Paris after the liberati.., p.21
Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949, p.21Antony Beevor
The Liberation produced a heady mood for the young. ‘To be twenty or twenty-five in September 1944,’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir, ‘seemed a great stroke of luck: all roads opened up. Journalists, writers, budding film-makers discussed, planned, made decisions with passion, as if their future depended only on themselves… I was old. I was thirty-six.’
‘Oh wonders!’ wrote Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, of his first sight of the Boulevard Saint-Michel after the war. ‘I was struck by the extraordinary concentration of young people, the highest in France to the square kilometre, in a nation which appeared to be a country of old people.’
Parisian youth had not been docile during the Occupation. Their response to the Pétainist slogan of ‘Work, Nation, Family’ had taken the form of ‘resistance, black market, surprise-party’. Many had acted as messengers or deliverers of tracts and underground newspapers; others dealt on the edges of the black market. Being forbidden, such activities acquired their own mystique of revolt. And ‘surprise-parties’ represented their revolt against a regime which they saw as boy-scouting in jackboots.
Some of them were zazous – a shamelessly unheroic and anarchic movement of disdain for Vichy, the Germans and all military values everywhere.Zazous, with their long greasy hair, have sometimes been described as the first beatniks, but the boys’ fashion for long jackets with high collars and the girls’ for very short skirts made them look more like teddy boys in the 1950s; while the anti-virile ethos of the boys had more in common with the hippies of the 1960s. To avoid military service, zazous used to crush three aspirins into a cigarette which they smoked an hour before their army medical examination. But zazous also ran a risk every time they appeared in public. If a gang of fascist youths from the Parti Populaire Français spotted a zazou, they would beat him up or, if a girl, torment her mercilessly.
Most zazous were children of the wealthy middle class. They organized their ‘surprise-parties’ – also known as ‘pot-lucks’, since American terms were all the rage – in the apartments of parents temporarily absent, with friends and gatecrashers bringing food and drink. These parties were essentially a response to Vichy’s ban on jazz and dancing, so if you owned some Duke Ellington or Glenn Miller records the word spread. Because of the curfew, the parties often went on all night. After the Liberation, the real zazou fashion died out, but the word remained a termof abuse, employed by the puritan left and right.
The Liberation changed everything for the young, or the ‘J3 s’ as they were often called, after the name of the ration category for fifteen- to twenty-one-year-olds. There was no more curfew, so they savoured the freedom of the streets at night, even if that meant freezing on street corners outside jazz clubs in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Staying up all night retained the thrill of the illicit. A lack of food produced a continual light-headed, sometimes vertiginous sensation. They ignored the last métro at eleven – many did not even have the fare – so they slept in doorways and walked home at dawn. The luckiest had roller-skates, on which they crossed half of Paris.
Clothes – best of all genuine American clothes – could be bought for almost nothing in the flea-market of Saint-Ouen, where clothes sent by the Jewish community in New York to help fellow Jews were on sale. So by giving each other crew-cuts imitated from the GIs, and dressing themselves up in second-hand check shirts with trousers cut so short they came halfway down the shin, with vilely striped socks and tennis shoes, the ex-zazous created a new style.
Students seemed to live off nervous energy and ideas. The greatest hunger was for reading material, yet there was so little time and so much to read – Aragon, Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir, as well as Apollinaire, Lautréamont, Gide, and now all the American novels which proliferated in translation, such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Damon Runyan, Thornton Wilder and Thomas Wolfe. Everything formerly banned must be seen – whether the plays of García Lorca or the films of Bunñuel. Philosophy student or not, you needed to be able to discuss Hegel’s master–slave paradigm, the collected works of Karl Marx, and existentialism’s less than apostolic succession from Søren Kierkegaard and the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, via Martin Heidegger, then Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s professor of philosophy, Beaufret, had an immense prestige among students: he had actually met Heidegger. Young Communist students, swollen with the importance of their historical mission, were far from impressed. In the eyes of the party, Heidegger was a Nazi and existentialism was decadent.
