each precise thought became a conquest. (Jean-Paul Sartre, The Atlantic, December 1944).


Loss of the right to speak did not silence them. Albert Camus's novel L'étranger (The Stranger) was published in 1942, followed closely by Le mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus). His plays Le malentendu (The Misunderstanding) and Caligula made the rounds of Paris theater directors. All the while he was an active résistant, writing for the clandestine newspaper Combat, where he served as editor in chief and editorial writer between 1944 and 1947.

Sartre's play Les mouches (The Flies) opened at the Théâtre de la Cité in June 1943. On opening night Camus spotted Sartre in the lobby of the theater and introduced himself. Each was familiar with the other's writings, but they had not yet met. "I'm Camus," he said. Sartre immediately "found him a most likeable personality" (Ronald Aronson, Camus and Sartre). The same week Sartre's massive philosophical tome/doorstop L'être et le néant (Being and Nothingness) and Simone de Beauvoir's first novel, L'invitée (She Came to Stay), were released. Marcel Carné made the films Les visiteurs du soir (The Devil's Envoy) and Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise). All were works that touched on themes of occupation, resistance, and moral ambiguity, under the radar of the censors but with meaning that was clear to the audience.


The making of Les enfants is a quite a story in its own right. Jewish members of the crew were in hiding lest they be rounded up and shipped off to the camps. Actors working in the underground had their scenes shot secretly. Starving extras ate the food before banquet scenes could be shot.


Picasso chose to remain at home in Paris when it would have been easy for him to flee abroad to the US, Britain, or Latin America as others did.


From August 25 [1940], he started doing what everyone else did, queuing for food, and walking instead of waiting for the irregular and always crowded bus and métro services. There was no fuel for his Hispano Suiza car...and there was very little coal to heat his huge Left Bank studio…so he wore extra layers. Every morning he walked the two and a half miles from his home…which he shared with his estranged wife, Olga, to his studio and back in the evening before the midnight curfew, after a meal at the Café de Flore. (Agnès Poirier, Left Bank)


In September 1943 Picasso invited the photographer Brassai to photograph the sculptures he had done during the Occupation, when he was not allowed to exhibit, publish, or sell his works. There Brassai found a hundred and fifty sculptures, "some of them huge heads of women, once in dazzling white plaster…now cast in bronze." Where he found bronze in occupied Paris was a mystery. When asked, Picasso evaded the question: "Oh, that, it's a long story."


Agnès Poirier may not break new ground in Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940–50, but she covers the territory with élan, an eye for the entertaining and illustrative anecdote, and engaging sympathy for her subjects, whose ambitions, sacrifices, and formidable achievements go hand in hand with their human, all too human, flaws and failings. Hers is a story of intellectuals and artists in a time of intellectual, artistic, and political ferment. Poirier gets the intellectual history right as far as she goes while not digging as deeply into the ideas behind the social, political, and existential stances as Sarah Bakewell did in At the Existentialist Café (2016) or Tony Judt with Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944–1956 (the three books make good companion volumes). She does not judge the intellectuals as harshly as Judt, whom she briefly takes to task in her introduction:


Tony Judt, himself shaped by French thinking, would never forgive Sartre & Co. for having let their contemporaries down when they needed them most. He even called his book "an essay on intellectual irresponsibility." That they were expected to change the world in the first place raises the question: How did they arouse so much wild hope? Left Bank is as much about postwar Parisian intellectual irresponsibility as about political, artistic, moral, and sexual incandescence.


Left Bank opens with a remarkable act of resistance undertaken in preparation for the anticipated German invasion. "Tall, dark-haired, and slim…at forty-three a dashing albeit austere figure," Jacques Jaujard was deputy head of the French National Museums. During the Spanish Civil War he had supervised the expatriation of the Prado Museum's entire collection from Madrid to Switzerland for safekeeping. On August 23, 1939, the day after the signing of the non-aggression treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union, Jaujard ordered the Louvre closed for three days. Officially the closure was for repairs. Over those three days two hundred Louvre staff and students from the art school and employees from La Samartine, a large department store, packed 4,000 works of art in wooden cases.


