The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33 edited by Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (2015)

This awesomely big, heavy hardback book is the catalogue published to accompany a major exhibition of Weimar Art held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015.

It contains some 150 glossy, mostly colour reproductions of a huge variety of works (mostly paintings and drawings, but also quite a few stunning art photos from the period) by nearly 50 artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity movement. The main text is followed by 28 pages of potted biographies of all the main artists and photographers of the time. All very useful.

Die Begegnung by Anton Räderscheidt

Die Begegnung by Anton Räderscheidt

I had only gleaned hints and guesses about many of these artists from the two books on the Weimar Culture by John Willetts which I read recently, and this book is exactly what I wanted – it goes to town with a really comprehensive overview of the different types of Neue Sachlichkeit and then – crucially – gives you plenty of examples so you can understand their common themes but diverse styles for yourself.

As I’d begun to figure out for myself in my post about New Objectivity, the phrase Neue Sachlichkeit was never a movement in the way Impressionism, Fauvism, Futurism or Dada were, never a self-conscious tag used by a cohort of allied artists. As so often, it was an attempt by critics to make sense of what was going on, in this case in post-war German art.

Weimar art came in a lot of varieties but what they all had in common was a rejection of the strident emotionalism and deliberately expressive style of German Expressionism, and a return to figurative painting, generally done to a meticulous and painterly finish. A rejection of utopian spiritualism, or apocalyptic fantasies, or the deep existential angst of the artist – and a sober, matter-of-fact depiction of the actual modern world in front of them.

Self-portrait with Ophthalmological Models by Herbert Ploberger 91928)

Self-portrait with Ophthalmological Models by Herbert Ploberger (1928)

The term Neue Sachlichkeit (as we are told in virtually every one of the book’s 14 essays, pp.6, 17-18, 105, 126, 203) was coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, the director of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim. He used it as the title for a 1925 exhibition which for the first time brought many of the new artists working in the Weimar Republic bringing together in the same exhibition space. (The introduction explains that the new trend had already been spotted by, among others, critic Paul Westheim who labelled it Verism in 1919 and tried again with New Naturalism in 1922, by Paul Schmidt who suggested Sachlichkeit in 1920, and by the critic Franz Roh whose 1925 book, Post-Expressionism: Magic Realism (which was sold to accompany Hartlaub’s exhibition when it went on tour of German galleries) presented two possible terms.)

Roh included in his book a table with two columns, in one an Expressionist characteristic, next to it its post-Expressionist equivalent. There were 22 qualities in all. According to Roh Magical Realist paintings were notable for their: accurate detail, smooth photographic clarity, painterly finish, and portrayal of the ‘magical’ nature of the rational world. They reflect the uncanniness of people and our modern technological environment. In all these ways Roh’s phrase is arguably a better descriptor for the majority of the hyper-accurate but subtly distorted and unnerving paintings of the period. But Neue Sachlichkeit stuck.

Self-portrait by Christian Schad (1927)

Self-portrait by Christian Schad (1927)

In fact this book makes clear that the terminology has gone on being debated, refined, rejected and refreshed right down to the present day. Maybe a word cloud or, more precisely, a phrase cloud summarise some of the ways various writers have sought to characterise it. According to various writers, New Objective paintings display:

an alienated relationship to the real… a disenchanted experiential world…detached alienated people…anti-human… treating humans like objects… lack of empathy…. excessively German objectification… a cold passion for the exactness of clichés… an aesthetics of the ugly… [according to Roh] abstraction instead of empathy… [according to critic Wilhelm Michel] the rediscovery of the ‘thing’ after the crisis of the ‘I’…

The nine essays

Of the book’s 14 essays, nine on specific academic subjects, while the last five are about the five themes which the exhibition was divided into. The nine essays are:

1. New Objectivity – by Stephanie Barron introducing us to the timeframe, the basic ideas, the origins of the term and so on.

2. A Lack of Empathy by Sabine Eckmann – looking back at 19th century Realism to conclude that the New Realism turned it inside out, concentrating on surfaces but deliberately lacking old-style empathy for the subjects.

3. Hartlaub and Roh by Christian Fuhrmeister – a dry, scholarly examination of the working relationship between the museum director Hartlaub who organised the famous 1925 show and the art critic Roh, who wrote the book which introduced Magical Realism.

4. New Women, New Men, New Objectivity by Maria Makela – Makela describes the prominence of gay and lesbian people in many Weimar portrait

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

I enjoyed this article hugely for the sheer unimaginative repetitiveness of its ‘ideas’. Here are choice snippets:

a mannish lesbian who cares little for the traditional codes of femininity… images of women who blurred clear-cut gender boundaries…women’s participation in sport undermined traditional gender roles… the 1920s independent young woman who undermined traditional gender roles… the prevalence of caricatures about New Women in the illustrated mass media considerable anxiety about the breakdown of traditional gender roles… the transgression of traditional gender codes was more threatening in Germany than elsewhere… clear-cut gender boundaries were being eroded in all industrialised countries… the horrible physical and psychic maladies [caused by the war] were intolerable for many German men whose gender identity was in tatters… sex, sexual alterity and gender ambiguity… an era of gender confusion… multiple and mobile gender positionalities…

5. The Politics of New Objectivity by James A. van Dyke. Van Dyke examines this potentially huge subject via the rather small example of the 1927 exhibition of 140 New Objective art works put on by the Berlin art dealer Karl Nierendorf for which the ubiquitous art critic, Franz Roh, wrote the programme. What comes over is that as early as 1927 both left-wing and right-wing critics had begun to turn against the style, accusing it of shallowness, fashionableness and petit-bourgeois crowd-pleasing.

6. New Objectivity and ‘Totalitarianism’ by Olaf Peters – A look at how the artists and idioms of New Objectivity lived on into Hitler’s Reich and then into the East German communist dictatorship. The left-wing artists fled Hitler immediately – Grosz most famously of all, managing to flee the country only weeks before the Leader’s accession. But plenty stayed behind and Peters shows how some of the blander ‘classicists’ managed to sustain careers, some even garnering commissions from powerful Nazi figures. Politicians and some artists for a while cooked up a new movement called New German Romanticism…

The situation in post-war East Germany was even more complex, as artists attempted either to deny their Objectivist pasts or to rehabilitate Objectivism as a precursor of the state-favoured style of Socialist Realism. Peters shows artists, critics, historians and scholars bending over backwards to try and rehabilitate some of the more extreme Objectivist works with the narrow Party line. In practice this seems to have been done by examining the artists’ origins: if he was the son of working class parents his art must be proletariat, and so on. It occurred to me that one reason why Weimar is such a popular period to write about is because it was the last time German writers and artists didn’t have to lie and feel compromised about their political beliefs. It was (briefly) a vibrantly open society. Post-war both East and West Germany were more crippled and constrained by their historical legacies.

7. Painting abroad and its nationalist baggage by Keith Holz looks at the way New Objective art was perceived abroad, by the neighbouring Czechs, by the French, but mostly by the Americans.

8. Middle-class montage by Matthew S. Wittkovsky – Wittowksy suggests that montage, among many other things, can be a way of allowing the real world back into a medium torn up by modernist experiments. In other words, a cubist effect is created but with elements which are hyper-realistic (photographs).

Metropolis by Paul Citroen (1923)

Metropolis by Paul Citroen (1923)

Wittowksy points out that both Christian Schad and Otto Dix made collages during their Dada years and tries to show that the collage mentality – conceiving the painting as an assemblage of disparate elements – underpins their oil paintings. He uses Schad’s self portrait (shown above) to suggest that 1. the two human figures are disconnected. 2. They are separated from the Paris skyline by some kind of gauze. 3. Even the body of the main figure is distanced by the odd translucent chemise he’s wearing. He pushes the idea of layers into history, suggesting that  there is a collage-like superimposition between Schad’s painterly finish, derived from Northern Renaissance painters, and the 20th century subject matter.

9. Writing photography by Andreas Huyssen – This essay is not at all about Weimar photography but about the conflicted opinions about photography of a couple of Weimar-era writers and critics, namely the super-famous (if you’ve studied critical theory) Walter Benjamin, his colleague Siegfried Kracauer, the right-wing warrior and writer Ernst Jünger, and the Austrian philosophical novelist, Robert Musil. It’s always good to be reminded how culturally right-wing even Marxist sociologists and theorists are: thus both Kracauer and Benjamin thought that photography was just one of the mass media, or instruments of distraction, which were undermining older human skills and values. Huyssen is concerned with the fact that all these writers wrote collection of short pieces, short feuilletons, prose pieces and fragments, which they published in various collections, to try to convey the Modernist notion of the fragmented quality of life in the ‘modern’ city. (Wonder what any of them would make of life in Tokyo 2018.)

Like Benjamin’s buddy, Theodor Adorno, their brand of Marxism amounted to a continual lament for the good old values which were being overthrown by the triviality and vulgarity of the ‘entertainment industry’ promulgated by the hated capitalist system.

And yet…. when Hitler rose to power they all emigrated to the heart of capitalism, America, where they spent the war in exile happily slagging off the vulgarity of American culture while 300,000 American boys died in combat to liberate their culturally superior Europe.

Once Europe had been made safe again for Marxist philosophers they went back to Germany and set up the Frankfurt School for Social research where they spent the rest of their careers criticising the economic and legal system which made their cushy, professorial lives possible.

Criticisms

1. I have tried to make these essays sound interesting, and they certainly address interesting topics, but in every case the authors are more interested in the work of curators, critics, gallery owners, art dealers and so on than in the art. This means you have to wade through quite a lot of stuff about particular critics and how their views changed and evolved. Thus the art scholar Keith Holz gives us his interpretation of the German curator Fritz Schmalenbach’s essay on the changing ways in which the German curator Gustav Hartlaub used the expression Neueu Sachlichkeit. Which is of, well, pretty specialist interest shall we say.

The essay on how New Objectivism was perceived abroad, maybe inevitably, is more about galleries and curators and critics than about the work or ideas or style of particular artists.

The essay about New Objectivity in Eastern Germany is mainly about the efforts of various critics and theorists to incorporate it into narratives of German art which would be acceptable in a communist regime.

After a while you begin to wish you could read something about the artworks themselves.

The Dreamer by Heinrich Maria Davringhausen ( 1919)

The Dreamer by Heinrich Maria Davringhausen ( 1919)

2. You get the strong sense most of the essays are not written for a general public, for us who know little or nothing about the twists and turns of abstruse debates among art historians for the past forty years. They are not written in a spirit of introducing and explicating the art or the artists, or of giving a history of the reception of Weimar paintings abroad to the likes of you or me. No, the dominant feeling is that the essays are overwhelmingly written by art historians and scholars for other art historians and scholars.

3. Therefore all of the essays are written in the kind of semi-sociological jargon which is uniform among art scholars and historians these days, a prose style which rejoices in ‘projects’ and ‘negotiations’ and ‘situating’ debates and ‘transgressing gender norms’, the tired critical theory style which makes them not exactly incomprehensible, but simply boring.

The prose often sounds like the annual reports of company accountants, like the kind of corporate brochures I helped to write and distribute when I worked in the civil service. Here’s a sliver from Olaf Peters describing how difficult East German art historians found it to include New Objectivity in their orthodox Marxist narratives of German art.

The fear of the so-called bourgeois formalist tradition in art history indeed made it impossible for art historians in East Germany to appropriately analyse the artistic potential of New Objectivity. The GDR was hardly prepared aesthetically or theoretically to reflect adequately on the phenomenon of New Objectivity as an all-encompassing presence in the interwar period. (p.86)

Maybe that’s not long enough to give you the taste of crumbling concrete which so many of these essays leave behind on the palate. Here’s a slice of Keith Holz.

The comparative manoeuvres that art historians are enticed to make between New Objectivity and its apparent variations (or influences) outside Germany are not new, nor are they likely to subside. A more comprehensive approach might ask what is at stake in such comparisons by noting similarities between, say, American, Czech, French or Italian paintings of the 1920s and early 1930s and paintings associated with German New Objectivity. On the German-American front, this ground is well traversed, nowhere more critically or richly than in recent work by Andrew Hemingway. Based on substantial original research, Hemingway has recently reconstructed the careers of Stefan Hirsch, George Ault, and Louis Lozowick in relation to German art of the 1920s. Relating the German-born Hirsch to the public face of Precisionism, Hemingway stations the artist’s incipient career within a history of the promotion and reception of New Objectivity in the United States. For Hemingway, the link between these Precisionist-allied artists and German New Objectivity is the representational function of their artworks within international capitalism, particularly the reification of people and objects within this system. (p.93)

You will be thrilled to learn that Hemingway’s ‘trenchant interventions’ represent a ‘methodological paradigm shift’ in historical research. Phew.

My point is – I can read and understand the words, and I understand that these essays are (disappointingly) snippets and excerpts from long and specialised scholarly conversations about the historical interpretation of Weimar art among scholars and historians, living and dead, but — hardly any of it takes me one millimetre closer to the actual works of art.

Quite the opposite, fairly often as I waded through this prose I had to remind myself that the authors were talking about art at all, and not production figures for concrete pipes.

The Parents by Otto Dix (1921)

The Parents by Otto Dix (1921)

4. Repetition. Lots of short essays means lots of generalising introductions and lots of vapid conclusions. This helps to explain why they feel very repetitive. For example, the passage here the curator Hartlaub distinguished between left or verist painters (who use harsh satire, fierce colours and ugly caricature to make a political point) and right or classical artists (who take a more cool and detached view of the world) is explained in detail at least five times (pp.17, 29, 42, 126, 263). The idea that the Weimar era was one of political and economic turmoil is repeated in some form in most of the essays. The idea that capitalism is nasty and exploitative is repeated in almost all of them. The following quote from Walter Benjamin, about Albert Renger-Patzsch’s photo album, The World is Beautiful, is repeated three times:

In it is unmasked the posture of a photography that can endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists. (p.213)

In one long text like Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture (which reads like a masterpiece of calm authority next to many of these works) basic ideas and events need only be mentioned once. In these dozen or more essays you find the same basic ideas (1920s city life was faster and more disorientating than ever before, women had more rights than before the war) being stated again and again and again.

In the wake of the war and in light of the rapid modernisation of working life, increased gender equality and sexual emancipation, and ongoing political uncertainty, artists sought to redefine their role in society. (p.260)

I wonder which decade from the last hundred and fifty years that hasn’t been true of.

Conclusions are hard enough to write at the best of times: it’s difficult to sum up the content of an essay without repeating it. It’s bad enough reading the conclusion of a single book, but reading 15 essays means reading 15 conclusions which, by their nature, tend to be very generalised: again and again they say that ‘more work’ needs to be done to properly understand or fully explore or adequately decode the multiple streams of art of the time. Just like any other time, then.

5. The fourth really irritating aspect about the essays is how many of these scholars appear to live in the 1970s as far as ‘capitalism’ is concerned. They all breezily refer to the evil affects of ‘capitalism’ as if we’re all a bit silly for not choosing one of the countless other economic systems we could be using, like… like, er… And quite a few deploy the word ‘bourgeois’ as if it still means anything. Witkovsky in particular is lavish with the expression:

  • The new realism could continue the avant-garde attack on bourgeois subjectivity while simultaneously addressing the incipient subjugation of all subjectivity by the seductions of capital and by political dictatorship. (p.106)
  • [Schad’s subjects] belong to a decadent social space removed from the normative bourgois economy of labour and domestic comforts. (p.106)
  • [Schad’s paintings] are montages of different social spaces. They mask the materiality of that conflict [between the different social spaces] which the photograms laid bare, but they also suggest its social dimension more directly, through the illusions of figuration. This scrambling of the separations effected by bourgeois society makes the paintings discomfiting. (p.108)
  • Sander, like the artists of the New Objectivity, fully inhabited the bourgeoisie. His chosen portrait locations likewise emanate a degree of comfort and intimacy typically associated with the private home, the single most vaunted bourgeois setting. (p.112)
  • [The photographer August Sander embarked on a project to photograph all possible job types in 1920s Germany, a project he never completed.] In the necessary incompleteness of Sander’s project lies, perversely, its greatest promise of enlightenment – a realisation that modern society is grounded in accumulation without end. Infinitude may be implicit in the foundational bourgeois idea of capital accumulation, but to put such an idea on display – and to depict it, moreover, through portraiture of the citizenry – forces a rupture with the equally bourgeois ideals of closure, separation and control. (p.113)

In short, if you like your Marxism shorn of any connection with an actual political party or programme i.e. any risk of ever being put into practice, but you still want to enjoy feeling smugly superior to ‘bourgeois’ society with its vulgar ideas of ‘capital accumulation’ and its ghastly ‘gender stereotyping’, then being a white, middle-class art historian in a state-funded university is the job for you. Your sense of irony or self-awareness will be surgically removed upon entry.