Lycées as well as university faculties in Paris were very politicized, a situation which had grown far worse during the Occupation, when right-wing students had been recruited by the Milice to spy on their classmates. Now the Communists attempted to exert a political and intellectual hegemony. Their first target was Catholic students, but by manipulating issues anyone even on the left who did not demonstrate a strong commitment to progressisme as defined by the Communist Party was ‘objectively’ a fascist. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie made an appalling gaffe when he confessed in front of a Communist that he had been impressed by Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Every area of art came in for a relentless Marxist-Leninist critique. To admit that you enjoyed Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes demonstrated a pathetic and dépassé sentimentality as well as reactionary tendencies.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had written of 1940 in Pilote de guerre, ‘La défaite divise.’ The Liberation managed at first to unite the majority of the country under the banner of progressisme, as the opinion polls demonstrated in the massive support for the nationalization of banks and heavy industry. Simone de Beauvoir wrote of ‘Paris in the year zero’. And indeed for Communists and their fellow-travellers there was a sense of marching with history. Another sign of the times, as Galtier-Boissière pointed out, was Vogue – of all magazines – publishing a poem by Éluard and a portrait of Marcel Cachin, the veteran Communist.
The death of the great poet Paul Valéry at the age of seventy-four seemed to underline the end of an era. Valéry, who had delivered the address of welcome to Pétain when he was elected to the Académie Française, died on 20 July 1945 – three days before the Marshal’s trial. He was given a state funeral: the coffin was carried through the streets of Paris, accompanied by a detachment of the Garde Républicaine marching to muffled drums. The coffin was placed just below the Trocadéro on a golden catafalque, lit by torches. Duff Cooper, who thoroughly approved of the French Republic’s respect for men of letters, reflected ruefully on the difference in his own country. ‘We have only to imagine how would be greeted the suggestion that the Brigade of Guards should march past the coffin of T. S. Eliot.’
The reappearance of the satirical paper Le Canard enchaîné brought some much needed humour to the French press. It had been absent since 11 June 1940. After Vichy the appetite for irreverence was huge, and the Canard had no scruples about bad taste. Its cartoon on the announcement of Hitler’s death was to show the Führer in heaven pinning a Star of David on God. On the other hand, the publication had its own code of values. It refused to attack collaborators during the frenzy of the épuration. De Gaulle could not have been more wrong when he listed it as one of the magazines taken over by the Communists at the Liberation.
Those on the right, who saw existentialismas another form of Marxism, were also mistaken. The Kremlin defined existentialism as a ‘reactionary bourgeois philosophy’. This was because existentialism was fundamentally anti-collectivist, declaring that man as an individual – not society or history – was responsible for defining his own life.
Sartre cannot be accused of following fashions. Having remained wary of Stalinismafter the Liberation, when praise of the Soviet Union was obligatory in progressive circles, he began to support it in the early 1950s, when French writers outside the Communist Party had started to see it for what it was. His Being and Nothingness was first published by Gallimard in 1943. A. J. Ayer, a sceptic, thought that, apart from a few good psychological insights, the book was ‘a pretentious
If Sartre had been just a philosopher, then few people outside a small intellectual circle would have heard of him. But by dramatizing his ideas and themes through novels and plays, and above all by his creation of doomed anti-heroes – Antoine Roquentin in Nausea and Matthieu in The Roads to Freedom – Sartre touched a deep, pessimistic chord in youth to a degree unimagined since Goethe’s Werther led to a rush of suicides among the poetic souls of Europe. Albert Camus’s renown also stemmed largely from his anti-hero Mersault in The Outsider, and existentialism is now remembered more as a literary movement than as a lasting body of philosophy.
This group, which dominated the artistic life of Paris after the war, had begun to assemble in the winter before the Liberation. Sartre first met Albert Camus in 1943, when Camus dropped in on a rehearsal of Sartre’s play The Flies. Simone de Beauvoir then met him with Sartre at the Café de Flore and found that he had ‘a charm based on a happy mixture of nonchalance and ardour’.
