Too Much Gide

Douglas Johnson

  • La Guerre des écrivains 1940-53 by Gisèle Sapiro
    Fayard, 807 pp, frs 220.00, September 1999, ISBN 2 213 60211 5
  • Correspondance: Marcel Arland – Jean Paulhan 1936-45 edited by Jean-Jacques Didier
    Gallimard, 397 pp, frs 140.00, March 2000, ISBN 2 07 075789 7
  • Dialogue des ‘vaincus’: Prison de Clairvaux, janvier-décembre 1950 by Lucien Rebatet and Pierre-Antoine Cousteau, edited by Robert Belot
    Berg, 285 pp, frs 120.00, March 2000, ISBN 2 911289 22 6
  • The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach by Alice Kaplan
    Chicago, 320 pp, £9.50, December 2000, ISBN 0 226 42415 4

The historians who have argued that the continuities of French history count for more than its ruptures and revolutions have tended to avoid examining the disastrous year of 1940, when the Third Republic came to a bad end and the German Occupation began. These four books suggest that even this cataclysm can be fitted into the pattern of continuity.

In her long and detailed examination of the way French writers behaved during the years from 1940 to 1953, Gisèle Sapiro shows that the disagreements and quarrels were much the same as before the defeat: the same arguments were to be heard, the same gestures were made, and often the same antagonists took further issue with each other. One of the figures with whom she’s most concerned, Jean Paulhan, the editor of the Nouvelle Revue française before the Occupation, exchanged letters during this period with his friend and fellow author, Marcel Arland, and this correspondence has now been published. Many of the letters are very short, and merely contain changes of address or news of friends. They discuss the war, and the problems caused by the presence of the Germans, yet it’s striking how little the correspondence varies over the war years. They give their opinion of Sartre, with Paulhan being tactfully enthusiastic and Arland tactfully less so; in 1939 there is mention of Saint Exupéry’s dislike of Malraux and hence his disapproval of Arland, Malraux’s close friend, while in 1945 Paulhan finds it ridiculous that Malraux should become a member of the Académie and Arland reports confidentially that he is thinking of a career in government. In short, literary backbiting continued and gossip kept circulating. Madame Bousquet and Florence Gould continued to hold literary salons right through the war, and pressure was put on members of the Académie to attend meetings, as a way of showing that Paris was functioning normally. Cardinal Baudrillart even attended one on the day the Germans entered the city: he was the only Academician who did.

In common with the great majority of French people, writers wanted to return to the normal and familiar. Some had good reason to do so. Henri Membré, for example, is quoted by Sapiro as saying that it was all very well for Gide to say that he didn’t intend to go on writing in the prevailing circumstances, because Gide’s reputation was secure. But he, Membré, had published just one novel: were he to stop writing he would be forgotten. Another novelist, André Fraigneau, was more high flown. To continue to write and publish was a duty, he declared, because it would prove that French civilisation still existed. Such sentiments were echoed by the Vichy authorities. Alfred Fabre-Luce is quoted as reporting that the bookshops in the unoccupied South were full of copies of Péguy (he was thankful that Péguy was not there to witness this ‘succès de circonstance’). Otherwise, Vichy believed that ‘l’esprit français’ was best represented by writings that were in favour of regionalism and of the peasantry. Writers who were Jewish, freemasons or Communists were banned from publishing.

The Germans devoted a great deal of energy to controlling French cultural life. According to Sapiro, the Propaganda-Abteilung, which was under the control of the German military, employed 1073 people. The German Institute, which was attached to the Paris Embassy, sought to advance Franco-German co-operation in the new Europe, and a separate office was created to promote German culture and the ‘purification’ of literature. Books were seized (143 different titles in August 1940), and the names of banned writers listed (739 Jewish writers who wrote in French were included by May 1943). Some publishing houses were requisitioned (including Hachette), others were closed, while some newspaper editors were dismissed (Jean Prouvost of Paris-Soir was one). Other periodicals met with German approval and were given preferential treatment or financial help – among them, La Gerbe, edited by Alphonse de Châteaubriant, who had before the war expressed his admiration for Nazi Germany. In February 1941, the right-wing weekly Je suis partout was restarted and its paper supply guaranteed (it had been closed down in May 1940 because of its hostility to the war), and in June of the same year, the arts paper Comoedia was relaunched, to concentrate on the construction of the ‘new Europe’.

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