It’s not just that this anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist view seems so rife among these art scholars now, in 2018, thirty years after the collapse of communism – it’s that they’re all based in America. America. The centre of global capitalism for the past century. Do they not own private property, cars and houses and mobile phones? Are the art galleries and colleges they work for not funded and supported by big banks and finance houses (as most exhibitions are). If they’re so disgusted by capitalism and the revolting bourgeoisie why don’t they go to a country where neither exist. North Korea is lovely this time of year. The people there are wonderfully free of the reification and alienation and objectification which make life in Southern California so unbearable.


The five thematic essays

The second part of the book consists of five thematic essays, each of which is nine or ten pages long and followed by 40 or so full colour, full page reproductions. This, then, is the visual core of the book. I hoped the essays would be a bit more general and informative. Alas no.

1. Life in the Democracy and the Aftermath of War by Graham Bader. Bader invokes the usual suspects among contemporary Marxist thinkers (György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer) to declare that the art of the period reflected a new level of capitalism (‘this process of capitalist rationalisation appeared to have triumphed in the interwar period’ it was ‘rationalisation run amok’, p.125). Capitalism depersonalised people, reducing them to objects with no centre, to collections of surfaces. Bodies were ‘colonised and deformed’. Lukács lamented:

capitalist rationalisation’s penetration and capture of the human body, its dismissal of the ‘qualitative essences’ of the individual subject in the process of transforming human beings into abstractions, mere numbers for a general’s war plans or a pimp’s balance sheet. (p.131, 182, 228)

Like Lukács, Kracauer:

understood industrial capitalism’s ‘murky reason’ – its faith in a totalising abstractness that has ‘abandoned the truth in which it participates… and does not encompass man‘ – as having come to colonise rather than liberate the subjects it ostensibly served.

Among all this regurgitation of 100-year-old communist rhetoric Bader makes a simple point. The war and the crushing post-war poverty left highly visible marks on people’s bodies. The streets were full of maimed soldiers and the impoverished unemployed, and also a flood of women driven by poverty to prostitution. Hence the huge number of sketches, drawings and paintings of prostitutes and war cripples among Neue Sachlichkeit artists.

Two victims of capitalism by Otto Dix (1923)

Two victims of capitalism by Otto Dix (1923) According to Bader, ‘the paradigmatic couple of the age’ (p.130)

It doesn’t occur to Bader, any more than it occurred to any of the Weimar artists, that this situation wasn’t brought about by capitalism; it was the result of Germany losing the war. Their idiotic military leaders decided to take advantage of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to implement their long-cherished plan to knock out France in a few weeks and then grab loads of lebensraum off Russia. That resulted in a social and economic cataclysm. If lots of men were war cripples it was because they fought in a stupid war. If lots of women became prostitutes that is because Germany’s economy was brought to its knees by its leaders’ stupidity, by the fact that they were undergoing a military blockade because they lost the war.

If capitalism was always and everywhere so utterly exploitative and destructive how do you account for the experience of the 1920s in the world’s most capitalist country, America – the decade they called ‘the Roaring Twenties’, a decade of unparalleled economic growth and a huge expansion in consumer products and liberated lifestyles?

In fact the Weimar Republic experienced its golden years (1924 to 1929) precisely when it was at its most capitalistic, when it received huge loans from capitalist America and its capitalist factory owners were able to employ millions of people.

Art historians cherry pick the evidence (using a handful of paintings to represent a nation of 60 million people), quote only from a self-reinforcing clique of Marxist writers (Benjamin, Kracauer, Lukács, over and over again) and ignore the wider historical context in way which would get any decent historian sacked.

2. The City and the Nature of Landscape by Daniela Fabricius. Fabricius quotes the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch who pointed out the fairly obvious idea that different groups of people live in different ‘nows’ i.e. city dwellers live in a more technologically and culturally advanced ‘now’ than isolated country dwellers. This leads her into a consideration of different types of ‘space’, inparticular the new suburbs which sprang up outside German cities, generally of modernist architecture, which lent themselves to stylish modern photography by the likes of Arthur Köster, Werner Mantz and Albert Renger-Patzsch.

St Georgs-Garten Housing Settlement 1926 by Arthur Köster

St Georgs-Garten Housing Settlement, 1926 by Arthur Köster

Albert Renger-Patzsch published a photo album called the World is Beautiful which the egregious Walter Benjamin disliked for showing the world as beautiful and therefore not ‘problematising’ it, not subjecting it to the kind of dialectical analysis which would have shown that in fact the World Needs a Communist Revolution. Renger-Patzsch stayed in Germany during the Nazi years and was commissioned to do idealised studies of the German regions by the Nazis.

Fabricius ends her essay with a rare piece of useful information about a specific artist rather than an analysis of other art historians – by telling us a little about George Schrimpf, a self-taught painter who spent his early years bumming round south Germany, eventually getting involved with artistic and anarchist circles in Munich. All this is completely absent from his naive paintings of women in interiors with views of perfect landscapes or outside among the perfect landscapes.

On the Balcony by Georg Schrimpf (1929)

On the Balcony by Georg Schrimpf (1929)

3. Man and Machine by Pepper Stetler. Stetler explores the way the word Sachlichkeit was used as early as 1902 (by architect Hermann Muthesius) to describe a no-frills, functionalist aesthetic derived from the way machines are designed, built and work. The architecture critic Adolf Behne in the 1920s tried to shift the term to refer not to a visual style but to a way of working with machines, a way for humans to interact via machines. These were just some of the people debating this word when Hartlaub used it as the title for his famous 1925 exhibition. As well as Muthesius, Hartlaub and Behne, we are also introduced to the art historian Carl Georg Heise, the art critic Wilhelm Lot, the art critic Kurt Wilhelm-Kästner, the art critic Justus Bier, the critic Walter Benjamin and the Marxist philosopher, György Lukács. Again. Maybe the editors stipulated that Benjamin, Kracauer and Lukacs had to be referenced in every essay.

Stetler doesn’t mention it but the Dadaists had already conceived all kinds of man-machine combinations, and Dix and Grosz produced some grotesque caricatures of maimed war veterans who were more false limbs, artificial eyes, springs and contraptions, than men.

But the main thrust of this piece is to introduce a selection of wonderful paintings and photos of machinery. They demonstrate the way the machinery is 1. painted in punctiliously accurate engineering detail. 2. Is often depicted isolated, clean, often seen from below, as if it is an art work placed on a plinth for aesthetic enjoyment. 3. No people, no workers, no mess. Frozen in time. The star of the machine artists is Carl Grossberg, who trained as an architect and draftsman.

The paper machine by Carl Grossberg (1934)

The paper machine by Carl Grossberg (1934)

It is interesting to  learn how systematic and methodical these German artists were: Albert Renger-Patzsch’s project was to take 100 photographs of the modern germany for The World Is Beautiful. August Sandler’s Face of our Time (1929) contains a selection of 60 portraits from the larger project, People of the 20th Century which he intended to include 600 portrait photographs. Grossberg set out to do a series of twenty-five monster paintings which would provide a survey of Germany’s most important industries (p.209). Grosz published his drawings in themed portfolios.

4. Still Lifes and Commodities by Megan R. Luke. Luke scores full marks for mentioning Walter Benjamin early on in her essay about the New Objectivity’s use of still lives, and for slipping in a steady stream of Marxist terminology: in Weimar ‘the commodity reigned supreme’; there was a ‘general cultural anxiety’. She quotes the historian Herbert Molderings who, if not a Marxist, is happy to use Marxist terminology, on the still life photos of Neue Sachlichkeit:

‘They are the modern still lifes of the twentieth century: the expression of exchange value incarnate, the detached form of the fetish character of commodities.’ (quoted p.231)

She also takes the time to explain that photographs in adverts are designed to make us want to buy the products.

Advertising seeks not to show products of our labour or need but rather to excite and choreograph a desire that has the power to overwhelm us. (p.231)

Where would we be without art scholars to guide us through the confusing modern world?

This is the third essay in a row to tell us that the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch’s produced a photo album titled The World is Beautiful (p.236).

The only useful idea I found was that objects were somehow cleansed of all significance, hollowed out, and subjected to ‘suffocating scrutiny’. Now wonder the Walter Benjamins of this world were so deeply ambivalent about photography: it revealed the complexity of the world in a way the human eye isn’t designed to (something pointed out by Moholy-Nagy in his book on photography) and yet this new type of image runs the risk of claiming to capture or depict reality and thus – as Benjamin and Brecht emphasised – completely erasing the web of human relationships it appears amid.

If Expressionist paintings screamingly overflowed with the artist’s distraught emotions, Sachlichkeit still lives seem to have been magically drained of all passion or emotion. It is this erasure of human presence, of human touch and context, which makes so much of the photography and painting of buildings and machinery both powerfully evocative, charged with mystery and yet bereft: all at the same time.

Insulated High Tension Wires from Die Welt Ist Schon by Albert Renger-Patzsch (1928)

Insulated High Tension Wires from Die Welt Ist Schon by Albert Renger-Patzsch (1928)

5. New Identities: Type and Portraiture by Lynette Roth. Amid the politically correct commonplaces (Dix’s portrait of Sylvia von Harden ’embodies the masculinised woman whose appearance challenged norms of sexual difference’), Roth brings out how a notable aspect of Neue Sachlichkeit was the interest in types. August Sander’s project to photograph 600 ‘types’ of profession and trade is the locus classicus, but the painters Grosz or Dix also offered combinations of the same ‘types’ over and again (war cripples and prostitutes throng their works).

She suggests the use of types and sterotypes was a way of addressing, sorting out, the post-war chaos. Thin ice, because the Nazis also were keen on types, notably the good Aryan and the bad Jew. And Roth definitely doesn’t mention this, but one of the easiest stereotypes in the world is the bad capitalist and the poor innocent proletarian ‘alienated’ from his work.

I am astonished how from start to finish all the art historians and scholars in this book make extensive and unquestioning use of Marxist terminology based on a fundamentally anti-capitalist worldview. On the last page she is quoting a fellow ‘scholar’ who suggests that some of Sanders’s photographs ‘challenge hegemonic bourgeois structures’.

Quite breath-taking.


Painterly finish

In 1921 Max Doerner published a popular handbook The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting which provided information and guidance for artists wishing to use the techniques of the Old Masters, info about oil, tempera, fresco and other methods of artists like Jan van Eyck, Holbein, Rembrandt and Rubens.

Doerner’s book helped artists who were committed to painting works with hyper-realistic attention to detail and smooth invisible finish (compared to the deliberately obvious brush strokes of the impassioned Expressionists). The emphasis on portraiture of so many works of this era recall the portraits of Northern Renaissance painting.

It can be summed up in one word – painterliness – what Roth lists as ‘careful finish, attention to detail and smooth finish’ (p.263).

The current Van Eyck show at the National Gallery is focused round his wondrous use of a concave mirror, showing how this motif was picked up by later painters. I wonder if Herbert Ploberger is deliberately referencing it in the convex reflection in the powder case, middle left, in this painting.

Dressing Table by Herbert Ploberger (1926)

Dressing Table by Herbert Ploberger (1926)

Kanoldt and O’Keeffe

Doesn’t Alexander Kanoldt’s Olveano II from 1925…

… look like Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Mesa Landscape (1930)?

The spirit of the age. A parallel tendency towards cartoon simplification, of both landscape and colour.

Last words

While both an aesthetics of the ugly and modernist innovation dovetail with nineteenth-century Realism, interestingly enough it is the specific German mentality and political context that is seen as necessitating a new form of realism characterised by unconditional attack, excessive exposure, and radical critique transgressing the paradigm of empathy. (Sabine Eckmann, p.35)


Related link

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Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974)

The term ‘Weimar culture’, while generally accepted, is in some respects unsatisfactory, if only because political and cultural history seldom coincides in time. Expressionism was not born with the defeat of the Imperial German army, nor is there any obvious connection between abstract painting and atonal music and the escape of the Kaiser, nor were the great scientific discoveries triggered off by the proclamation of the Republic in 1919. As the eminent historian Walter Laqueur demonstrates, the avant-gardism commonly associated with post-World War One precedes the Weimar Republic by a decade. It would no doubt be easier for the historian if the cultural history of Weimar were identical with the plays and theories of Bertolt Brecht; the creations of the Bauhaus and the articles published by the Weltbühne. But there were a great many other individuals and groups at work, and Laqueur gives a full and vivid accounting of their ideas and activities. The realities of Weimar culture comprise the political right as well as the left, the universities as well as the literary intelligentsia (Publisher’s blurb)

Laqueur was born into a Jewish family in 1921 in Prussia. He emigrated to British-controlled Palestine in 1938, where he graduated from school then worked as a journalist till the mid-50s. In 1955 he moved to London, and then on to America where he became an American citizen and a leading writer on modern history and international affairs.

Laqueur is still going strong at the age of 96 and has had a prodigious career – his first book (a study of the Middle East) was published in 1956 and his most recent (a study of Putinism) was published in 2015.

This book is about twice the length of Peter Gay’s 1968 study of the culture of Weimar. It is more urbane and expansive in style, and less tied to a specific thesis. Gay’s aim was to show how, in a range of ways, the intelligentsia of Weimar failed to support, or actively sought to overthrow, the young German democracy.

The overall tendency of Laqueur’s book is the same – the failure of the arts and intelligentsia to support the Republic – but his account feels much more balanced and thorough.

Geography

I appreciated his description of the geography of post-war Germany and how it influenced its politics. It’s important to remember that, under the punitive Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost all her overseas colonies, 13% of her European territory and a tenth of her population (some 6 million people) who now found themselves living in foreign countries (France, Poland, the new state of Czechoslovakia).

Much more than France or Britain, Germany had (and still has) many cities outside the capital which have strong cultural traditions of their own – Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden.

Laqueur emphasises the difference between the industrial north and west and more agricultural south and east. He points out that the cities never gave that much support to Nazism; on the eve of Hitler’s coup, only a third of Berliners voted for the Nazis. Nazism was more a product of the thousands of rural towns and villages of Germany – inhabited by non-urbanites easily persuaded that they hated corrupt city life, cosmopolitanism, rapacious capitalists, Jews, and the rest of the Nazi gallery of culprits.

The left

I benefited from his description of the thinkers based around the famous Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923. The aim of the Institute was to bring together Marxist thinkers, writers, philosophers in order to work on a cultural critique of capitalist society. The idea was to analyse literature, plays, the new form of cinema – to show how capitalism conditioned the manufacture and consumption of these cultural artefacts.

To us, today, this seems like an obvious project, but that’s because we live in a culture saturated with an analysis of culture. Newspapers, magazines, the internet, blogs, TV shows, books, university courses by the thousand offer analyses of plays, art, movies and so on in terms of their construction, hidden codes, gender stereotyping, narrative structures, and so on and so on. The Frankfurt School thinkers – men like Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin – more or less invented the language and approach to do this.

