Saturday, September 22, 2018

France has lost her soul

‘Nobody talks about the Germans. But it’s clear that everyone never stops thinking they’re here, and keeps quiet. The main thing is not to starve this winter. And they all wait, like animals, for their turn at the trough - in the office that distributes rationing coupons. Sometimes a well-nourished soldier in a dashing gray-green uniform goes by on the street. He represents order, and he certainly has the means of maintaining it amid all this docility, this wretchedness. What is to be done? This country has lost her soul.’ This is Jean Guéhenno, a French writer who died 30 years ago today. He wrote many books on literary subjects - not least Jean-Jacques Rousseau - but famously refused to publish any work while Paris remained occupied. Only one book of his has been translated into English - his diary of the Second World War. In its original French, published soon after the war’s end, the diary has been, and remains, a much read classic text of life under German occupation.

Guéhenno was born in 1890 in Fougères in the far east of Brittany, and christened Marcel Jules Marie (though always called Jean after his father). His father was a shoe factory worker, and the family was very poor; an older brother had died in infancy. Although obliged to leave school at 14 to work in a factory, he continued to study at night, and succeeded in taking his baccalaureate. He served as an infantry office in the First World War, and thereafter studied further, becoming a high school teacher for many years. He was director of the literary journal Europe from 1929 to 1936, and in 1935 founded the weekly Vendedi. He wrote half a dozen or so literary non-fiction books before the Second World War, including his autobiographical Journal d’un homme de 40 ans, but deliberately stopped publishing during the war.

After the war, Guéhenno was commissioned to help the provisional government organise a  directorate for popular culture and youth which he did until it merged with the sports directorate in 1948. He also returned to writing, publishing a book nearly every year, many of them on Rousseau. From 1945, he wrote for Le Figaro, and in 1946 he married another writer, Annie Rospabé (they had one child). He was elected to the Académie française in 1952. He died on 22 September 1978. Wikipedia only has a very short bio in English, but the translation of the French Wikipedia page has a little more detail. Further detail can be found in a biographical thesis by Stanislaw Jan Librowski available on the Warwick University website.

Guéhenno is not well known in the English-speaking world, but one of his books was recently translated into English by David Ball and published (in 2014) by Oxford University Press as Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944: Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris. Parts of the diary were first published clandestinely in 1944 under the title Dans le prison, signed ‘Cevennes’. With the war over, a fuller text (though much cut by Guéhenno) - Journal des années noires (1940-1944) - was published by Gallimard in 1947. It has remained a highly respected work, and a classic testimony on life in occupied France. Unlike his early autobiography work (never translated) which also had ‘diary’ in the title, this is a bona fide diary. The 2014 English edition can be previewed at Googlebooks, while reviews can be read at The New York Times, The New Republic (‘this extraordinary book reminds us why books matter’) and The Independent (‘helps explain why even the most principled Parisians were often completely passive in the face of evil’).

Here are several extracts from the diary.

14 August 1940
‘I have finally left Clermont, where I spent one of the darkest, stupidest years of my life. These last weeks were especially painful for me, as stupidity was settling into power. Clermont had become, with Vichy, the refuge of journalists, writers, leaders of opinion, the refuge of everyone who’s supposed to think. I knew a lot of people. I could see how they were bowing to the new powers that be. It was frightful. How quickly thought and liberty can die! Last vision: the sidewalk cafe of the Glacier in Clermont; Monday, around 6 p.m. I recognize a few of my former comrades. I can distinguish two types: plump, heavy-lipped faces, swollen with rancid fat, bags under their heavy eyes. And thin faces, gnawed by envy, hatred, and ambition. All of them making a lot of “dough,” as they say; they don’t give a damn about reasons for living, as long as they’re living. Around them, their Muses and their whores, a blonde swarm wreathed in cigarette smoke.

I’m only here for three or four weeks at the most, likely to be called back at any time: for from now on, France is working, and the cabinet ministers are taking in hand those lazy civil servants, of whom I am one. But I feel an inexpressible happiness at being here again, in my village. Oh, nothing like their idiotic “Back to the land.” But it’s as if there were thick walls of air and the whole sky between that cowardly world and me. I would like to think of a few beautiful things.’

19 September 1940
‘I am vainly trying very hard to work. All my projects seem silly to me. What’s the use? I spend hours with my head in my hands, strangely prostrate, like the country itself perhaps. What? After all they’re still the same men in the same skin as a year ago, or two years ago. But no, something has been broken. This people doesn’t think, feel, or want anymore. Two weeks were enough to turn it into a herd. Yesterday I waited on line for five full hours to get our food rationing cards. I listened to the people. But their heads are as empty as their bellies. The confusion of their minds is frightful. The crowd has no hope; they are resigned. One would like to hope for the victory of the English. But some of the demobilized soldiers feel this would add to their shame. They have a selfish interest, out of self-esteem, in seeing the English beaten as they themselves were. Nobody talks about the Germans. But it’s clear that everyone never stops thinking they’re here, and keeps quiet. The main thing is not to starve this winter. And they all wait, like animals, for their turn at the trough - in the office that distributes rationing coupons. Sometimes a well-nourished soldier in a dashing gray-green uniform goes by on the street. He represents order, and he certainly has the means of maintaining it amid all this docility, this wretchedness. What is to be done? This country has lost her soul. What event, what new ordeal could give it back to her? Suffering will not suffice: the country would have to do something, to find herself committed to some action in which she could recover her pride. Nothing can be built on shame.