This gradually expanding group of friends lived around Saint-Germain-des-Prés, moving from one cheap hotel to another. They congregated, more by chance than by arrangement, in their habitual cafés, usually the Flore, where Sartre and Beauvoir wrote for six hours a day, but occasionally the Deux Magots. The Brasserie Lipp opposite was out of favour for a time, its Alsatian specialities having attracted too many German officers. Sometimes they joined Picasso and Dora Maar at Le Catalan in the rue des Grands Augustins, which was almost an extension of Picasso’s studio.
Those who gathered around Sartre became loosely known as la famille Sartre, in the same way that young writers and actors who gathered round Jacques Prévert were known as la bande Prévert. Prévert was famous as a scriptwriter; between 1936 and 1946, he worked on a series of scripts for the film-maker Marcel Carné – among which were Les Visiteurs du soir and Les Enfants du Paradis. But he never had much success with his poetry until 1945, when Gallimard published Paroles. Prévert’s limpid, irreverent, light-hearted verses hit post-war Paris like a breath of fresh air. They were set to music and sung in the street, and within a few years Gallimard had sold over 100,000 copies. Paul Boubal, the patron of the Flore, felt that Prévert and his friends had sown the seeds of the Saint-Germain phenomenon (at least in his own café); but Simone de Beauvoir rather disapproved of la bande Prévert, because they were politically uncommitted.
While waiting for the Liberation, Simone de Beauvoir gave badly cooked little dinners in her ‘toothpaste-pink’ hotel room, with at least half the guests sitting on the edge of the bed. Sartre talked of founding a magazine with Beauvoir, Camus and Merleau-Ponty, and this took shape in the autumn of 1945 when the first issue of Les Temps modernes was published.
Despite the bleakness of his philosophy, Sartre could be very engaging. One who knew himwell at that time described him as ‘overflowing with charm, I have seldom known anyone as amusing, as sympathetic and as generous’. He was always the first to support a good cause and help struggling artists. He organized a benefit evening for the artist Antonin Artaud, as well as giving himmoney. Very often, not wanting to hurt the pride of those he helped, he arranged for funds to be given in a roundabout way: financial help for the novelist Violette Leduc was always channelled through Gallimard, and paid as ‘royalties’ on her own work.
Simone de Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre was far more emotionally taxing than she ever dared admit. Sartre had nicknamed her ‘Castor’, the French for beaver. (Others referred to her as Notre Dame de Sartre, or La Grande Sartreuse.) At moments she could still look beautiful, but her seriousness and suppressed anxiety about Sartre had started to mould her face into that of an old maid. He had always dominated her, making her put up with his compulsive philandering – what she termed ‘désordres amoureux’. She remarked to a friend that ‘Sartre had a rather diabolical side to him: he conquered young girls by explaining their souls to them.’
In spite of the parties and the drinking, most members of la famille Sartre seemed to be finishing books to be published after the Liberation. The upstairs room of the Café de Flore often looked like a classroom, particularly in the winter of 1943–4: at one table, Sartre was at work on Roads to Freedom, Beauvoir was writing All Men are Mortal, Mouloudji was writing Enrico, and Jacques-Laurent Bost Le Dernier des métiers. They read each other’s manuscripts, and usually gave them the attention that work from a friend deserved.
Merleau-Ponty, however, wanted Sartre to read his manuscript as a philosopher, not as a friend. He left it with hardly a word, and Sartre, who was as usual very busy, glanced over it in a cursory way and made congratulatory noises. This was not good enough for Merleau-Ponty. Sartre recalls the incident: ‘He discovered my bolthole, and confronted me there. I suddenly found him standing in front of me, smiling, the manuscript held out. “I agree with what you say,” I babbled. “I’m very glad,” he said without moving. “You should still read it,” he added patiently. I read, and I learned, and I ended fascinated by what I was reading.’
Raymond Queneau, poet, novelist and philologist, was – with Merleau-Ponty – one of the most distinguished members of Sartre’s circle. Queneau, who was a senior editor at Gallimard, led a scholarly life oppressed by the most profound despair; yet this never seemed to affect his conviviality, his infectious laughter, his passion for jazz and his fascination with logic and mathematics.