With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, all these Marxist thinkers were forced into exile. Did they flee to the Workers’ Paradise of the Soviet Union? No. They may have been Marxists but they weren’t stupid. They fled to the epicentre of world capitalism, America. New York at first, but many passed on to California where, among the palm trees and swimming pools, they penned long disquisitions about how awful capitalism was.

What Laqueur brings out from a review of their different approaches is the complete impracticality of their subtle and sophisticated critiques of capitalist society, which were more or less ignored by the actual German Communist Party (the KPD). In fact it only slowly dawned on these clever men that the Communist Party merely carried out Moscow’s foreign policy demands and that clever, individualistic Marxist thinkers like them were more of a liability to its demands for unswerving obedience, than an asset. In the eyes of the Party:

Since they lacked close contact with the working class few of them had been able to escape the ideological confusion of the 1920s, and to advance from a petty-bourgeois, half-hearted affirmation of humanist values to a full, wholehearted identification with Marxism-Leninism. (p.272)

Their peers in the USSR were rounded up and executed during Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s. Life among the tennis courts of California was much nicer.

The right

Surprisingly, Laqueur shows that this political impractibility also goes for thinkers of the right, who he deals with at length in a chapter titled ‘Thunder from the Right’.

The right had, probably, a higher proportion of cranks than the left, but still included a number of powerful and coherent thinkers. Laqueur gives insightful pen portraits of some of the most significant figures:

  • Alfred Rosenberg the Nazi propagandist, thought that the Bolshevik revolution symbolised the uprising of racially inferior groups, led by the Asiatic Lenin and the Jew Trotsky, against the racially pure Aryan élite (the Romanov dynasty). Rosenberg wrote The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), the myth being ‘the myth of blood, which under the sign of the swastika unchains the racial world-revolution. It is the awakening of the race soul, which after long sleep victoriously ends the race chaos.’ Despite this feverish support for the Nazis, Laqueur points out that Hitler and the Nazi leaders didn’t bother to read this long work. Rosenberg was in fact, seen as ‘plodding, earnest, humourless,’ a figure of fun even on the right.
  • Oswald Spengler‘s famous tome The Decline of the West (1922) had been drafted as early as 1911, its aim being to describe the 19th century as a soulless age of materialism, which had led to rootless immoralism in the arts. According to Spengler history moves in enormous unavoidable cycles of birth and decay. The age of kings and emperors was over, a new age of mass society and machines was at hand. (Although Spengler attacked the Republic for being a business scam, he also had some hard words for the Nazis who in reply criticised him. But they let him live and he died a natural death, in 1936.)
  • Moeller van den Bruck wrote The Right of Young Peoples and The Third Reich, the latter arguing that the key to world history was the conflict between the new young nations (Germany, Russia, America) and the old imperial ones (Britain and France). He thought Germany’s leaders needed to adopt a form of state ‘socialism’ which would unite the nation in a new Reich, which would become a synthesis of everything which came before. Laqueur comments that van den Bruck’s two books are almost impenetrably obscure, but nonetheless full of high-sounding rhetoric, ‘poetic visions, enormous promises and apocalyptic forebodings’ (p.96). It is in this hyperbole which he represents the overwrought spirit of the times.
  • Edgar Jung was a leader of the Conservative Revolutionary movement who lobbied long and hard against the Weimar Republic, whose parliamentarian system he considered decadent and foreign-imposed. Jung became speech writer to the Vice-chancellor of the coalition cabinet, Franz von Papen. He wrote a 1934 speech which was fiercely critical of the Nazis for being fanatics who were upsetting the return to Christian values and ‘balance’ which is what he thought Germany required. With the result that Hitler had him arrested and executed on the Night of the Long Knives, at the end of June 1934.
  • Carl Schmitt was an eminent legal philosopher who developed a theory based around the centrality of the state. The state exists to protect its population, predominantly from aggression by other states. To function it has to be a co-ordinated community of interests. Liberalism undermines this by encouraging everyone to go their own way. Parliamentarianism is the (ineffectual) reflection of liberalism. The state exists to make firm, clear decisions (generally about foreign policy), the opposite of the endless talking-shop of parliaments. Schmitt was yet another ‘serious’ thinker who prepared the minds he influenced for the advent of a Führer. But what I enjoyed about Laqueur’s account is that he goes on to bring out nuances and subtleties in the positions of all these people. Despite being anti-parliamentarian and soundly right-wing, Schmitt wasn’t approved of by the Nazis because his theory of the strong state made no room for two key Nazi concepts, race and Volk. Also – like many right wing thinkers – his philosophy was temperamentally pessimistic – whereas the Nazis were resoundingly optimistic and required optimism from their followers.
  • Ludwig Klages was, after the Second World War, nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in developing graphology, the study of handwriting. But during the 1920s he was a pessimist of global proportions and a violent anti-Semite. His key work was The Intellect as Adversary of the Soul (1929) which claims that the heart, the soul, the essence of man has been trapped and confined ever since the beastly Jews invented monotheism and morality, twin evils which they passed on to Christianity. His book was a long review of the way Western morality had trapped and chained the deep ‘soul of Man’. Although the work was ripe in rhetoric, fiercely anti-rational and anti-democratic in tone and purpose it was, once again, not particularly useful to the Nazis.

To summarise: There was a large cohort of eminent thinkers, writers, philosophers, historians, of intellectuals generally, who wrote long, deeply researched and persuasive attacks on liberalism and democracy. Laqueur’s account builds up into a devastating indictment of almost the entire intellectual class of the country.

But all these attacks on Weimar democracy begged the central question: What would become of individual freedom when there were no longer human rights, elections, political parties or a parliament? The answer was that many of these thinkers developed a notion of ‘freedom’ completely at odds with out modern, UN Declaration of Human Rights-era understanding of the term. But notions which came out of deep German traditions of philosophy and religion.

Spengler, for example, maintained that, despite its harsh outer discipline, Prussianism – an epitome of core German values – enabled a deeper, inner freedom: the freedom which comes from belonging to a unified nation, and being devoted to a cause.

Protestant theologians of the era, on the other hand, developed a notion that ‘freedom’ was no longer (and never had been) attached to the outdated, liberal concept of individual liberty (which was visibly failing in a visibly failing ‘democracy’ as the Weimar Republic tottered from one crisis to the next). No, a man could only be ‘free’ in a collective which had one focus and one share belief.

In numerous thinkers of the era, a political order higher than liberalism promised freedom, not to individual capitalists and cosmopolitans, but to an entire oppressed people. The Volk.

What emerges from Laqueur’s summary of Weimar’s right-wing thinkers is that they were responding to the failure of democratic politics in just as vehement a fashion as the Marxists. The main difference is that invoked a much more varied selection of interesting (often obscure, sometimes bonkers) ideas and sources (compared with the communists who tended to be confined, more or less, to slightly varying interpretations of Marx).

To summarise, common features of Weimar right-wing thinking included:

  • the favouring of German Kultur (profound, spiritual, rural, of the soil) against superficial French Zivilisation (superficial, decadent, urban)
  • a focus on deep cultural values – Innerlichkeit meaning wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness
  • fierce opposition to the ‘ideas of 1918’:
    • political liberalism, social democracy, socialism, parliamentarianism
    • sexual lascivious dancing, jazz, nudity, immorality, abortion, divorce, pornography
    • cultural arts which focused on corruption and low moral values instead of raising the mind to emulate heroes
    • racial against foreigners, non-Germans, traitors and Jews

But just as the actual Communist Party didn’t think much of Weimar’s Communist intellectuals and were as likely to be repelled by avant-garde art as the staidest Berlin banker (as Stalin’s crack down on all the arts in favour of Socialist Realism was soon to show) – so Laqueur shows that the Nazis weren’t all that interested in most of the right-wing intellectuals, some of whom (as explained above) they even executed.

One of the themes which emerges from Laqueur’s long account of intellectuals of all stripes is that none of them seem to have grasped that politics is not about fancy ideas, but about power.

The Nazis had a far more astute grasp of the realities of power than the other right-wing leaders; they did not think highly of intellectuals as allies in the political struggle, and they made no efforts to win them over. (p.88)

The Nazis realised (like Lenin) that the intellectuals who supported them would rally to their cause once they’d won power; and that those who didn’t… could be killed. Simples.

The politically negative impact of the arts

As to the arts, Laqueur echoes Gay in thinking that every one of the left-wing plays and movies and pictures, all the scabrous articles by Kurt Tucholsky and the searing drawings of George Grosz – didn’t convert one conservative or bourgeois to the cause. Instead, their net effect was to alienate large sectors of the population from an urban, predominantly Berlin-based culture, a milieu which the conservative newspapers could all-too-easily depict as corrupt, decadent, immoral and unpatriotic.

Conservatives said: ‘Why do all paintings, plays, cabarets and movies seem to focus on criminals, prostitutes, grotesques and monsters? Why can’t artists portray ordinary decency and German virtues?’

Laqueur gives a long account of Weimar literature, the main thrust of which is that a) it was more varied than is remembered b) Thomas Mann was the leading writer. Indeed, Mann’s career, writings and changing political attitudes weave in and out of the whole text.

Weimar had possibly the most interesting theatre in the world with the innovations of Erwin Piscator standing out (projection of film onto the stage, facts, statistics, graphs; stylised stage sets; stage workings left exposed to view, and so on). But he, like the most famous playwright of the era, Bertolt Brecht, appealed ultimately to an intellectual, bourgeois audience (as they do today). There’s no evidence that ‘the workers’ saw many of these avant-garde plays. Instead ‘the workers’ were down the road watching the latest thriller at the cinema. Film was well-established as the populist art form of the era.

Art is much more international than literature or theatre, and Laqueuer makes the same point as Gay, that what we think of as Modern art was mostly a pre-war affair, with the Fauves, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism all named and established by 1910, let alone 1914. In 1918 the survivors of these movements carried on, but Laqueur shows how the Expressionist impulse in all the arts – the harrowing sense of anguish, the apocalyptic visions, the strident imagery – was exhausted by 1923 or 4, and the more conservative, figurative (if still often stark and grotesque style) of Otto Dix and George Grosz was prevalent enough to be given its name of Neue Sachlichkeit well before the famous 1925 exhibition of that name.

Laqueur covers a lot more ground than Gay. There’s an entire chapter about German universities, which proceeds systematically through each of the subjects – sciences, arts, humanities, social studies and so on – explaining the major works of the era, describing the careers of key figures, putting them in the wider social and historical context. For example, art history emerges as a particular strong point of Weimar scholarship, from which America and Britain both benefited when Hitler came to power and all the art scholars fled abroad.

The main take home about universities is how shockingly right-wing the authorities and the students were, with plenty of learned scholars spending all their energy undermining the hated republic, and students forming all sorts of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups. I was genuinely surprised by this.

There’s a section on Weimar theology describing the thought of famous theologians such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and the Jewish thinker Martin Buber. As so often throughout the book there is often a strong sense of déjà vu, as the reader realises that ideas first promulgated during the 1920s have, in essence, echoed down to the present day:

The religious socialists, best-known among them Paul Tillich, preached ‘socialism derived from faith’, attacking soulless capitalist society, the free market economy and the alienation of man in which it had resulted. (p.210)

This sounds like the more outspoken Anglican bishops since as far back as I can remember (the 1970s).

Comparisons with our time

In fact one of the book’s great appeals is the way it prompts the reader to stop and draw comparisons between the Weimar years and our own happy times. Here are some thought-provoking similarities:

  • The left was full of utopian dreams, often about advanced sexual morality (divorce and abortions in the 1920s, LBGT+ and trans people in our time), which alienated a good deal of broader conventional opinion from their cause.
  • The left was characterised then, as now, by bitter internecine fighting (in our time the splits in the Labour Party between Momentum+young people supporting Jeremy Corbyn against the Labour MPs and left-wing commentators [e.g. The Guardian] who bitterly opposed him). The net effect of all this in-fighting, then as now, was to leave the way clear for the right to take and hold power.
  • The Weimar left was overwhelmingly urban and educated and made the fundamental mistake of thinking everyone was like them and shared their values. But, now as then, the majority of the population does not have university degrees, nor live in big cities full of talk about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘racial diversity’. This seems to be what took Vote Remain campaigners in the UK and Clinton campaigners in the US by surprise: the discovery that there are tens of millions of people who simply don’t share their views or values. At all.

Reading about: the obscene gap between rich and poor; the exploitation of workers; homelessness and dereliction; the in-fighting of the left; the irrelevance of the self-appointed avant-garde who made ‘revolutionary’ art, films, plays which were sponsored by and consumed by the bourgeois rich; while all the time the levers of power remained with bankers and financiers, huge business conglomerates and right-wing politicians — it’s hard not to feel that, although lots of surface things have changed, somehow, deep down, the same kind of structures and behaviours are with us still.

Reading the book tends to confirm John Gray’s opinion that, whereas you can definitely point to objective progress in the hard sciences, in the humanities – in philosophy, politics, art, literature and so on – things really just go round and round, with each new generation thinking it’s invented revolutionary politics or avant-garde art or subversive movies, just like the previous ones.

On a cultural level, has anything changed since the Weimar Republic produced Marxist culture critics, avant-garde movies, gay nightclubs, gender subversion and everyone was moaning about the useless government?

The peril of attacking liberal democracy

For me the central take-home message of both Gay and Laqueur’s books is that — If left wingers attack the imperfect bourgeois democracy they’ve got, the chances are that they won’t prepare the way for the kind of utopian revolution they yearn for. Chances are they will open the door to reactionaries who harness the votes and support of people which the left didn’t even know existed – the farmers and rural poor, the unemployed and petty bourgeoisie, the religious and culturally conservative – and lead to precisely the opposite of what the left hoped to achieve.

All across the developed world we are seeing this happening in our time: the left preaching utopian identity politics, supporting mass immigration and bickering among themselves – while the culturally and socially conservative right goes from strength to strength. I’m not saying there’s a direct comparison between Weimar Germany and now; I’m just pointing out that, reading this long and absorbing book, it was striking how many times the political or artistic rhetoric of the era sounded identical to the kind of thing we hear today, on both sides.

German values

Like Gay, Laqueur is German. Therefore his occasional, generally negative, comments about the German character are all the more noteworthy.

The esoteric language they [the members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research] used made their whole endeavour intelligible only to a small circle of like-minded people. This, incidentally, applied to most of the writings of the German neo-Marxists; the German language has an inbuilt tendency towards vagueness and lack of precision, and the Frankfurt School, to put it mildly, made no effort to overcome this drawback. (p.63)

The new trend [Modernism in all its forms] was in stark contrast to German innerlichkeit, wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness. (p.85)

[Thomas Mann was] Weimar Germany’s greatest and certainly its most interesting writer. But he could not be its spokesman and teacher, magister Germaniae. For that function someone far less complex and much more single-minded was needed. With all his enormous gifts, he had the German talent of making easy things complicated and obvious matters tortuous and obscure. (p.124)

[The heroes of the most popular writers of the time, neither left wing nor modernist, not much known outside Germany] were inward-looking, mystics, men in search of god, obstinate fellows – modern Parsifals in quest of some unknown Holy Grail. They were preoccupied with moral conflicts and troubled consciences, they were inchoate and verbose at the same time, very German in their abstraction, their rootedness and sometimes in their dullness. (p.139)

Something that comes over very powerfully is that the Germans don’t appear to have a sense of humour. They have bitter sarcasm, biting satire and harsh irony – but lightness, wit, drollery? Apparently not.

