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’.

Gisèle Sapiro is less interested in individual writers than in ‘structures’: that’s to say, she believes that writers have to be studied in relation to their generation, their social origins and the institutions or organisations they joined. Her findings can be revealing. The writers that she classifies as belonging to the Resistance, for example, whether they fought or simply helped out as civilians, were much younger – in 1940, 60 per cent of them were under 40 – than those who collaborated, either with the Germans or with Vichy: in 1940, nearly half of them were over 60. She also finds that among the Vichyists an unusually high proportion of the men (nearly a third) were the sons of high or middle-ranking members of the administrative class, whereas in the Resistance, only 6 per cent could be so described.

Two conclusions can be drawn from this. First, that the generation which accepted the German Occupation was the one that had served in the 1914-18 war, while those who’d been too young to be mobilised then, but had experienced the wartime atmosphere without the adventure, now found compensation in the Resistance. This argument is much used by historians such as Henri Amouroux, who sees June 1940 as a time when the young men are all in POW camps and the ‘anciens combattants’ are rallying to the support of Pétain. The second conclusion is that the sons of the administrators represent the former elites of provincial France, ‘La France des notables’, which had been rejected by the politicians of the Third Republic and felt a strong nostalgia for rural, Catholic France.

Another way of making sense of how writers reacted to 1940 is to examine the literary quarrels of the years after 1918. Sapiro shows how these resurfaced, as the long debate began about the responsibility of writers and intellectuals for the state in which French society found itself in 1939, and hence for the military defeat. Gide for one rejected accusations that the literati were somehow to blame and disapproved of the apologias that some writers were already issuing. But, as he had probably foreseen, he became the most frequent target of such charges. Henri Béraud, who had attacked him way back in 1923 for his Protestantism, his intellectualism, his homosexuality and his asceticism, attacked him again now; and Léon Daudet, who had come to Gide’s defence in 1923 in an article in Action française, came to his defence for a second time in 1940, in the same newspaper. But that didn’t stop Gide becoming the favourite representative of the ‘decadent’ intellectual class that was held responsible for the nation’s humiliation. A famous caricature showed an official explaining this to a puzzled peasant, telling him: ‘Vous aviez trop lu Gide.’

In one of the most valuable sections of her book, Sapiro discusses the major institutions of French literary life: the Académie Française, with its belief that it should continue at all costs to support the tradition of good taste; the ‘scandalous’ Académie Goncourt, which has always sought to distinguish itself by its originality; the Nouvelle Revue française, the review in which, for most of the 20th century, French intellectuals and writers most wanted to be published. Set against these was the Comité National des Ecrivains, a clandestine creation of 1943 that established itself legally a year later, and which founded its own review, Les Lettres françaises. The Comité contained a high proportion of Communists and an unusually large number of women, and its role, both during and after the war, can be described as ‘subversive’, politically if not artistically.

Some of the disputes that Sapiro examines are dramatic, not least those within the Académie Goncourt, which was always divided, whether when awarding its famous annual prize or when electing its own members. Sacha Guitry, who was often thought to have achieved membership by the flaunting of both his wit and his chequebook, succeeded during the Occupation in moving the Académie to the right. Thus in 1941, Henri Pourrat, a champion of the Vichy Government’s back-to-the-soil policy, and author of the slogan, ‘the French peasant explains France,’ was awarded the Prix Goncourt. He had been Guitry’s candidate, even though his book, Vent de mars, was strictly speaking not a novel at all, but a series of meditations on the peasantry. Three members of the Académie disagreed, and subsequently, in a Lyon brasserie, awarded a ‘Goncourt zone libre’ to Guy des Cars, claiming it was legitimate to have a second prize for the unoccupied zone.

Sapiro gives a revealing account of the complex issues that determined whether or not a writer was allowed to join one of the Resistance groups active before the establishment of the Comité National. Apart from personal rivalries and jealousies, the control exercised by the Communist Party was vital. Sartre’s case was especially complicated. For a start, there was his old friendship with Paul Nizan, who had broken with the Party over the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939; there was his suspiciously early release from a POW camp; he was the author of ‘the pessimistic, decadent, petit bourgeois novel’ La Nausée; he was rumoured to be an admirer of Heidegger, known to be pro-Nazi; and above all the idealist philosophy he was working on had to be antithetical to Marxism. Sartre in short was unacceptable to the Party censors.

It was Jean Paulhan who had proposed him as a member of the Comité, and, as Sapiro shows, it was Paulhan who took the lead in voicing his fears of a postwar Communist Party seeking to control literary expression. Paulhan is the central figure in Sapiro’s book, dominant before the war at the Nouvelle Revue française and crucial later on in the creation and activities of the Comité National. The success of the NRF under Paulhan’s editorship, from 1925 to 1940, led some to welcome the Germans’ decision to create a new, collaborationist NRF under the editorship of Drieu La Rochelle. Two months before he accepted the job, Drieu had said that if he became editor he would ‘shake up’ this collection of ‘Jews, pederasts, timid surrealists and agents of freemasonry’. This was not so much ideology speaking as Drieu looking to get his revenge on a publication that had not recognised his talents, preferring those of his rival Louis Aragon.

It is striking that a number of the writers who were asked to contribute to the new NRF seem to have been less worried by its Nazi sponsorship than by the fact that Paulhan was no longer editor. He had owed his success in the job to his insistence that the review’s contents be lively and various, and similarly, during the Occupation, he had insisted on maintaining contact with a wide variety of people. Thus he worked closely with Mauriac in the Resistance, yet was in total disagreement with him over the reappearance of Comoedia. Mauriac, and others from the Comité, thought it should be condemned as collaborationist. Paulhan himself actually wrote for it, since one of its editors was his close friend Arland. He thought the editors were to be trusted, adding the very Paulhan phrase, ‘pour l’essentiel’.