Michel and Zette Leiris were also part of the group. Michel Leiris was a novelist and ethnologist, while Zette managed the gallery of her brother-in-law, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso’s dealer, who lived with themsecretly during the Occupation. Their apartment, which had often concealed other Jews and members of the Resistance, was on the Quai des Grands Augustins, overlooking the Seine. Paintings by Picasso, Miró and Juan Gris hung on its walls above good French bourgeois furniture. They had many friends among the artists of the Left Bank, including André Masson, Giacometti and Picasso, whose studio was literally round the corner; and it was in their apartment that Picasso’s play Desire Caught by the Tail was first performed in a reading on 19 March 1944, over three years after it was written.
Camus was the presenter, with a large stick to thump the floor to indicate changes of scenery, which he described. The play was evocative of ‘avant-garde works from the 1920s’;, as the list of characters shows. Michel Leiris had the main part – le Gros Pied. Other readers included Jean-Paul Sartre as le Bout-Rond, Raymond Queneau as l’Oignon, Jacques-Laurent Bost as le Silence, Zanie de Campan as la Tarte, Dora Maar as l’Angoisse Maigre and Simone de Beauvoir as la Cousine. Picasso and his friends put it on for their own amusement, but ‘la fine fleur de l’intelligentsia parisienne’ was breathless in anticipation of a major event. By seven o’clock the Leirises’ salon was packed.
Picasso’s little comedy, almost an exercise in nostalgia, served only to underline the obvious. Surrealism as a movement was as good as over before the war, having virtually exhausted its potential to subvert received thought, and foundered on the political split when Aragon, Éluard and others felt that only Communism had the answer. One day in the Flore, Sartre asked Queneau, a former Surrealist, what he thought was left from the movement. ‘The impression of having had a youth,’ came the reply.
In May 1944, shortly before the Liberation, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were sitting in the Flore when they heard a voice. ‘C’est vous, Sartre?’ They were confronted by a tough, shaven-headed character with a broken nose. This was Jean Genet, described by his biographer as ‘the Proust of marginal Paris’. Genet may have had a ‘distrustful, almost aggressive look’ as a result of the toughness of a life in reformatories, on the street as a male prostitute and in prison, but ‘his eyes knew how to smile, and his mouth could express the astonishment of childhood’.
In the autumn of 1945, Simone de Beauvoir in a cinema queue on the Champs-Élysées met ‘a tall, blonde, elegant woman, with
A few days later, Violette Leduc came to Simone de Beauvoir in the Café de Flore bringing the manuscript of her novel, L’Asphyxie. On being advised to change the ending, she disappeared and did exactly as she was told. Beauvoir was so impressed with the final result that she passed it to Camus, who was then on the editorial committee at Gallimard, and he accepted it immediately for publication. The only drawback was that Violette Leduc became completely infatuated with Beauvoir, who found that she had to lay down very strict rules if their friendship was to continue.
Violette Leduc struck up a close entente with Jean Genet, and these two outsiders provided a great deal of voyeuristic interest to Sartre and his friends. The one person with whom Leduc clashed temperamentally was Nathalie Sarraute, the novelist who had hidden Samuel Beckett during the Occupation. Leduc tried to get on with Sarraute, but their almost chemical incompatibility was made worse by jealousy: Sarraute was indubitably Sartre’s protégée, while Leduc’s position with Castor was far less secure.
The autumn of 1945 saw the great existentialist boom, although Sartre and Beauvoir were irritated that the label was automatically attached to anything they wrote. In September Beauvoir’s novel of the Resistance, The Blood of Others, enjoyed both critical and commercial success. Over the course of the next couple of months came two volumes of Sartre’s Roads to Freedom and the first number of Les Temps modernes. Sartre’s lecture, ‘L’Existentialisme est-il un humanisme?’, on 29 October 1945, was packed out; hundreds could not get into the hall, and women fainted in the crush.
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