Today I had to sign a paper through which I “solemnly declare, on my honor,” that I have never been a Freemason and have never belonged to any secret society. Oh, what stupidity!’

17 January 1941
‘Never have so many people in Europe known how to read and yet never have there been so many herd animals, so many sheep. In times gone by, a man who didn’t know how to read would save himself through his distrust. He knew he was ignorant, as Descartes did, and he was wary of anyone who spoke too well. He thought by himself - the only way to think. A man today who has learned to read, write, and count is utterly unprotected from his vanity. A degree certifies his knowledge. He believes in it, he’s proud of it. He reads the paper and listens to the radio like everyone else, with everyone else. He is abandoned to the tender mercies of advertising and propaganda. Something is true as soon as he has read it. The truth is in books, isn’t it? He doesn’t realize that the lie is in them, too.

I can see this confirmed more every day. Our teaching is far too much about teaching results. All too often, it fosters only the gift for pedantry and a docile memory. A hundred young people I talk to are far more knowledgeable in geometry than Euclid, but few of them are able to reflect that Euclid was a great geometer and that they are nothing. More than the results of the sciences, we should teach their history, reveal to young minds the nature of a moving, active intelligence and communicate the deep meaning of science: get them to understand that a scientist is not a man who knows but a man who seeks, crushed and exalted at the same time by the idea of all that he does not know. Thus we could produce independent, strong men and not vain, servile animals.’

11 August
‘This morning I tried once again to obtain the Ausweis necessary to go into the other zone. Useless. As early as 5:30 a.m., in the dark, I was on the first Metro with the fishermen. They were getting on at every station, with their fishing-rods, their landing nets, boxes of worms, folding chairs, and so many hopes. They were all rushing to take their places on the banks of the Seine and got off at Châtelet. Toward 6 a.m. I was at Rue du Colisée, where the occupying authorities have their headquarters. It was much too late. But how could I get there earlier, unless I walked there during the night? It is forbidden to go out before 5 a.m. Three hundred people were already there; they lived in the neighborhood or had slept in the hallways nearby. As the authorities only examine about 50 cases a day, at least 200 of them were there for the third or fourth time. People were bickering with each other. It was all rather frightful, a scene out of Maupassant. Each one wanted to have the most dangerous illness in his own family. Peritonitis was at a premium. The luckiest had a corpse, and, to get in with the first in line, brandished their telegram.

What’s more, I was told they were examining only “urgent” cases and mine did not even deserve examination. After two hours of waiting on line, abandoning all hope, I left.

I walked along the Champs-Élysées, completely empty. Only a few “feldgrau” and a few “gretchen” were making their way to their offices, clicking their heels on the asphalt and giving the Hitler salute. Then I got the idea of going all the way up to the Arch of Triumph, to go for a moment near the Other One, up there under his slab of stone. I stood there for a long time. The policeman on duty was bored. The pathetic little flame danced in the wind. Do I know what I was thinking? I was looking. There he was, that man, killed twenty years ago... a corpse has no age. Are you less dead after twenty years than after a thousand? But all around me there was Paris - admirable - and France, like a ruin, in that astonishing silence, and also those “feldgrau” and those “gretchen.” That dead man, alone among all the dead, decidedly did have an age, an age given to him by the history of his country. For how long will that flame keep burning? Why, then, was it lit? It all felt to me like an insult. Unknown comrade, whom they let neither live nor die, offended in your life which was stolen from you, offended now even in death, you poor man loaded with glory and shame that you did not desire, o you, truly my brother. . .’

13 March 1943
‘Why I keep this diary? To remember, and to put a bit of order inside me, inside my life. Through discipline, the way one does exercises. But it would be unfortunate if I contented myself with these notes, these disjointed fragments with no rhythm to them. All this cannot make a book. A great book is a rhythm that imposes itself on the reader: the reader necessarily adopts the rhythm without even realizing it, the way one follows a companion’s steps. May I just once write a book that leads the way. A diary hardly says anything but where one is coming from, and it is where one is going that is important, where one wants to go, and that can only be said in books, works one has reflected on, composed through our will.

Anthology. Translate Whitman’s wonderful poem: “A Word Out of the Sea.” How he learned to sing on the banks of Paumanok when he was a child by listening to a bird calling its vanished mate day and night, while the bass voice of the sea repeated, to all its waves, death, death. . .’

25 August 1944
‘Yesterday evening around 9:00 they were still building barricades on Boulevard Sérurier. They were chopping down the plane trees at the street corners. I came back home around ten. Friends call me, saying they can see huge fireworks over the Hotel de Ville, with red and blue rockets answering them in the south and west. It was the signal. The first tanks of Leclerc’s army had just rolled up to Notre-Dame. And then all the bells of all the churches rang in the night, drowning out the rumbling of the big guns.

Freedom - France is beginning again.’

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