Private cars, ambulances, trucks, delivery vans, and taxis were requisitioned. A convoy of 203 vehicles transporting 1,862 wooden cases set out one morning in late August to eleven castles in France where they would wait, anonymous and secure, for what was to come. Grand châteaux on the Loire such as Chambord and Cheverny were used, but Jaujard also requisitioned more inconspicuous and privately owned estates conveniently "lost" in the French countryside, far from any strategic locations. Every convoy had a curator and a staff attached to it. Their mission: to look after the art collections in their new homes for as long as it was necessary. Whole families were displaced and relocated. For those dedicated museum employees, it was an adventure that would last more than five years. (Poirier)


The head of art protection for the Rhineland and occupied France was Count Wolff Metternich, a 47-year-old aristocrat and scholar of Renaissance art and architecture who was not a member of the Nazi Party. Metternich did what he could to protect French public art (there was little he could do to save private collections). After meeting Metternich on August 16, 1940, Jaujard wrote in his diary that the German seemed almost relieved to learn that the museum was empty. "On this August morning, Jaujard and Metternich had made an unlikely alliance. Neither man needed to speak. Their duty was to art and mankind only." (The story of Jaujard and Metternich is the subject of the documentary film Francofonia (2015), which I happened to catch at the 2016 Portland International Film Festival.)


Metternich may not have been typical of German authorities in occupied France, but he was not alone in his sense of a higher duty to art and literature that compelled him to look the other way when he could. Gerhard Heller was born in Potsdam, learned French in school, and studied in Pisa and at Toulouse University. Heller was assigned to the literary section of the propaganda unit in Paris, where he was responsible for all of France's literary publishing. Among his duties was enforcement of "the Otto list," written by German Ambassador Otto Abetz, banning 1,000 books by antifascist, Jewish, and communist writers. Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Louis Aragon, and Sigmund Freud were among those who disappeared from French libraries and bookshops. Heller "struck an implicit deal with Left Bank publishers: do not give my superiors or me any reasons for suspicion and I may occasionally cover for you" (Poirier).


Not all French citizens were active in the Resistance. Most did as people do in such circumstances, going about their daily lives, providing for themselves and their families as best they could, resenting the German occupiers and the French who collaborated with them, but generally keeping their heads down at a time when deprivation, fear, denunciation, and for some the threat of deportation were simply how things were.


The distinguished French publisher Gallimard made its own "pact with the devil to save itself":


Gallimard's influential Nouvelle Revue française, edited by Jean Paulhan, was taken over by [Pierre] Drieu La Rochelle [the "house fascist" and Paulhan's rival]. The review was so influential that it was inevitable that Otto Abetz should want to control it. Abetz had once reportedly declared: "There are three forces in France: Communism, High Finance and the NRF." However, in exchange, Gallimard could continue publishing books under the supervision of Jean Paulhan. (Poirier)


Was this collaboration? Or was it an accommodation to a terrible reality that enabled those making it to continue their work and do what good they could where they could? Sometimes purity and clean hands are a luxury not on offer in the dirty world where the public affairs of women and men are conducted. We do what we can.


Paulhan occasionally proposed texts for Nouvelle Revue française that Drieu de la Rochelle would accept "because, if anything, they shared an absolute passion for poetry and literature." A poem by the Surrealist Paul Éluard filled five pages in the February 1941 issue, where it was accompanied by an homage to James Joyce and a tribute to the Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson, who had recently died. When Paulhan was arrested by the Gestapo on suspicion of resistance activities, Drieu de la Rochelle managed to have him freed.


Even Camus, whose bona fides as a résistant were beyond question, agreed to drop a chapter on Franz Kafka from The Myth of Sisyphus because the censors would not accept material about a Jew. In 1943 he was recruited by the director of the National Resistance Committee to be the editor in chief of an intellectual publication that eventually morphed into the newspaper Combat. Like other active résistants he was given a false identity, complete with a false identity card and birth certificate to confirm it.