[Before The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer] the German theatre had been notoriously weak in comedy. (p.152)

It is easy to think of many tragedies in the annals of German theatre and opera; the comedies which have survived can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There was no German operetta, not a single composer who could even remotely be compared to Johann Strauss or Offenbach, to Milloecker or Gilbert and Sullivan. (p.226)

Quite a few patriotic films dealing with heroic episodes of Prussian or German history were produced. Von Czerèpy’s Fridericus Rex, perhaps the first major film of this genre, was done so crudely, with such a total lack of humour, that it was acclaimed outside Germany on the mistaken assumption that it was anti-German propaganda. (p.231)

The absence during the 1920s of good comedies and adventure films helps to explain the tremendous popularity in Germany not only of Charlie Chaplin, but also of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, later, Jackie Coogan. (p.243)

These are just a few examples, but Laqueur repeatedly describes the writers, thinkers, intellectuals and so on who he summarises as humourless, earnest, heavy and serious. I thought the notion of Germans being ponderous and humourless was a dubious stereotype, but reading this book goes a long way to confirming it.

The Weimar revival of the 1960s

In his final summary, Laqueur presents another very important piece of information, when he explains how and why the reputation of Weimar culture underwent a revival.

This, he says, happened in the 1960s. For 40 years the period had been forgotten or brushed aside as a shameful failure which preceded the Great Disaster. It was during the 1960s that societies across the Western world saw a swing to the left among intellectuals and the young, a movement which became known as the New Left.

It was as a result of this revival of interest in far left thought that much of Weimar’s experimental and left-wing achievements were revived, that saw an upsurge in interest in of Piscator’s modernist theatre stagings, Brecht’s theory of epic theatre, and the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School. This revival has never gone away. The Marxist theories of the Frankfurt School – a kind of communism-without-tears – has gone on to take over the thinking of most humanities departments in the Western world.

But, as Laqueur points out, the revival of interest in left wing and ‘radical’ thinkers, artists, writers of the period, systematically ignores both the conservative or right-wing thinkers of the period, as well as the middle ground of run-of-the-mill but popular playwrights, novelists or film-makers – the kind that most people read or went to the theatre to enjoy. These have all been consigned to oblivion so that in modern memory, only the radicals stand like brave heroes confronting the gathering darkness.

Laqueur argues that this has produced a fundamental distortion in our understanding of the period. Even the opinions of non-left-wing survivors from the Weimar years were ignored.

Thus Laqueur reports a conference in Germany about the Weimar achievement at which Golo Mann accused the Piscator theatre of being Salonkommunisten (the German equivalent of the English phrase ‘champagne socialists’), while Walter Mehring criticised Brecht’s Threepenny Opera for abetting Nazi propaganda by undermining the Republic. These kinds of criticisms from people who were there have been simply ignored by the generations of left-wing academics, students and bien-pensant theatre-goers and gallery visitors who have shaped the current Weimar myth.

The utopian left-wing 1960s sought for and boosted the thinkers and artists who they thought supported their own stance.

Just like Gay, Laqueur thinks that the latterday popularity of the novelist Hermann Hesse would have been inexplicable to those who lived through Weimar when he published most of his novels. Back then he was seen as an eccentric and peripheral figure, but in the 1960s he suddenly found himself hailed godfather of the hippy generation, and his books Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund became bestsellers. In his final years Hesse was in fact driven to declare that his writings were being misinterpreted by the younger generation. But then, in 1962, he died and the hippies and their successors were free to interpret him according to their own needs and fantasies.

After the Second World War Bertolt Brecht’s plays and productions became the toast of champagne socialists everywhere.

The Bauhaus brand underwent a great efflorescence, the architects who had settled in America (particularly Mies van der Rohe) having a huge impact on American skyscraper design, while the works of Kandinsky and Klee were revived and made famous.

In the humanities, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of capitalist consumer culture fit perfectly with the beliefs of the ‘New Left’, as it came to be known in the 1960s. The obscure essays of Walter Benjamin were dusted off and are now included in all literature, culture and critical theory courses. (I was struck by how Benjamin was referenced in almost every one of the 14 essays in the book about Weimar Art I recently read, The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33. I wonder if you’re allowed to write an essay in a humanities subject which doesn’t mention Saint Walter.)

Laqueur’s point is that the New Left of the 1960s, which has gone on to find a permanent home in humanities departments of all universities, chose very selectively only those elements of Weimar culture which suited their own interests.

Right here, at the end of the book, we realise that Laquer has been making a sustained attempt to present a less politicised, a more factual and inclusive account of Weimar culture than has become popular in the academy – deliberately ranging over all the achievements in pretty much every sphere of cultural endeavour, whether left or right, popular or avant-garde, whether it had undergone a golden revival in the 1960s or slumped into complete obscurity – in order to present a complete picture.

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 is a big, rich, thorough, sensible and thought-provoking book, which prompts ideas not only about the vibrant, conflicted culture of its time, but about how the Weimar legacy has been appropriated and distorted by later generations.


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Weimar Culture by Peter Gay (1968)

The complex of feelings and responses I have called ‘the hunger for wholeness’ turns out on examination to be a great regression born of fear: fear of modernity. The abstractions that Tönnies and Hofmannsthal and the others manipulated – Volk, Führer, Organismus, Reich, Entscheidung, Gemeinschaft – reveal a desperate search for roots and for community, a vehement, often vicious repudiation of reason accompanied by the urge for direct action or for surrender to a charismatic leader. (Weimar Culture p.100)

It took me a while to figure out what this book was for, what it’s about. I had to read the first half twice before the penny dropped.

It’s a relatively short book, 150 pages in the old Pelican paperback edition which I’ve got, and is divided into six chapters, with a 20-page historical overview at the end. The need for this appendix highlights the main thing about the text: it is emphatically not a history of the Weimar Republic. It is not even, despite the title, a history of Weimar culture. It is a series of six essays showing how certain highly specific, and limited, aspects of Weimar culture helped to fatally undermine it.

The chapters are:

  1. The Trauma of Birth: from Weimar to Weimar
  2. The Community of Reason: Conciliators and Critics
  3. The Secret Germany: Poetry as Power
  4. The Hunger for Wholeness: Trials of Modernity
  5. The Revolt of the Son: Expressionist Years
  6. The Revenge of the Father: Rise and Fall of Objectivity

Analysis of chapter 2

To take a sample chapter, the ‘Community of Reason’ chapter is not about intellectual life as a whole in the Weimar republic: it focuses on the founding of several important institutes outside the established universities, including the German Academy for Politics (1920), the Warburg Institute (1921), The Institute for Social Research (1923) and the Psychoanalytic Institute in Berlin (1910). (Gay has a special interest in psychoanalysis and is the author of a major biography of Sigmund Freud.)

The stories behind each of these organisations is fairly interesting, in a gossipy sort of way (Warburg was a borderline psychotic, apparently), but it’s only at the end of the chapter that Gay makes his point, which is that – although these are the bodies which went into exile when the Nazis came to power and therefore had a large influence abroad – at home they were relatively little known and had little or no impact.

This point only really becomes obvious in the last few pages where he contrasts the modernising innovativeness of this handful of institutes with the prevailing worldview of most academics and further education institutions in the Weimar republic, which were incredibly conservative and close-minded. We tend to think of students as fairly radical and subversive. Not in Weimar Germany, apparently.

Gay describes a widespread phenomenon known as Vernunftrepublikaners or ‘rational republicans’. This was the label given to intellectuals who only reluctantly gave assent to the establishment of the Weimar Republic, who supported it with their heads, while their hearts and souls continued to lie elsewhere.

So the ‘Community of Reason’ chapter amounts to a gossipy surf through the sector, with a conclusion that the most interesting thinkers in this area were ineffectual or irrelevant, while the majority of academics and students remained resolutely against the new liberal government.

Analysis of chapter 3

The same sort of structure is used for chapter three, ‘The Secret Germany: Poetry as Power’.

This takes the form of a sequence of shortish sections each describing a German poet who lived during – or was revived during – the Weimar period, being: Stefan George (1868-1933), Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), the Romantic poet Hölderlin (1770-1840), Kleist (1777-1811) and the playwright Büchner (1813-1827).

The pen portraits of each writer read much like the short introductory essays you used to get in old-fashioned student introductions to literature, books with titles like ‘An introduction to German poetry’ – short intros with a smattering of biographical facts, some generalisations about the work of their circle (the George circle seems to have been a particular phenomenon of Weimar). But Gay doesn’t actually quote or analyse any of their poetry, so you are left none the wiser about their abilities or styles.

Again it is only at the end of the chapter that we come to the point: all these writers were emphatically anti-rational, their writings over and over emphasising the importance of spirit and sensibility, community and authenticity – in both the writers and the style of their critics and readers.

Rilke became the dubious beneficiary of German literary criticism, a kind of writing that was less a criticism than a celebration, intuitive in method and overblown in rhetoric, a making and staking of grandiose claims, a kind of writing mired in sensibility and pseudo-philosophical mystery-making. (p.54)

Gay finds in the popularity of living poets like Rilke and George, and in the revivals of Hölderlin and Kleist, a morbid obsession with death, unreason, an ‘exaltation of irrationality, a blissful death wish’ (p.66). The blurring of the dividing lines between passion and religion led to ‘shapeless but impassioned religiosity’. It fatally led to poets being placed above thinkers or, as in Heidegger’s case, thinking itself becoming a kind of poetry, a kind of rousing rhetoric. Obscure but impassioned, it paved the way for fanatic barbarism.

It was only by reading the opening chapters twice that I realised Gay’s intention is not at all to give a panoramic overview of Weimar culture. It is not even to explore particular sectors, like poetry or film. It is to build up a collective indictment of the way leading intellectuals, institutions, writers and poets, historians and philosophers, refused to embrace the values of modern urban democracy – and so paved the way for Nazism.

Martin Heidegger

Take the notorious Martin Heidegger, notorious because he was both one of the seismic philosophical presences of the century, and because he undoubtedly gave help and support to the Nazis. Difficult and obscure though his work is (and he wrote it using words and terminology which he invented solely for the purpose) its central themes are comprehensible enough: rejection of the city, of urban life, of business, of politics, of democracy. Embrace of primitive being, primal existence, preference for living (as Heidegger did) a primitive existence in a retired rural area, wearing peasant costume, thinking weighty troubled thoughts.

Gay gives a pen portrait of Heidegger not to offer any analysis of his work or importance as a philosopher, but to show that a direct line links him with the anti-Enlightenment Romanticism of Holderlin; to show how deep and powerful the anti-modern, anti-democratic spirit was in German cultural life.

As a tiny symptom of this prevailing mood Gay points out that the Nazi Party was, of course, a political party, but it always referred to itself as a movement, a mass movement of spiritual and cultural regeneration and purification. Something above party and politics.

And this rhetoric fell right into line with the rhetorics of poets like Hölderlin and philosophers like Heidegger.

What Heidegger did was to give philosophical seriousness, professorial respectability, to the love affair with unreason and death that dominated so many Germans in this hard time. (p.85)

Summary

So: I thought this book would be an introduction to the cultural life of the Weimar Republic, but it really, really isn’t. Much the reverse: Gay shows how intellectual trends like a yearning for the order and hierarchy of the old Empire, combined with a widespread revulsion against modern urban life, and the cult of nature, primitivism, the rejection of the intellect and worship of ‘authenticity’, ‘depth’ and rhetorical power – how all this created an intellectual and cultural environment which was tailor-made for the advent of Hitler, with his appeal to people’s deeper, more ‘authentic’ emotions, his dismissal of foreign democracy and decadent cosmopolitanism, his appeal to the ‘true’ German spirit, founded in blood and suffering – his demand for unquestioning devotion.

And the remaining chapters ram this message home.

There is a long section about German historians of the 1920s (of pretty limited interest to anyone who isn’t themselves a professional historian) which indicts them for tending to glorify great Leaders of the past (Frederick the Great) as embodying German values of Kultur, an idea which German intellectuals considered superior to the decadent tinsel of Paris culture, and to Britain’s shopkeeper mentality.

The Weimar years saw the tremendous growth of the ‘Wandervogel’, community groups for the young which promoted outdoor activities and folk culture. Although some were supposedly socialist, Gay emphasises that their politics was shallow: it was a great surf of emotional enthusiasm looking for a direction, for a Leader.

Later chapters deal, in the same brief manner, with a number of other cultural peaks. The famous film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, is taken as typical of the confusion of aims and objectives common among Expressionist artists and film-makers. They too wanted a return to nature, a breakthrough to a more spiritual world – and yet they specialised in conveying confusion, fear, ugliness and extreme emotions. These weren’t attitudes suited to the calm, business-like give and take of democratic politics.

Gay has a longish discussion of Thomas Mann’s most famous novel, The Magic Mountain, whose main thrust seems to be that the novel is a working-through of Mann’s conflicted emotions about culture and democracy. The characters of the novel, living high in an Alpine sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis, on the face of it want to recover and live — but there is a tugging undercurrent romanticising death, with characters romantically attracted to extinction, to vaporous fantasies about ceasing upon the midnight with no pain. Even for so sensible a figure as Mann, death is just so much more glamorous and interesting than humdrum existence.

In fact, Mann is taken as a paradigm of Weimar attitudes: he had written patriotic gush when Germany had entered the Great War, had slowly become disillusioned as the war ground on, had been one of the early ‘rational republicans’ giving reluctant support to the Republic and, by the end of the 20s, had come to appreciate its virtues and to be an active supporter of democracy.

But it was too little, too late. Gay shows how outnumbered he was.

Gay’s thesis

In each chapter, in each movement and sector he looks at, Gay discerns the same underlying pattern: worship or glorification of the irrational, savage criticism of urban life, of business, of politics. Grosz et al tend to be admired nowadays for their scathing satires on political corruption. Gay interprets them as banging another nail in the coffin, with their communist, anti-republican propaganda.

For a democracy to work a culture must believe in it, must want it. It must have enough functioning civil servants and politicians who believe in its structures and institutions, who support its values and ideas, to keep it working.

Gay singles out the second-phase Bauhaus under the influence of László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers from about 1925 onwards, determined to work with modern materials and confront modern design challenges, as an epitome of what should have been happening.

What Gropius taught, and what most Germans did not want to learn, was the lesson of Bacon and Descartes and the Enlightenment: that one must confront the world and dominate it, that the cure for the ills of modernity is more, and the right kind of modernity. (p.106)

But Gropius was opposed, even within his own school, by more radical voices, communists who wanted to overthrow the existing system. Meanwhile from the outside, the Bauhaus faced right-wing nationalist opposition throughout its existence and was, finally, closed down by the Nazis soon after they came to power.

Gay’s book shows how, from top to bottom, from university historians to avant-garde film-makers and artists, from arcane philosophers to youth movements, from its architects to many of its leading politicians, the majority of the Weimar Republic’s intellectuals despised it, hated its ‘shallow’ urban values, despised the business-like compromises and deals which democracy requires.

Being passionate artists or historians entranced with Germany’s military past or philosophers of ‘Authenticity’, they preferred passion, blood, Kulturdas Volk, intuition… almost anything except reason and moderation.

Basically, the book could have been better titled The Weimar Republic and its Enemies. Or maybe The Weimar Republic: The Enemies Within. Or The Intellectual Malaise of the Weimar Republic.

After Hitler came to power it was common for foreigners to say, ‘How can Hitler and his gang of thugs have taken over the country of Bach and Mozart?’

Gay’s book goes to show how little the people who said that understood the Germany of the 1920s and 30s. His book explains the failure of intellectuals not so much to oppose Hitler (there were plenty of communist intellectuals who wrote, painted or acted against Hitler) but to do the more practical and needful thing – to actively support the Weimar democracy.

His book shows how the lack of support, indeed the widespread lack of understanding of what is required for a functioning democracy, goes a long way to explaining why the Weimar republic collapsed: not enough influential people believed in it or wanted it. They didn’t necessarily support Hitler but – on the evidence Gay presents here – for all sorts of reasons, they actively opposed the republic and the spirit of modern, secular, urban democracy which it represented.

Gay’s authority

And Gay speaks with more than academic authority. Peter Joachim Fröhlich was born in Berlin in 1923, at the height of the hyper-inflation which racked the Weimar Republic in that year. In 1941 he emigrated to America where he changed his surname to Gay, a close translation of Fröhlich which means ‘cheerfully’.