There’s naturally much that is trivial in the correspondence between the two writers. Arland tells Paulhan he would like to write something on Le Grand Meaulnes, Paulhan tells Arland he doesn’t like Brittany and that he has shaved off his moustache. More to the point, Paulhan explains his views on Giono and on pacifism, which are more liberal than those he had expressed publicly in the NRF. In a letter of October 1939 he admits that it’s wrong to force someone to fight in a war against his will, and looks forward to the day when the only people involved in wars will once again be professional soldiers – that’s to say, those who find in war ‘mérite et joie’. In a letter of uncertain date, he recalls Julien Benda having once said that there were those in France who feared victory in war. It’s clear that Paulhan regarded anyone whose aim was to get rid of the existing Republic as treasonable, even though their treason was not ‘concertée’. He expresses confidence in Drieu la Rochelle, when the subject of the editorship of the NRF is discussed, while fearing that he may be dragged into helping the Germans in some way. Arland for his part thinks it inevitable that writers will collaborate, although not if they are treated as ‘slaves’. Despite his preoccupation with his role in the Resistance, Paulhan never loses sight of the continuing significance of the NRF in French literary life.

What one might call his ‘availability’ comes out in his attitude towards Lucien Rebatet, one of the most notorious collaborators. Rebatet, rabidly anti-semitic, had been a journalist on Je suis partout before the war and wrote a bestseller during the Vichy years, Les Décombres. He was tried and condemned to death in April 1947, but had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment (he was amnestied in 1952). While in prison he determined to write an autobiography, and more especially an account of his youth. Who, on the other hand, would publish it? His wife approached Paulhan, who persuaded Gallimard to accept it, and Les Deux Étendards appeared in 1952, the year Rebatet left prison and resumed his career as a journalist.

He had been held in the same prison, at Clairvaux, as Pierre-Antoine Cousteau, who had also worked for Je suis partout and had also been originally sentenced to death. The two of them planned to publish the conversations they held together but not while Cousteau’s famous brother, the oceanographer, was still alive; even after his death, which came long after that of the two protagonists, publication was delayed for family reasons and because concern was still felt over some of the views expressed (some of the passages justifying anti-semitism have been excised). The two men, ‘vaincus’ or not, firmly believe that their ideas have not been invalidated by the Nazis’ loss of the war, and their conversations are at once pessimistic and exalted. They remain opposed to Christianity and contemptuous of democracy. There is a certain interest in what they say about Maurras, since both of them had once been ‘maurrasiens’. Maurras, they agree, did not understand what was happening in 1939: his ‘Germanophobia’ went too deep. He didn’t grasp that what was necessary was an alliance with Germany, the better to construct a Europe in which France’s stature would be transformed, and the better to destroy Bolshevism. They argue that 1939-40 should have been the great turning point, but what happened? France ended up with Jean-Paul Sartre and little else.

In March 1944, Rebatet had published a list of writers who were collaborationist and another list of those who formed what he called ‘l’Académie de la dissidence’. On the latter he named Bernanos, Maritain, Maurois, Gide, Mauriac, Jules Romains, Claudel, the brothers Tharaud, Malraux and Aragon. Among the ‘défenseurs héroïques’ of French civilisation were Drieu La Rochelle, Céline, Montherlant, Châteaubriant and Chardonne. Curiously, he made no mention of Robert Brasillach.

Brasillach had published his first book (on Virgil) in 1931, when he was 22. He went on to write essays, poetry, novels and history, including a history of the cinema, which he wrote with his equally right-wing brother-in-law, Maurice Bardèche, and which is still worth reading. At the same time, he occupied important positions on extremist papers such as Action française and Je suis partout. In 1944, unlike other collaborators, he refused to take refuge in Germany and came out of hiding in Paris when his family was taken hostage. He spent some months in various prisons, writing and translating Greek verse and Shakespeare. He was then briefly tried, and executed in February 1945. He was 35.

In her excellent book, Alice Kaplan concentrates on the proceedings at the trial – a legitimate decision since at the Liberation there was more discussion about what in principle should be done with collaborators than about the particular harm they had or hadn’t done, or the reasons they had chosen to be pro-Vichy or pro-German.

Many people, both then and since, have thought it was wrong to execute Brasillach, whatever he wrote against the Jews or in support of the Nazis. Had he been tried later, like Rebatet, he would probably have been imprisoned, then amnestied – and no doubt ended his life as a member of the Académie Française. As it was, he rapidly became a martyr, and the fact that he was shot on 6 February, the anniversary of the day in 1934 when political demonstrations in Paris had done so much to divide the country into Fascist and Socialist camps, was seen as a deliberate act of left-wing vengeance. As Kaplan shows, the ‘martyrdom’ of Brasillach is now being used by the extreme Right for its own purposes.

Her conclusion is that Brasillach was guilty, but that he should not have been shot. This raises the difficult question of what the role of French writers during the war was or ought to have been. It is not answered by de Gaulle’s statement that ‘in literature as in everything else, talent confers responsibility.’ As Sapiro demonstrates, writers in wartime sustained the disagreements of the peace, and Brasillach’s defence was that he had always been patriotic. At the Liberation, those such as writers and journalists who lived by publicising their ideas paid heavily. Magistrates and judges, industrialists and businessmen, like many of the military, did much better. Brasillach suffered the penalty for having lived in ‘le pays du grand écrivain’.