In May 1940 with the German army storming through France, Samuel Beckett volunteered to drive an ambulance. On June 12, with the Germans descending on Paris, he and Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil


boarded a train at the Gare de Lyon toward Vichy, where he knew people who could, he hoped, lend him some money. Nobody was aware yet that Vichy would become the headquarters and capital of unoccupied France. In Royan, Picasso was painting another sinister-looking head of a woman. (Poirier)


Later after returning to Paris, Beckett aided a resistance group by passing on information he heard on British radio, then joined a cell called Gloria. His apartment was used as a drop for information collected by others. Beckett would "collate the information, typing it out and translating it into English as briefly and concisely as possible…on one sheet" that would be delivered to a second drop where it was put onto microfilm for its transfer to the unoccupied zone and on to England (Poirier).


In the spring of 1941 Sartre, Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty had organized a coterie of writers into a resistance group called Socialisme et Liberté. That summer Sartre and Beauvoir cycled into Vichy France to recruit prospective members. The project did not get far. Sartre's weapon of choice was the typewriter, not guns or bombs. The group soon dissolved as many of their colleagues joined other better organized and more effective resistance groups led by the communists. Sartre went back to teaching. He wrote articles for Combat, but he did not share the risks Camus and others took and he was never given a false identity, which he likely would have gotten had he been an active résistant.


And now for a light digression. Ernest Hemingway on an assignment for Collier's rolled into Paris on the day of liberation with the US 4th Infantry Division and his own contingent of sixteen "regular and irregular" American and French troops traveling in a convoy of four jeeps. Hemingway referred to them as Hem's Division. They went first to the bookstore Shakespeare and Company to look in on its owner Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Beach's former lover, best friend, and owner of the bookshop across the street. Beach and Monnier reported having heard gunfire earlier. After checking that the rooftop was clear of German snipers, Hemingway and the troops proceeded to Picasso's place. Picasso was not home, so Hemingway left a note. When the concierge asked if he wanted to leave something with the note, Hemingway went back to a jeep and returned with a case of hand grenades on which he wrote, "To Picasso from Hemingway."


In the meantime, Sartre


had been asked by the Comité National des Écrivains to go and guard the Comédie Française with his life (but without a gun)…Later in the afternoon, Camus found Sartre dozing off on his red velvet seat and woke him up: "Hey, Jean-Paul, you're finally in sync with events." The tone was amicable, but the irony was not lost on either man. Camus had been an active résistant while Sartre had been an armchair one. (Poirier)


On September 9, 1944, the communist-leaning Les Lettres françaises printed a manifesto signed by more than fifty French writers, among them Camus, Sartre, Paul Valéry, André Malraux, François Mauriac, and Jean Paulhan, calling for the "fair punishment of imposters and traitors." The communists had been at the forefront of the Resistance and suffered great losses, though perhaps not as many deaths as they claimed. This gave them moral high ground when they called for collaborators to be dealt with harshly. Camus at first sided with them when they demanded a ruthless purge, while Mauriac, Paulhan, and others counseled their colleagues to "forgive and forget," to put the past behind and get on with the work that lay ahead.


Individual situations were not always clear-cut. Colette, the grande dame of French literature, wrote for collaborationist publications while hiding her young Jewish husband in her flat. Poirier says she probably wrote for collaborationist papers to have friends in the right places should she ever need their help to free friends in danger.


The actress Arletty, who starred in Les visiteurs du soir and Les enfants du paradis, carried on a notorious love affair with a German officer while refusing to work with German filmmakers. Arrested and charged with the crime of horizontal collaboration, she answered her interrogators without flinching: "My heart belongs to France, but my ass is international." While under house arrest she was allowed out under escort to reshoot a few scenes of Les enfants, but she did not attend the opening of the film and would not make another movie until 1949. That same year she played Blanche in the French stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, adapted by Jean Cocteau, to whom the Communists gave a pass on mingling with Nazi officers at high society events because as a homosexual he was a member of a persecuted minority.