Gay studied history at the university of Denver, gained a PhD at Columbia, and then taught at Yale University from 1969 until his retirement in 1993. He wrote 25 history books, several of them becoming bestsellers, including a massive biography of Sigmund Freud (1988), and this study of Weimar culture.

So Gay was German, his friends and family were German. He was an impressionable teenager in the world he’s describing, and he mentions that some of his conclusions are drawn from direct conversations with key players in Weimar – Hannah Arendt (formidable intellect in her own right and one-time partner of Martin Heidegger), Walter Gropius, first director of the Bauhaus, and so on.

Reading through Gay’s systematic indictment of the leading minds of the Weimar Republic, marvelling at all the ways that German intellectuals failed to support, or actively undermined, their nation’s first attempt at democracy, tends to:

  1. profoundly worry you about the German national character
  2. make you distrust carping, sneering, ‘subversive’ public intellectuals even more than you already did

As I read the very last page with its poetic oration for the exiles forced to flee the advent of Hitler, I had a thought which Gay doesn’t mention. Maybe all the famous exiles from Hitler’s Germany, from Einstein to Brecht, from Schoenberg to Koestler, from Kurt Weill to Billy Wilder – if, as Gay suggests, they simply weren’t capable of supporting a sensible modern culture, well then maybe they could only thrive abroad in the stable environment provided by capitalist, democratic America. They were quite literally not capable of running a country of their own.


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Night by Elie Wiesel (1960)

In front of us those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.
(Night, page 28)

Eliezer ‘Elie’ Wiesel was 15 when the authorities in his Hungarian hometown, Sighet, rounded up all the Jews and forced them into a tiny ghetto. A few months later, with terrifying suddenness, the Germans arrived, arrested all the Jewish elders, packed the rest of the population into cattle trucks and sent them to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

On arrival men and women were separated in a matter of minutes, then marched off to their separate dooms, to be stripped naked, forced into the gas chamber, then incinerated in the crematoria. The bewildered boy watched his mother and sister lined up with the other women and marched off, and that was the last he ever saw of them. Wiesel and his father were selected for labour and sent to a men’s barracks where he survived, enduring privations and the anguish of watching his father’s steady deterioration.

In August 1944 he and his dad are transferred to Buna camp where the entire focus of existence becomes getting enough food. They witness terrible scenes. Hangings, shootings. There is the terrifying ordeal of a ‘selection’, all the inmates passing naked before the legendary Dr Mengele, his pencil hovering, ready to add your number to those selected for gassing. Eliezer and his father pass. Then Eliezer develops an infected foot and is sent to the infirmary. He is terrified they will amputate his leg, but it is only an abscess which needs lancing.

Only days later, with the same suddenness, the same midnight panic, the Block elders announce the Russians are now close, so the Germans are evacuating the camp. It is January 1945, the depths of bitter frozen winter, when Eliezer and his father join the 60,000 inmates who are driven on a death march west. Cold, snow, thousands not walking but jogging, forced to run by hundreds of SS guards with machine guns. Respite in a snowed-in ruined factory, prisoners falling asleep in the snow never to rise. Then roll call and more jogging, the body an empty machine, cold, the pain, arriving at a new camp named Gleiwitz, bodies collapsing on each other, squeezing out breath and life.

Someone had lain on top of me, smothering me. I couldn’t breathe through my mouth or my nose. Sweat was running down my forehead and my back. This was it; the end of the road. Silent death, suffocation. No way to scream, to call for help. (p.94)

Three days in the derelict camp without food or water. Many die. They can hear the cannons of the advancing Russians. Then the SS rouse them and march them further west, to the middle of a field by a railway. They are packed into open-roofed cattle trucks, 100 per truck, which travel in bitter cold under the snow. Most die of exposure and are thrown out of the trucks. Light-headed, weak, hallucinating, starving, it is always night, the freezing snow is everywhere. Eliezer slaps his father to keep him awake, to stop him being stripped and thrown overboard. They pass through German towns, German workers throw bread into the wagons and Eliezer watches people literally fight to the death for scraps of bread. Someone tries to strangle him. Night. Snow. Someone dies, someone else starts keening and before long the entire wagon is a frozen hell of corpses and keening wailing lost souls.

Amazingly, Eliezer and his father are just about alive when they arrive at the gates of Buchenwald. 100 entered their wagon. 12 leave.

Everyone is starving. Everyone is dying. At the rest stop in the factory on the death march, Eliezer had talked to a rabbi he knew who was pitifully looking for his son amid the night and snow and corpses. He realised he had seen the son forging ahead on the march, having left his father, having abandoned his father, hoping to survive without the impediment which was his sick, ailing father.

Now, at the most searing moment of the narrative (which Wiesel had already told us about in the Preface to the book) young Eliezer repeats this ultimate act of impiety, unfiliality, inhumanity. He lies terrified on the upper bunk of a bed while he hears his frail father being beaten on the bunk below by an SS officer. He is too terrified to move or protest but must listen to each blow landing on his father’s frail skull. It was 28 January 1945. And the worst thing? Deep inside – he is relieved.

The process of dehumanisation is complete. He is a shell. Two and a half months are covered in a few pages. Details, descriptions, living no longer matter to him. Soup and bread are all that matter. In April the Germans announce a systematic selection and gassing of the inmates. But on 11 April the inmates rise up and disarm the SS guards. Later that same day, units of the Sixth Armoured Division of the United States Third Army arrive at the gates. They are liberated. Eliezer eats. He gets sick. He recovers.

One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.
The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me. (p.115)

History of the text

It is almost unbelievable that anyone could continue living after these experiences, but Wiesel settled in Paris and attended the Sorbonne university, before getting a series of jobs as a journalist. It was only ten years later that the French novelist, François Mauriac, encouraged him to write it all down. The first manuscript was in Yiddish and 850 pages long. He went through and reduced this to 245 pages and, titled Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent’) it was published by a Jewish publisher in Buenos Aires in 1956.

Wiesel translated it into French and sent this manuscript to Mauriac, who tried numerous publishers who all rejected it. Eventually Samuel Beckett’s publisher agreed to take it, cut it down to 175 pages and changed the title to La Nuit. This French version came out in 1958.

Wiesel’s agent had similar problems interesting an American publisher until Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang in New York agreed to take it. He commissioned an English translation by Stella Rodway – which was further trimmed down to 116 pages – and published it as Night in 1960. It sold little to begin with, but became a word-of-mouth classic and stirred interest among Jewish literary figures.

As interest in the Holocaust revived among historians, academics and the wider culture, as more documentaries, films, plays and novels were written, Night grew steadily more important as testimony. In the early 2000s his publishers commissioned a new English translation from Wiesel’s wife, Marion, and upon its publication in 2006 it was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club, which led to a surge in sales and awareness.

Although first-hand testimony in its own right, Night – for good or ill – is now also part of the substantial cultural enterprise known as ‘Holocaust studies’.

(This textual history – and including the mention of Holocaust studies – is described in Wiesel’s own preface to the Penguin edition.)

Style

The book’s textual history explains its style. It is the result of not one but two translations, and an extensive process of revision and paring down. It has been extensively filtered. It is no surprise, then, that some critics have commented on its ‘minimalism’. By this they mean the style is polished. The sentences are mostly short. But they are pregnant with meaning. And suppressed emotion.

They ordered us to run. We began to run.

The old Jew, Moishe the Beadle, who he used to pore over the Zorah with, is shipped off with all ‘foreign’ Jews but, by a miracle, months later, reappears to tell everyone what happened to his transport i.e. they were lined up in a forest and shot, then piled into pits. He was wounded, played, dead, escaped to come back and warn everyone. But as in a fairy tale – or nightmare – no one will listen.

Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no longer sang. He no longer mentioned God or Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. (p.7)

Short sentences, simple forceful ideas conveyed in unfussy vocabulary. It has the power of a folk story. Or a sci-fi apocalypse.

Open rooms everywhere. Gaping doors and windows looked out into the void. It all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone. It was there for the taking. An open tomb. (p.17)

Also, it is very fragmented. There are nine distinct chapters (though they don’t have titles or numbers) but within them the text is made up of short bursts, page-long sections. And – at least in the earlier part – each one starts with an indication of the time – ‘and then’, ‘one day’, ‘suddenly’. Cumulatively, they make the text feel punchy, staccato, like being punched. Thus pages eight to 20 have ten separate sections, which start like so:

  • Spring 1944. Splendid news from the Russian front.
  • Anguish. German soldiers – with their steel helmets and their death’s-head emblem.
  • The eight days of Passover.
  • Two ghettoes were created in Sighet.
  • Some two weeks before Shavuot. A sunny spring day…
  • For a moment we remained alone.
  • The ghetto was awake.
  • The small ghetto.
  • Night.

Diary format. Short entries. Each one situated in time, their brevity conveying the sense of hurtling headlong. And that is part of the point. It all happened very suddenly at night, arrests, orders to pack all your belongings, to be outside by 10 o’clock. And continues. In short staccato bursts. Facts. At pace. Bewilderment. Horror.

The Oberkapo was arrested on the spot. He was tortured for weeks on end. He gave no names. He was transferred to Auschwitz. And never heard from again. (p.64)

At six o’clock the bell rang. The death knell. The funeral. The procession was beginning its march.
‘Fall in! Quickly!’
In a few moments, we stood in ranks. Block by block. Night had fallen. (p.84)

God

As a Jewish comedian commented, if God especially loves the Jews, he has a funny way of showing it. The first twenty pages or so describe young Eliezer as devoutly religious. His family want him to be the learned one, the scholar. He prays day and night with fervent feeling, and finds rabbis to study the Talmud and Kabbalah with, he fasts to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

But of course, rounding up into the ghetto knocks his faith and then the journey to the camp and even what he sees in the first few hours, destroys it. There follows the long slow lingering terrible extermination of his faith in God, man or anything. He walks past trenches full of gasoline into which Germans and camp kapos are throwing live babies and infants. Alive. Into the flames (p.32). People around him mutter prayers or reproaches against God.

Jewish and Christian literary critics make much of this central strand of the text. When Wiesel describes walking past a young boy who is being hanged, he overhears someone saying: ‘Where is God?’ to which, inside, he replies: ‘Here, hanging from this gallows’ (p.65). The exchange has prompted literary critics to give fancy interpretations of the boy as symbolising the crucified Christ and thus uniting Christian and Jewish blah blah blah.

I can see the imaginative, psychological, religious and literary power of such moments and such interpretations, but I find them blasphemous. For me, there is no God, no hint of God, no way of hiding, no way out, no redemption. Just humans reduced to animals scrabbling in the dirt by systematic and sadistic evil. To elevate any of this, to invoke any kind of ‘spiritual’ aspect to any of this, seems to me a blasphemy. It is the quintessence of human evil. Talk of God is absurd, irrelevant, inadequate, grotesque.

But then, What do I know? I have never had any remotely comparable experience. I am just a reader.

Youth and identity

I’ve recently read two other Holocaust texts, The Periodic Table by Primo Levi and This Way to the Gas by Tadeusz Borowski. Levi was 24 when he was sent to Auschwitz and had graduated as a chemist. In other words he had an adult identity. He credits his scientific training with saving his life, because it caused him to be transferred to the laboratory where he could steal things to exchange them in the camp for food (specifically the metal rods which he barters for the bread which keeps him and his friend Alberto going to the camp’s liberation – as told in the story ‘Cerium’ in The Periodic Table). But in a subtler way, it meant he had an identity based on science, scientific knowledge, the scientific method, and which related him to the entire scientific tradition of the West. The full depth and resonance and psychological power of this tradition is what gives such weight and force to his masterpiece The Periodic Table.

Borowski was twenty when he was sent to Auschwitz, and was already as a writer of poems, short stories and novels. He also had an adult identity which, in some way, helped him. Even as he unloaded the human freight onto the ramp at Auschwitz, maybe he was shaping and forming the experiences into words to write down.

Comparison with these two (still very young) men highlights Wiesel’s youth. All he had by way of vocation and ambition, was to become a religious scholar. So it wasn’t just his faith he lost in the camp, but  his entire purpose, his entire identity. And that is why, more completely than Levi or Borowski. His account conveys a sense of utter desolation. The others had an adult identity which could, to some extent, step back and rationally analyse the events.

Once stripped of his family and his religion, Wiesel had nothing. He is completely gutted, abolished, vacuated.

The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame. (p.37)

My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now… (p.68)

Controversy

Alas, Night has been dogged by controversy. At one extreme, some people have claimed Wiesel was never at Auschwitz and the whole thing is a fake. The ‘evidence’ for this and the counter-arguments are laid out in this article:

A lot of the criticism of Night and broader attacks directed at Wiesel and his works stem from his outspoken support for the state of Israel, and for its policies of holding onto the land seized in the 1967 war, and building Jewish settlements on Arab land. Plenty of anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish critics see all of his writing as compromised by his support of Israel.

Then there are critics who broadly support Wiesel, but claim that Night is not a work of fact, but of documentary fiction. Criticism in this vein can range from quibbling about various factual inaccuracies through to questioning entire episodes from the book. Much of this is summarised in this review of the new translation of 2006.

I am not qualified to comment on Wiesel’s stance on Israel or on debates about the book’s factuality. All I can comment on is the text before me. And reading some of the criticism mentioned above did crystallise in me some misgivings about the book, namely:

Harrowing and terrifying though it is, ultimately its shape seems a bit too pat and convenient. In particular the last twenty pages or so are designed to wring the very last ounce of anguish from the story of his dying father. Despite all the confusions of multiple transports, endless roll-calls, despite being split up into different Kommandos and work details, despite going through selection procedures and being shuffled from one barracks to another, Eliezer is never separated from his father. Through the confusion of the death march when others were dropping dead, there’s his dad. In the brick factory, he keeps his dad awake and alive. In the open freight car he supports his dad. In Buchenwald his first thought – on getting his soup or his coffee or his bread – is always his dad. He goes to several doctors to get them to treat his dad for dysentery. He cradles his dad as he gives him the water he asks for. After the SS man beat up his dad, he is still just about alive and Eliezer cradles his head for a long time before he finally retreats to his own bed exhausted. Then he wakes the next morning and his father is gone, died in the night and spirited away. At which point the son bitterly laments he had no opportunity to light the candles and say the prayers and perform the Jewish ceremonies over him.

I won’t say it rises to Hollywood levels of sentimentality – but it did feel laid on with a trowel. If you were going to craft a story designed to tug, pluck and finally rip to shreds your heart strings, this is how it would go.

And this sense of artifice is reinforced by the careful way Wiesel sets up earlier father-and-son anecdotes to anticipate his one. As mentioned earlier, on the death march an old rabbi gets separated from his son and young Eliezer doesn’t have the heart to tell him he saw his son steaming ahead, looking grateful to have ditched the old liability. And again, in the open train to Buchenwald, Eliezer claims to witness a burly son beat his own father to death for the sake of some bread thrown into the truck by passing Germans.

The point being that the final operatic Oedipal climax to the narrative has been carefully prepared and anticipated in the narrative – almost like a Shakespearean tragedy in which minor plots are designed to parallel and comment on the main action. Having witnessed the two earlier father-and-son betrayals allows Eliezer to feel even more distraught when he, also, fails the test.

I have absolutely no idea how much of this is fiction, fact, false or ‘faction’, but a seed of suspicion has been planted.

For this reason, I would recommend new readers seeking a first encounter with Holocaust testimonies to start with Primo Levi’s If this Is A Man, and would also prefer Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman to Night, harrowing, intense and poetically written though it undoubtedly is…


Credit

As described above, Night was published in French in 1958, Stella Rodway’s English translation was published in 1960, and Marion Wiesel’s revised English translation was published in 2006. All page references are to the 2008 Penguin paperback edition.