Apart from those who had joined the Resistance early and actually risked their lives—and those noblest were the most forgiving—the majority of French intellectuals and the population at large were of two minds about collaborators. The more passive they had been during the Occupation, the more vengeful they proved toward alleged collabos. The personal shame they felt at their inaction made them all the more aggressive. The Occupation had been a laboratory of moral ambiguity as in no other period in France's history. (Poirier)


Liberation was celebrated with what Simone de Beauvoir termed an "orgy of fraternity." With it came a darker side and ugly scenes:


In the rue de Seine, the street where she lived, Simone came across the revolting spectacle of a naked woman humiliated by an uproarious mob. The woman was accused of having slept with the enemy. Many other women were shaved in public and sometimes beaten up for the alleged crime. Beauvoir, whom Albert Camus had just hired to write about those historic days for Combat, wrote of the "medieval sadism" of such rituals. She was relieved each time she saw the FFI [communist-leaning Forces Françaises Intérieures] protecting those women from the lynching crowds. Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson refused to take pictures of the shamed women. They loved the people, but not when they became a mob. (Poirier)


In her novel The Mandarins, Beauvoir refers to extrajudicial executions and head shaving of female collaborators (Arletty may have had her head shaved). Scores were settled and vengeance exacted.


The épuration (purification, purging) of the intellectuals was messy, contentious, and nasty. What was the responsibility of those who wrote? Was it different from the responsibility of individuals who took up arms for the occupier, who performed administrative functions, or who denounced their neighbors? Many who wrote for collaborationist publications early on redeemed themselves with subsequent Resistance activity. Questions of guilt and redemption could be ambiguous, judgment a subjective affair.


The treatment of writers and artists who had collaborated was notoriously unfair—not so much because some of them did not deserve the punishment they received (many did), but because it was so selective…intellectuals were singled out for much more attention than was ever given to lawyers, generals, businessmen, and high civil servants whose services to the occupying authorities had been unquestionably more significant. (Judt)


On September 14, 1944, the antisemitic writer Robert Brasillach was found hidden in his mother's attic and arrested for "conspiring with the enemy." From the start Brasillach had been pro-Vichy, anticommunist, and anti-Jewish. None of this made him unique. The issue was this:


[W]as he a traitor? Had he sought a German victory, and had he assisted the Germans? Lacking evidence for such a charge, the prosecutor placed the emphasis upon Brasillach's responsibility as an influential writer: "How many young minds did you, by your articles, move to fight the maquis [French guerrilla fighters]? For how many crimes do you bear the intellectual responsibility?" In language all would understand, Brasillach was "the intellectual who betrayed." (Judt)


Brasillach was found guilty and sentenced to death. Camus joined other writers in signing a letter in which they asked de Gaulle to pardon him. He explained that he agreed to add his signature only after long reflection and did so because he opposed the death penalty. As for Brasillach, Camus despised him with all his strength. He placed no value on Brasillach as a writer and "would never shake his hand," for reasons Brasillach himself would never understand. Sartre and Beauvoir did not sign the plea for clemency.


De Gaulle rejected the petition, and Brasillach was executed. Other writers against whom much the same sort of charges might have been made…were more fortunate, either because they were less well known, because they were out of the country, or because the death of Brasillach somehow closed a particular episode of the épuration. Writers would be condemned, whether to prison or national indignity, for their views in the months and years to come. But after Brasillach, no one would be executed for what some still felt was a crime of opinion. (Judt)


To be continued. Part II will take up the second half of the decade when fame reared its head and Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir became public figures and improbable celebrities. In Part III I reflect on the meaning Camus, Sartre, and Beauvoir have for me as I ponder our present time of discord and crisis.


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David Matthews

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