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The Resistance by Matthew Cobb (2009)

Timeline

1939
September 3 – France and Britain declare war on Nazi Germany as a result of its invasion of Poland
1940
May 10 – after 9 months of ‘phoney war’, Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and quickly overruns them
June 18 – In the dying days of the Battle of France, General de Gaulle broadcasts from London telling the French to resist Germany
June 22 – The defeatist French government signs an armistice with Germany which establishes German direct rule over northern and western France and leaves southern, ‘unoccupied’ France, to be run by a new French government led by First World War hero, Marshal Pétain. Technically, the unoccupied territory referred to itself simply as the ‘French state’, but the English-speaking world refers to it as ‘Vichy France’ because its government was located in the small spa town of Vichy.

Map of German-occupied and unoccupied France from July 1940 to November 1942

During its 18 month rule the Vichy government slowly instituted Nazi policies, banning Jews, rounding up eligible Frenchmen for enforced labour in Germany and so on.
1942
November -in response to the mounting level of Resistance activities, the Nazis moved to occupy all of France.
1943
January – The Germans lose the Battle of Stalingrad
July – The Allies invade Italy and fight their way up the peninsula
1944
June – D-Day landings in Normandy
August – Paris is liberated


The French Resistance

Books There are over 3,000 books about the Resistance in French, and half a dozen good overall accounts in English, of which this is one of the most recent.

Number of résistants Anyone who resisted was a résistant. In total, in the four years of Germany occupation, from June 1940 to the liberation of Paris in August 1944, some 500,000 people took part in the broadest definition of resistance activities. Around 100,000 were arrested, imprisoned, deported to camps in Germany or executed.

Collaboration and resistance It seems that when Marshal Pétain and members of the Vichy government first used this word, collaboration, to describe their working arrangement with the Germans, it had neutral connotations, it just described a new way of working together. Many French thought the old Marshall was a canny planner who was just waiting for the right moment to turn on the Nazis and kick them out. Only very slowly did ordinary people realise that Pétain had no such plan and was happy to connive in:

  • the collapse of living standards
  • food shortages
  • the mass deportation of young men to work in labour camps
  • the persecution, imprisonment then deporting of the Jews

So ‘resistance’, as a concept, was developed partly as a response to ‘collaboration’ – yin and yang.

De Gaulle The book makes clear that when General de Gaulle escaped to England, he was more or less alone. Certainly, over 100,000 French troops were evacuated from Dunkirk and then billeted in the south of England, but from the higher echelons of the French army de Gaulle was virtually alone. When an army officer called on him to ask for a job he had to bring his own paper to write out the specification. De Gaulle barely had an office, no secretary, a few military assistants.

Nonetheless, de Gaulle’s invincible optimism that France would be liberated persuaded the British government to give him a five-minute slot in the weekly half hour broadcast to France, and this helped identify him with the cause of Free France, which is what he named his movement.

The book then chronicles the very long and very complex series of political manoeuvring among the Allies, de Gaulle’s own camp, among the myriad different resistance groups and among Vichy politicians which slowly led to de Gaulle becoming the most acceptable – or the least unacceptable – figurehead which all the different forces fighting to liberate France could rally round.

 

Varieties of resistance Only slowly, and in scattered pockets all over occupied and unoccupied France, did people from all walks of life decide they had to ‘resist’ the invader, by any means possible. To begin with this took modest forms:

  • schoolchildren marched on patriotic holidays
  • everyone, from kids to old ladies, carved, wrote or made models or hand gestures of ‘V for victory’, for example painting V on the wall or writing it in the dirt on cars
  • after waving the tricolour flag was banned, people wore clothes the same colour as the French flag

Amateur and professional

While dealing with these early outbreaks of spontaneous and ‘popular’ resistance, Cobb also sets the scene for the politics of the Resistance. The broad outline is simple. De Gaulle isolated in London assumed every French citizen would place themselves under his control and would obey military discipline and his orders. The snag was that the Allies had a very uneasy relationship with de Gaulle and his supposed Free French, because he was arrogant, dictatorial and unbending. On the other hand, he did become an icon due to his radio broadcasts and it aided the Allied effort to have a central focus of dissent, even if a difficult one.

Meanwhile, for his part, de Gaulle had little grasp of what was going on in France. Broadly speaking there appear to have been two periods: before Hitler’s invasion of Russia the entire communist party and all its affiliates was under orders from Stalin not to attack the Germans. They were hors du combat from June 1940 till June 1941. During this period small resistance networks bloomed all across France. Some carrying out ad hoc sabotage when a member had the opportunity – cutting telegraph wires, damaging railway lines. Others – in Paris especially – organised underground newspapers, propaganda and morale boosting stunts. All learned from bitter experience how not to set up underground organisations, how not to get caught, how to code messages and arrange secret rendezvous. Newspapers around which organisations clustered included Liberation, Combat, Valmy and Pantagruel.

All these organisations reflected the severe splintering which had characterised French political life before the war (and would continue to do so afterwards). Some were extreme right-wing Catholic monarchists; some liberal, some non-aligned, some socialist and when the communists joined the fray in 1941, it was reflected in the resurgence of their well-written newspaper, L’Humanité.

The engagement of the communists after June 1941 changed the dynamic in numerous ways: most obviously because they were well-organised, motivated and armed, and started carrying out effective assassinations and sabotage straight away. But they also upset the political balance. De Gaulle and the Allies became worried that arming ‘the Resistance’ would mean, in effect, helping the communists prepare for a post-liberation revolution. Certainly, the resistance had to be maintained as a morale-boosting force and military asset, but prevented from turning into an insurrectionary, revolutionary force. This one consideration explains the single greatest issue for the Resistance, and its biggest complaint against the Allies, its persistent shortage of weapons.

The rest of the book details the prolonged and complex negotiations and jockeying between all parties at a high level, a lot of which focuses round De Gaulle’s representative in France, Jean Moulin, expert at setting up committees and organisations. On this political level, the history of the Resistance disappears into a blizzard of organisations and acronyms, continuing as high-level political and diplomatic negotiations for the rest of the war. To give a flavour:

On 23 July 1943 the MUR [Mouvement Unis de la Résistance] and some of the small resistance organisations set up a ‘Central Committee’, which deliberately excluded all the political parties (including the Communists, the FTP [Francs Tireurs et Partisans] and the Front National) and which sought to control all armed action. In response, de Gaulle’s delegate to the northern zone, Claude Serreulles, set up a rival CNR [Conseil National de la Résistance] ‘Bureau’, composed of the Front National, the PCF [Parti Communist Français], the CGT trade union, Ceux de la Résistance, the OCM [Organisation Civil et Militaire] and Libération-Nord, which also claimed control over the maquis and the Secret Army. This was a straightforward power struggle over the leadership of the Resistance, but the contending parties were aligning themselves in unexpected way. The Parisian Gaullists had united with the Communist Party, while the Resistance movements had the support of Colonel Passy’s BCRA [Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action] in the shape of Pierre Brossolette… (p.226)

Much of the book reads like this. There are three densely-printed pages of acronyms at the end of the book.

The maquis

Meanwhile, down on the ground, people were fighting and getting killed. Cobb describes how various resistance groups organised, created structures, cells, passwords, safe houses, dead letter drops and all the rest of the ‘tradecraft’ we read about in John le Carré novels. (It’s slightly strange that no-one has thought of creating a series of Resistance novels; presumably there are lots in French; I’ve never heard of any.)

There was another turning point in February 1943 when, as a consequence of the catastrophic defeat of the German Army at Stalingrad, the Germans decided to force all able-bodied French men into the Service du Travail Obligatoire i.e. being conscripted to work in Germany. Many thousands evaded the call-up by taking to the hills.

This is the origin of the maquis – meaning ‘the bush’ – a word which describes the scrubby landscape of south-eastern France where it these groups became common. They were quite separate from the longer-established urban-based underground newspapers and information-gathering networks although, over the next few years as Cobb shows in detail, they became organised into regional groupings and these themselves came under the umbrella of the national organisations which were being set up.

Reprisals

The Nazis started the occupation fairly relaxed, but responded fiercely to ad hoc assassinations or sabotage, and got slowly, steadily crueller. There was a step change when the communists became active after June 1941 and began to carry out assassinations and attacks on German soldiers. The Nazis had taken hostages and didn’t hesitate to murder them in reprisal. When the military commander of Nantes, Lieutenant-Colonel Karl Hotz was assassinated in October 1941, a handful of French hostages were shot by the local authorities. Then Hitler heard about it and personally ordered a hundred Frenchmen to be executed. That was his rule of thumb: 100 natives shot for every Nazi murdered.

The book is littered with stories of a resistance attack leading to the execution of hostages or just to the rounding up and shooting of men off the street of the nearest village or town. There are some nightmare accounts by people lucky enough to survive mass killings as at the notorious incident at Oradour-sur-Glane where, on 10 June 1944, the entire population of 642 was murdered and the village reduced to ruins by a German Waffen-SS company, allegedly to free an SS officer who was being held prisoner by the Resistance.

This was the most extreme example of cold-blooded brutality, but Cobb’s narrative is full of stories of résistants captured, tortured, deported and executed.

Many were given away by informers: entire networks, sometimes of 1,000 people, could be rolled up, imprisoned and tortured by the betrayal of one person. When two SOE men were arrested carrying uncoded messages in June 1943, it led to the capture of over 1,000 members of the PROSPECT network, the biggest single blow suffered by the Resistance. But Cobb also gives stories of terrible accidents and basic errors in security – carrying uncoded lists of names was a common error. I was struck that it is a basic rule of tradecraft to only wait ten, a maximum of fifteen minutes, at a rendezvous site, then clear off. Cobb gives stories of several high-ranking résistant who ignored this rule and were stopped, questioned, arrested, tortured and tragically revealed their networks.

By page 200 I had already had enough of men and women being arrested, tortured, breaking, giving other names, then being shot or beheaded or sent off to the death camps in the East – but it was only 1943 and there was another year of escalating horror and brutality to go. It becomes painful and terrible to imagine what it must have been like. And to witness so much heroism, God the bravery and dignity with which so many of these very young men and women went to their deaths makes me feel ashamed of the triviality of our modern world.

The Jews

To my mild surprise the book is full of stories of how very pro-Jewish the French were. There are lots of stories of non-Jews in all walks of life doing what they could to help and protect the Jews, as the Nazi regime became more repressive, humiliating and then began rounding up Jews for extermination.

Léon Bronchart was a forty-four-year-old train driver. In October 1941, when he was ordered to drive a train of Jewish deportees from Montauban station, he simply refused. The station master and depot manager argued with him but he refused. He shut down the engine and walked away. Another driver was found, and Bronchart was disciplined and fined. A few months later he was caught in possession of the banned resistance paper, Combat, and sent to do forced labour in Buchenwald camp, where he sabotaged the V-2 rockets he was working on, before being sent to Bergen-Belsen. As a non-Jew, he survived. After the war, Israel awarded him the title ‘A Righteous Among the Nations’. This story made me cry.

Or the account of André Trocmé, the Protestant pastor of Le Chambon, who organised the mass concealment of thousands of young Jews among his flock and in the nearby countryside. He is quoted as saying, ‘We do not know what a Jew is. We only know men.’ Simple principle, but leading to unimaginable bravery.

In July 1942 the Nazis rounded up about 13,000 Jewish men, women and children in Paris. Half of them were kept in a sports stadium for days with no food or water, till they could be loaded into trains and shipped east. Resistance newspapers reprinted accounts of the conditions (which, of course, went unmentioned in the official newspapers) and commented on the horror.

With the latest measures taken against the Jews, we are sinking even lower. Those who have ordered these measures are forever condemned in the eyes of all human and divine justice… We hesitate to use the term bestiality, because a beast does not separate a female from its babies. This is a case of human intelligence entirely in the service of Evil, using all its resources to aid the global triumph of evil, of cruelty, of filth. (quoted page 137)

This is stirring rhetoric against the evil of anti-Semitism, but Cobb also quotes an article in Combat titled ‘The Jews, Our Brothers’, which makes more of a reasoned case for the stupidity, for the incoherence, for the meaninglessness of anti-Semitism.

All those who suffer at the hands of the Germans, be they Jews or not, be they Communists or not, are our brothers… There is no Jewish racial problem, no question of Jewish ‘blood’, for the simple reason that the ‘Jewish race’ is, as all serious ethnologists recognise, as mixed as the ‘French race’ or the ‘German race’… This Jewish community is a constituent component of the French national community, just like all the other religious, cultural or regional communities. (quoted page 137)

Some of the resistance groups came from the right, some from the extreme right-wing of French politics, and included military men, extreme Catholics and conservatives among whom everyday anti-Semitism had been commonplace. Cobb shows how one of the effects of the occupation was to undermine if not eliminate anti-Semitism in the rhetoric of all the Resistance groups.

Nonetheless, in the final analysis, 85 railways convoys left France, carrying 70,000 Jews (10,000 of them children) to the death camps, without any serious effort made to hamper or sabotage them. You can dwell on this fact and ask why the Resistance didn’t do more to stop them (the short answer is that no-one appreciated the scale of the Holocaust until the war was over). And then, to put it in context, a similar number of trains left France carrying some 88,000 résistants and nobody stopped or liberated those, either.

The Resistance could only do what it could do, generally small-scale attacks or sabotage at times and places which best suited its (very) limited means.

Politics by other means

In summary, the Resistance may have played a sporadic role in hurting the Nazi war effort (though not, in the great scale of things, very much) – but more importantly, it was the way French politics continued during the occupation.

You can separate the book into two distinct strands – one is the complex history of numerous groups and networks on the ground, their heroic work to organise, meet, print newspapers and occasionally carry out attacks, some minor, some really significant and daring, like the January 1944 attack on the aircraft propeller factory at Figeac.

The other is the permanent buzz of high-level politics going on ‘behind the scenes’ as all sides fought over their visions for a post-war France. For example, the anti-imperialist Roosevelt envisioned a Europe of free states stripped of their colonial empires. For de Gaulle, on the contrary, regaining control of the empire was a key part of the French war aim, alongside restoring strong, authoritarian government under a strong authoritarian leader such as, ahem, himself.

While Roosevelt detested de Gaulle, he realised that at least he wasn’t a communist. For he, Churchill and de Gaulle shared a common fear that the Resistance would become a united military force strong enough so that, come the liberation – in whatever form – it would provide the vanguard for a Russian-style revolution.

And this is what some communists hoped for. But Socialist résistants, on the contrary, wanted something like a restoration of the 1936 Popular Front government. While a lot of people on the ground in France simply wanted a restoration of democratic politics – or had no political views at all – or were at the opposite extreme, arch right-wing Catholics who detested communists, socialists and liberals alike.

So a major strand of the book is detailing the incessant manoeuvring which went on all the time between all these different players, in light of the changing fortunes of war (e.g. June 1941 German invasion of Russia; December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and resultant entry of the USA into the war; January 1943 Germans lose the battle of Stalingrad; July 1943 the Allies take Sicily and Mussolini is sacked and imprisoned).

This manoeuvring carried right on up to the liberation of Paris in August 1944, and then swiftly became the ‘business as usual’ of French politics – which meant the dizzying turnaround of half-baked administrations which drove de Gaulle so mad with frustration that he resigned as head of the provisional government in 1946.

But America’s main war aim re. France was achieved. The Resistance did not become the kernel of a revolutionary army. There was no communist revolution in France. The communist party remained a very powerful presence for the rest of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, but it had been ordered during these crucial years not to foment revolution, not to frighten the Allies which Stalin needed to keep as friends, not to abuse its power. In fact, when Corsica was liberated in September 1943, the communist participants went out of their way to work in partnership with and submit themselves to the authority of the Free French forces.

de Gaulle part two

It is hilarious to read how much Roosevelt hated de Gaulle for his arrogance and hauteur – he couldn’t bear to be in the same room as the tall Frenchman. Even after the Free French located their new government in Algiers (after it had been liberated from the Germans by the Americans) Roosevelt still refused to consult it, and de Gaulle was never invited to the meetings of the Big Three – Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin.

It is a very striking fact that the Allies didn’t bother to tell de Gaulle the date of the D-Day landings until two days beforehand, on 4 June. All senior Allied officials and military leaders knew this weeks before de Gaulle; even the Resistance leaders had been told a week earlier. It cannot be over-emphasised how much Roosevelt et al disliked him.

And yet, the final pages of Cobb’s book show how, despite everything, de Gaulle’s rigidity and hauteur paid off. Once Paris was liberated, once he had walked down the Champs d’Elysees at the head of triumphal French troops (rustled up for the occasion), once he had announced that he was running the government, no other individual had the same a) contacts with the Allied leaders b) reputation among the general population, thanks to all those radio broadcasts. By definition, most of the Resistance leaders had worked anonymously, or under pseudonyms, whereas de Gaulle broadcast under his own name.

Which just goes to show that nations need, in the sense of wish for, desire, want to obey, one clear identified leader – even if he is a supercilious wanker. By the time I got to the last chapter I wasn’t at all surprised to read that in his speeches on the day of Paris’s liberation, de Gaulle made no mention of the Resistance, none at all; didn’t mention them, didn’t thank them (p.268). And that ten years later, in his memoirs, he hardly referred to this entire, huge, multi-headed organisation with its hundreds of thousands of brave men and women, who ran terrible risks and so many of whom paid for it with torture, slave labour and execution. Instead, all de Gaulle’s praise went to his little staff of ‘Free French’ colleagues in London or Algiers, but most of all to his mystical invocation of La France itself.

Then again, de Gaulle did have a grasp of the global situation. In order to earn respect from the Allies, in order to restore France as a world power, he vitally needed the French to take part in the conquest of Nazi Germany. Which is why, within three days of the liberation of Paris, de Gaulle called for the winding up of the two main Resistance organisations, the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieure and the Comité d’Action Militaire, and for all résistants to be absorbed into the Free french army. This was called l’amalgame and by November over 200,000 former résistants were fighting in the French Army which entered Germany.

What if…?

Obviously the book’s overt purpose is to provide a narrative history of ‘the resistance’. The main learning from it is how scattered and multi-headed this entity was, and how acts of resistance could range from schoolkids drawing a V for victory on a wall to complex plans to smuggle German military plans to England.

But all the way through, as I read of the outrageous courage and heroism of so many men and women, I was creating a secondary book in my mind, a ghost book, wondering – what would happen now?

How would I respond if, say, the Russians invaded England and created a dictatorial state (as they do in Kingsley Amis’s counter-factual novel, Russian Hide and Seek)? How would we all respond? Who would take a job with the regime, hoping to work improvements inside? Who would sell out, pure and simple? Who would go underground committing sporadic acts of sabotage or terrorism? Would I have the courage to refuse to drive the trainload of Jews like Léon Bronchart? What if… what then… how would…?

The fate of empires

Finally, it made me wonder about the French and British empires.

Again and again, de Gaulle and other French leaders are quoted as wanting to restore the gloire and the grandeur and the prestige of France. I have recently read several histories of the wars for independence from France fought by the Vietnamese (1945 to 1954) and the Algerians (1954 to 1962), bitterly contested, bloody, brutal wars which repeatedly jeopardised the French state itself.

So what I wonder is this:

Did France’s losing the war, being occupied and humiliated for four years, harden its patriotism, making all sectors of the political spectrum absolutely adamant that part of France’s core identity was its glorious empire and its famous mission civilatrice (France’s self-appointed mission to bring its glorious civilisation to the poor benighted peoples of Africa and south-east Asia)?

Did losing the war – and four years of resistance – make it harder for France to give up its empire? Hence the absolute debacles in Vietnam and Algeria?

And is it valid to compare and contrast France’s attitude to its empire with that of Britain, which wasn’t invaded or occupied, which fought off the attacker, which significantly helped win the final victory and so – to some extent – forged a national identity based on its own courage and pluck? Did this give the British a relatively secure, a psychologically confident, position which made it easier for the Brits to relinquish their empire?

In 1947 Britain gave away the jewel in the crown of its empire, India. In 1947 in Vietnam, the French had just launched a bloody attack on the port city of Haiphong, which hardened and spread anti-imperialist sentiment. Can the diverse approaches taken to their respective empires by the French and British governments be traced to their very different national experiences of the Second World War?

Le chant des partisans


Related links

Vietnam

Algeria

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

[I believed] that the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo.
(The Periodic Table p.41)

This is a really marvellous book, a must-read, a fabulously intelligent, sensitive, thought-provoking collection, a tribute to human nature and a classic of the 20th century.

Primo Levi graduated in chemistry, before he was forced to take to the mountains outside Turin by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation. He was captured by Italian police, then sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. His scientific knowledge secured him a job in a laboratory where he managed to avoid the hard labour in freezing conditions which killed off so many other inmates. He survived to write the searing memoirs of Auschwitz, If This is A Man and the Truce, along with many other works.

There are 118 items in the periodic table of chemical elements. In The Periodic Table Levi selects 21 of them to base short stories on or around. 21 short stories squeezed into 230 pages i.e. they are generally very short. The stories form a pretty coherent autobiography, taking us from a meditation on Levi’s distant relatives, through his childhood, student days, brief partisan career then shipment to the Lager. It is a wonderfully inventive and evocative idea.

Because the elements are aligned with key events in his life, which took place against the backdrop of Italian Fascism and then the Nazi Holocaust, he calls them ‘tales of militant chemistry’ (p.78).

Levi’s attitude and style are not English. They are lovingly elaborate, in numerous ways. He dwells on sensual details. He is lovingly affectionate and respectful of other people. At school, by age 16, he appears to have studied philosophy and slips references to Aristotle or Hegel, Pindar and the Peloponnesian War very casually into the text. And from among the references to Jewish belief and language, to the smells and tastes of Turin life, to his shyness and respect for others, grow an increasing number of entirely factual, technical descriptions of laboratory processes as Levi passes from chemistry student to practitioner of:

my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. (p.60)


The stories

Argon (18 pages) A wonderful evocation of his ancestors, Jews from Spain (apparently) who moved to north Italy in the 17th century, and developed their own pidgin of Hebrew and Piedmonese dialect. This essay/memoir explores some of these musty old words and links them to dim and distant relatives, each with funny and poignant family anecdotes attached. I was attracted by the ancestor who took to his bed and didn’t get out for the next 23 years. Wise man.

Hydrogen (8 pages) Levi is 16 and his friend has been given the keys to his older brother’s home-made ‘laboratory’. Here they do basic experiments, which start with heating up and moulding glass test tubes, but goes onto the elementary but satisfying process of electrolysis, attaching two wires to each terminal of a battery, putting them into a beaker of water with some salt dissolved in them and fixing water filled jam jars above each wire. Result: along the wire attached to the cathode terminal developed tiny bubbles of oxygen, along the diode wire, tiny bubbles of oxygen. Next day the hydrogen jar is full, the oxygen one half empty, exactly as the chemical formula predicts. To prove it to his sceptical friend Levi lights a match under the hydrogen jar which promptly explodes with a ‘sharp and angry’ explosion. The joy of confirming a hypothesis and carrying out a successful experiment!

It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars, and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence. (p.28)

Zinc (8 pages) Levi describes his admiration for the stern chemistry teacher, Professor P. who runs the course in General and Inorganic Chemistry. This tale, or section, recounts how Levi neglected an experiment he was meant to be doing in order to make his first, shy, approach to a girl in the class, Rita. It contains a meditation on the element itself, which is characteristic in its mixture of scientific fact, lyrical description, thoughtful

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is grey and its salts are colourless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded by the glamour of their discovery. (p.33)

Iron (13 pages) Now Levi is 20, the Italian anti-Semitic laws have just been passed, and so he finds himself subtly isolated from his peers in the advanced chemistry class. This section is a moving tribute to the friend Sandro, he made in his class, who took him climbing in the mountains two hours’ cycle ride from Turin, who showed him endurance, determination, who, in the climax of the section, ends up making them spend a night without shelter high in the snowstormy mountains when they get lost. They survive and stumble down the next morning to the village where they left their bicycles, chastened but experienced. Levi powerfully describes how Sandro was descended from a family of iron workers and was, in some obscure way, preparing Levi for the iron future which was coming to all of them. Only at the end do we learn that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, one of the first men to join the Italian Resistance – and to be killed in it.

Potassium (11 pages) It is January 1941, the Nazi empire is reaching its height. Levi says he, his friend and family heard vague rumours of Nazi atrocities but what could they do? They had no money, in any case no countries were accepting Jewish refugees, the only thing was to work on in blind hope. His thinking about science continues to evolve. He now has doubts about chemistry, an affair of dubious recipes and mess, and finds himself more attracted to the purity of physics and so he wangles a post helping a lecturer at the Institute of Experimental Physics. He is tasked with purifying benzene in order to carry out an experiment testing the movement of dipoles in a liquid. First he has to purify the benzene and this is described in some detail, including a passage on the beauty of distillation. Then he has to distil it again in the presence of sodium, but he has no sodium and so uses potassium. The result, due to leaving a minute fragment of potassium in the distilling flask, is a small explosion which sets the curtains on fire. He has learned one of Chemistry’s many lessons: the importance of small differences.

I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade. (p.60)

Nickel (18 pages) November 1941, the Nazis have conquered all Europe and are now flooding into Russia. Levi has his certificate of accreditation as a professional chemist. He is offered work at a mine in the mountains. Huge amounts of rubble are being dynamited then broken down to extract asbestos. An army officer attached to the works suspects there is nickel in the vast mound of waste rubble left behind. Can it be extracted in quantities justifying setting up commercial extraction? Levi is hired to solve the problem and we follow his thought processes as he tries out different methodologies for identifying and extracting the nickel. There’s a large work force of 50 men and women who live at the mine and Levi gets to know them all, finding he has a gift: people talk to him, confide in him, tell him their stories – which he records for us to enjoy and savour 70 years later.

During a meal the radio announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Working late into the night, Levi a new technique which, apparently, purifies and isolates the nickel, and is exultant. For that one night he rejoices in his cleverness, training, insight, courage. He does not belong to some ‘inferior race’. He can hold back the forces of darkness by sheer intellect. Alas, the next morning, the lieutenant points out the errors in his methodology. And soon afterwards the Germans discover vast quantities of pure nickel in Albania rendering his sponsor’s labour-intensive hopes of tweaking tiny amounts of vast piles of rubble completely redundant.

The stories are full of this sort of ironic reversal, wry, mature reflections back on his youthful enthusiasm. And hope.

Lead (17 pages) A fictional story Levi wrote in his twenties, told in the first person by a prehistoric figure, Rodmund, a traveller in Bronze Age Europe who is an expert in discovering lead ore, extracting it and working it. We follow his travels south, staying in primitive villages, bartering, discovering a lead source which he sells to a local for gold, and supporting himself until he manages to take ship across the sea to the legendary isle of metals where, indeed he finds another lead source, takes a woman, and plans to pass on his knowledge. it is a wonderful, mythical imagining.

Mercury (13 pages) A second fictional story, told by a Brit, one Corporal Daniel Abrahams, who inhabits a small island, 1,200 miles from St Helena, with his wife Maggie. They inhabit the only two huts left standing out of the original settlement. The purpose of having a garrison here was to prevent the island being used as a stopover for any french plans to liberate Napoleon from St Helena, but that was long ago. Napoleon is long dead and they are more or less abandoned here, just about ekeing out an existence on the island they’ve named Desolation, on seal meat and birds’ eggs and the twice-yearly visit of a supply ship.

The supply ship drops off two Dutch men, on the run for obscure reasons. they immediately eye up Maggie. Later two Italians are found shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the main island. Daniel takes them in. They all eye Maggie. Next time the supply ship comes Daniel asks him to find some women to bring back, to partner the men. The captain asks, ‘What will you pay for them with?’ and weighs anchor.

Some months later there is a volcanic eruption on the small island, the lava flow, luckily, going down the other side of the mountain from the huts, but it devastates a little grotto Maggie used to frequent. Now, to all of their amazement, there are rivulets of mercury running free. They play with it and revel in its peculiar qualities which Levi, of course, describes lyrically. Daniel realises they can purify it in basic clay kilns and sell it. When the ship next docks, in Easter, they hand over 40 clay jars full of pure mercury and order four brides.

That August the ship appears and dumps four ragamuffin women, one with only one eye, another old enough to be his mother, and so on. Beggars can’t be choosers. The four men pair off quickly, Daniel hands over Maggie to one of the Dutchmen who she’s been eyeing for a year or more and takes the small thin girl who’s come lumbered with two kids. The kids, after all, will come in handy looking after the pigs :).


Fiction as a holiday

Sun, sea, foreign travel, sex – it may be blasphemous to think of a text which deals with the Holocaust in these terms, but the stories in first half of the book take us to Italy, giving us nuggets of the language. His high school education sounds wonderful, far more interesting than mine, with its memorising of Greek, Latin and Italian poetry. I am filled with envy that it was only a two hour cycle journey to the Alps, where he regularly went mountain climbing. And whereas, in the biographical stories he regrets being shy and wondering if he’ll ever fall in love, the second his imagination is off the leash in the two fictional tales, it is quite funny that instantly the protagonist has plenty of women, for the night or a few weeks, and the second story is dominated by the issue of sex. Even a prosaic story about working at a nickel mine is coloured by his learning that almost the entire staff of fifty has slept with each other, and there are constant erotic realignments going on. This is Italy, after all.


Phosphorus (18 pages) In June 1942 Levi is offered a job by a very strict Swiss businessman, working at a commercial lab outside Milan, so he quits the job at the nickel mine and takes a train carrying all his essential belongings:

my bike, Rabelais, the MacaronaeaeMoby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickaxe, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler, and recorder. (p.111)

Levi’s quirkiness along with the poverty and simplicity of the age, summarised in a sentence. In fact he was recommended by a classmate of his, Giulia Vineis, and, while the ostensible subject is the experiments he is ordered to carry out, to extract phosphorus from everyday plants and then inject it into rabbits to see if any of them have potential as a cure for diabetes, the real story is the way Giulia and he almost, nearly, several times tremble on the brink of having a love affair, despite the fact that she is a) a goya b) passionately engaged to a soldier at the front. Many years later they meet after the war and, to this day, have the feeling that if only a slight change had been made, they would have fallen in love, married, and both their lives would have been completely different. Sensitive and haunting.

Gold (12 pages) 1943 saw swift changes in Italy. In July the Mussolini regime fell, but in September the Germans invaded and occupied north Italy. Out of the shadows come older men who had always resisted Fascism to inspire youths like Levi and  his friends. They take to the hills with a feeble number of guns. But on 13 December 1943, they are betrayed and surrounded by a Fascist militia, taken down to the valley and driven to Milan prison. Here they are interrogated and Levi manages not to reveal anything, but the core of the story is how one day a rough-looking newcomer is thrown in among them, who he thinks might be a spy, but turns out to tell him about how his family has survived for generations by the time-consuming but free labour of extracting gold from the shallow sands of the nearby river Dora.

Cerium (8 pages) November 1944. Levi is inmate number 174517 at Auschwitz. He has wangled a job in the camp laboratory, where he steals whatever he can to barter for food for him and his friend Alberto. He finds an unmarked jar of small metal rods, steals some then he and Alberto discuss what they are, before realising they are the material cigarette lighter flints are made of. So they spend nervous nights, under their blankets when everyone is asleep, filing the rods down to lighter flint size, so they can barter them on to the underground lighter manufacturers. Which they do and the bread they get in return keeps them both alive for the last few months till the Russians liberate the camp (on 27 January 1945).

As with all the stories, it contains a sweet divagation about the origin, naming and cultural associations of the element in question, in this case cerium:

about which I knew nothing, save for that single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth group family, and that its name has nothing to do with the Latin and Italian word for wax (cera), and it was not named after its discoverer; instead it celebrates (great modesty of the chemists of past times!) the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year, 1801. (p.145)

Although just as typically, these civilised musings are juxtaposed with history, with the horrors he witnessed, with workaday tragedy. 30 years after the event Levi is clearly still haunted by the way that he, Levi, happened to contract scarlet fever just days before the Russians arrived and so was left in the camp hospital, to be liberated, whereas his wise and ever-optimistic friend, Alberto, was rounded up along with almost all the other inmates and sent on a death march West, never to be seen again.

Chromium (13 pages) A story within a story. Many years after the war Levi is working for a company of varnish manufacturers. Over dinner he and colleagues swap technical anecdotes about chemical processes and ingredients. In stories like this you can see the appeal of chemistry in that it is rich in history, it’s a form of cooking, and it involves a lot of detective work since things are often going wrong and you have to be both knowledgeable and imaginative to figure out why and methodical to test your hypothesis.

Bruni from the Nitro department tells a story about when he was working at a varnish factory in the 1950s by a lake, leafing through the formulae for various products and is surprised to find that it requires the inclusion of ammonium chloride in the manufacture of a chromate-based anti-rust paint. Levi then shares with us the fact that he himself was personally responsible for introducing this chemical into the process and why. For he himself worked at the same factory in the years just after the war, poor and obsessed with  his experiences, when the boss called him in and asked him to identify why consignments of paint were ‘livering’ i.e. turning out like jelly.

It is as engrossing as a Sherlock Holmes story to follow Levi’s detective work in finding out the error which turns out to be that too much of a reagent was being added. Since many batches had been made with the wrong amount of reagent, Levi speculated that adding a substantial amount of ammonium chloride would counter the effect – and it did! The reader shares Levi’s pride and joy. He left instructions for the AC to be added to all future batches to counteract the reagent, but is surprised, that years and years later, this formula is still being following slavishly even though the immediate error it sought to address had been solved. Thus do small errors, corrections, texts and marginalia become fossilised into Tradition.

Sulfur (5 pages) Levi doesn’t appear in this short, presumably fictional, story about a worker, Lanza, who tends a massive industrial boiler, which suddenly begins to overheat and threatens to explode. The story is about the panic which grips Lanza, his attempts to remain calm and reason out what must be going wrong, his experiment to fix the situation and his triumphant victory. Mind – understanding – masters matter.

Titanium (4 pages) A child’s eye view of the painter painting the apartment white. Little Maria asks the painter what makes the paint so white and he answers ‘titanium’. She is toddling around and threatens to get herself wet and spoil the finish of the paint, so the man kindly draws a magic circle with chalk around her and tells her she must stay inside it. And so she does until he has completely finished painting, erases the chalk from the floor and she is once again free! Charming. Sweet.

Arsenic (6 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio have set up an amateur chemical consultancy in a flat. One day a poor cobbler arrives with a bag of sugar which he thinks is contaminated and asks Levi to analyse it. It is another detective story and we follow with fascination Levi’s thought processes as he tries various basic tests, before proceeding to chemical tests, develops a hunch and then confirms with a few tests that the sugar is spiked with arsenic. The cobbler returns and tells him a new young shoe-mender has set up shop round the corner and developed an irrational hatred for him. Sending this sugar as a ‘gift’ is the latest in a series of ‘attacks’. Well, he’ll take the sugar round to its sender and have a few words with him. Levi watches the cobbler leave with tranquil dignity.

Nitrogen (9 pages) Still trying to be an independent chemist, Levi is delighted to get a call from a tough guy who runs a cheap lipstick factory (where he tests the lipstick’s stickiness by repeatedly kissing all the women who work for him). But his lipstick tends to melt and spread along the fine lines around the women’s lips. Why? Levi takes samples back to his improvised lab and quickly establishes the tough’s lipsticks lack the rare and expensive pigment alloxan, which helps to fix lipsticks. The tough accepts Levi’s report and then asks if he can supply this alloxan.

Levi gives an enthusiastic yes, goes back to his books, discovers it can be isolated from uric acid, which is common in the faeces of birds and even more of snakes. So he takes his new wife on a tour of chicken farms on the outskirts of town, scrabbling at the bottom of filthy chicken cages to scrape out their poo, but to no avail. Mixed with grit and feathers the poo turns out to be impossible to purify. Then he goes on an even wilder goose chase to a reptile zoo where he is firmly told that the (valuable) snake faeces are already bought and paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. Back in his home-built lab, amid the chicken poo, feathers and filthy residues of his failed experiments, Levi decides maybe he’ll stick to inorganic chemistry in future.

Tin (7 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio had set up a complex and elaborate home-made laboratory in the latter’s parents’ apartment – the last three stories give aspects of their adventures – which becomes an alchemist’s den as they try to manufacture stannous chloride, by combining tin with hydrochloric acid. This is a delicate business and also the acid creates fumes which tarnish all the metal in the place and even rot the nails holding up pictures.

Eventually, conceding defeat, they remove all their apparatus, revealing all kinds of buried treasure in doing so (many of these stories have the feel of folk tale or treasure story, with all kinds of odds and ends, secrets and riddles, bric-a-brac and rarities involved).

There came to light family utensils, sought in vain for years, and other exotic objects, buried geologically in the apartment’s recesses: the breechblock of a Beretta 38 tommy gun (from the days when Emilio had been a partisan and roamed the mountain valleys, distributing spare parts to the bands), an illuminated Koran, a very long porcelain pipe, a damascened sword with a hilt inlaid with silver, and an avalanche of yellowed papers. (p.189)

They pay professional removers to remove the vast wooden gas hood they’d erected over the oven where they conducted most of the experiments, but it’s so heavy is snaps the pulley it’s on and crashes four storeys to the courtyard beneath.

Uranium (9 pages) Levi, having packed in his attempt to be an independent chemical consultant, is now an established employee of a varnish company, He is told to go the rounds as a salesman (a role he describes as customer relations – definitions seem to have changed in 40 years). He describes being despatched to chat up the head of a commercial company, noting the smallness of his desk and dinginess of his office, and realising the man likes telling stories, settles down to listen before making his pitch.

The client tells a long meandering story which unexpectedly ends with him coming across a German light airplane and two Nazis round it asking directions to Switzerland. Our man tells them and in reward they hand him a lump of metal which they claim is uranium then fly off. The client can see that Levi doesn’t believe him so promises to send a cutting of the ‘uranium’ round to his office, which he duly does.

Levi is excited to do a real bit of chemical analysis, something he hasn’t done for years, and eventually – through the characteristically fascinating protocols of investigation – discovers the metal is in fact cadmium, picked up God knows where. The story is a pack of lies. And yet Levi envies the shabby man his tremendous freedom to have invented his ridiculous flight of fancy and, apparently, tell the same kind of fabulist tales to all-comers.

How marvellously free!

Silver (11 pages) Another story within a story designed to convey ‘the strong and bitter flavour of our trade’. It is 1969. Levi receives an invitation to a 25th anniversary party of his graduation class at the university. It’s organised by a man named Cerrano and the first half gives a profile of this man, his career, and then how Levi gets chatting to him about how he’s collecting stories about chemistry to try and explain it to a wider world.

Cerrano tells him a wonderfully compelling story, another detective case describing how he was tasked with finding out why batches of X-ray material the company he worked for were turning out defective. It involves discovering that the affected batches are produced only on Wednesdays, and then identifying that washed lab coats are returned from the cleaners every Wednesday, but there’s still a lot more to it than that, plus the precise nature of the chemical tests Cerrano has to implement to be completely sure he’s found the culprit. Informative, logical, stuffed with chemical know-how but also paying due to the imagination and intuition required in chemistry, it is a glowing tribute to the humane and compelling nature of Levi’s trade.

Vanadium (13 pages) 1967. Now a senior figure in the varnish manufacturer Levi is tasked with sorting out a problem in supplies sent from Germany. Correspondence from the German firm is signed by a Dr Müller. When he makes a mistake in the spelling of naphthenate Levi has the jarring realisation that this might be the same Dr Müller who supervised the lab he worked in at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. There follows a painful correspondence in which Müller confesses he is the same man, and then writes a really long letter part extenuation, part honest confession, part made-up memories, a confusing mish-mash. Real people, Levi points out, are not black or white, goodies or baddies; even their memories of the past are confusingly mixed. Levi struggles to formulate his own response and is dismayed when  Dr Müller phones him and, on a crackly line, asks for a meeting. Levi is not sure he wants one. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t fully admit their guilt? How precisely do you measure full guilt anyway – Müller secured Levi permission for an additional weekly shave and a new pair of shows in those fraught times, but also feigned complete ignorance of the crematoria and even now uses stock German formulae to conceal his complicity.

What lifts the story above (troubling) anecdote is the weird way that this intensely personal correspondence goes on in parallel with an utterly sober and professional correspondence about the defective chemicals being sent from the German factory. And then the agonising dilemma is abruptly terminated before they get to the promised/threatened meeting, when Levi is informed by Dr Müller’s widow that the good doctor has died from a heart attack. An ending, but not closure; the opposite of closure. So much left hanging…

Carbon (8 pages) In his twenties, while still studying, Levi fantasised about writing stories about the chemical elements; early on in the book he mentions wishing to write one about the life cycle of a carbon atom. And that’s how this amazing collection ends, with the imaginary adventures of an atom of carbon, the basis of life on earth.


Credit

Il sistema periodico by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1975. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal Weaver was published by Michael Joseph in 1985. All references are to the 1986 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (translated 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (translated 1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (translated 1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (translated 1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (translated 1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (translated 1988)

Related reviews

This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski (1948)

Anything can be done to a human being.
(Introduction, page 12)

Sometimes, after a transport had already been gassed, some late-arriving cars drove around filled with the sick. It was wasteful to gas them. They were undressed and Obershadrührer Moll either shot them with his rifle or pushed them live into the flaming trench. (p.96)

In The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz’s 1953 book describing the experiences of his generation in Poland, there are chapter-length portraits of four fellow writers who, in their different ways, ended up acquiescing in, and collaborating with, the communist takeover of Poland. The most haunting is the profile of short story writer Tadeusz Borowski, who had a blazing reputation for a few years after the war, lapsed into writing increasingly shrill communist propaganda, and then committed suicide by gassing himself in 1951, aged 28.

This review is divided into three parts: Borowski’s biography and reviews of short stories from his first, and then second, books.

1. The short harrowing biography of Tadeusz Borowski

Just reading Borowski’s biography is harrowing enough, before you even get to his prose fiction.

Borowski was born in 1922 in modern-day Ukraine, to Polish parents. When he was 4 his father was sent to a Russian labour camp above the Arctic Circle, to work on the infamous White Sea Canal, as punishment for having been a member of a Polish military organisation during the Great War. In 1930, when he was 8, Borowski’s mother was deported to another Russian labour camp, leaving the boy to be raised by his aunt. In 1932 his father was released, and the family was repatriated to Warsaw where, in 1934, his mother, released from her camp, rejoined them.

Borowski was 16 when the Nazis and the Soviets invaded Poland in September 1939. He had been studying at a Franciscan school but had to complete his secondary schooling in secret. He then progressed to studying literature among the clandestine groups which made up the underground Warsaw University.

In 1943 his fiancée was arrested for her role in the underground and, when Borowski went looking for her at the flat of a mutual friend, he too was arrested. He was held in Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak prison for two months. The prison was on the edge of the ghetto and from his window he could watch German soldiers throw grenades into tenement buildings before systematically burning them to the ground.

In April 1943 Borowski was sent to Auschwitz and was tattooed with the number 119 198. He was 20 years old. His fiancée arrived separately and was sent to the women’s camp. Eventually he was able to make contact with her and the ‘story’ Auschwitz, Our Home includes the letters he sent to her. Both survived because of the ‘lucky’ accident that Aryans had stopped being sent to the gas chambers just three weeks earlier; from now on only Jews would be gassed and cremated en masse.

Borowski had a range of jobs – carrying telegraph poles, night watchman, hospital orderly, before a spell working at the railway station. Supervised by brutal SS guards with machine guns and whips, he was one of the kapos or non-Jewish inmates, who met the endless freight trains of Jews sent from all over Europe, sorted the desperate, confused victims into lines of men and women, and saw them loaded into the trucks which drove them off to the crematoriums. Within the hour everyone on the train was dead, gassed, burned and contributing to the black smoke climbing from the crematorium chimneys.

In the final days of the war Borowski and the surviving other non-Jewish workers were marched from Auschwitz to Dachau concentration camp and it was here, on 1 May 1945, that he was liberated by the US Seventh Army. From the liberated American zone of Germany in 1946, Borowski published a collection of stories in collaboration with two friends. He stayed with the liberated Poles in Bavaria; had a dissolute spell in Paris; discovered his fiancée was alive and well and living, for some reason, in Sweden, but then decided to return to Poland. Here, in 1948, he published two more collections of stories, Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria), mostly about Auschwitz, and a set of short stories about the immediate post-war environment, set in displaced persons camps, Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone).

In the same year Borowski joined the Communist Party of Poland and began writing impassioned articles praising the communist future and violently critical of the decadent West. Despite encouragement from friends he wrote no more stories or poetry. In his profile, Miłosz calls Borowski ‘the disappointed lover’, and interprets his journalism as a state-endorsed vehicle where he could express his rage and despair against the world. In the introduction to this volume, Jan Kott (the noted theatre critic, who was himself an enthusiastic Stalinist until the upheavals of 1956) writes that Borowski:

could not resist that most diabolical of temptations – to participate in history, a history for which stones and people are only the material used to build the ‘brave new world’. (p.19)

His earlier stories had attracted criticism from the communist party for their bleakness and nihilism: the Party demanded prose which praised socialist heroes and proletariat solidarity, even in Auschwitz. According to Kott, the newly communist Borowski at first believed that Communism was the only political force truly capable of preventing a future Auschwitz from happening. In 1950 he received the National Literary Prize, Second Degree for this more ‘Socialist Realist’ work.

So favourable was he with the authorities that in the summer of 1949 Borowski was sent to work in the Press Section of the Polish Military Mission in Berlin. Here he may possibly have carried out some kind of intelligence work. When he returned to Warsaw he had become involved in an extramarital affair.

Soon afterwards, however, a friend of his (the same friend in whose apartment both Borowski and his fiancée had been arrested back in 1943) was imprisoned and tortured by the Communists. Borowski tried to intervene on his behalf and failed; he became completely disillusioned with the regime. Maybe the whole apparatus of arrests and transports to labour camps was starting up all over again. Maybe nothing could stop the Auschwitz world.

Thus, politically disillusioned, trapped by his affair, and perhaps unable to cope with the long-term trauma of what he’d seen, on July 1, 1951, at the age of 28, Borowski committed suicide by breathing in gas from a gas stove. His wife had given birth to their daughter three days previously.


The short stories

The Penguin paperback, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, brings together all of the Holocaust-related stories from his early collections of short stories, being:

  • This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman (21 pages)
  • A Day at Harmenz (32 pages)
  • The People Who Walked On (16 pages)
  • Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter) (45 pages)
  • The Death of Schillinger (4 pages)
  • The Man with the Package (5 pages)
  • The Supper (5 pages)
  • A True Story (4 pages)
  • Silence (3 pages)
  • The January Offensive (10 pages)
  • A Visit (3 pages)
  • The World of Stone (4 pages)

It would have been extremely useful if the editors of the Penguin edition had made it clear which of these stories come from Farewell to Maria and which from A World of Stone. Since the book doesn’t say and I can’t find anything on the internet, I am guessing that the first four are from the first volume about Auschwitz, and the final eight from the world of displaced persons camps.

This guess is based on the fact that the first four are long and diffuse, often divided into sections and containing numerous stories or anecdotes, while the final eight stories are strikingly short, much more polished, generally focus on one event, and in their brevity and ellipticism, are marvellously charged with meaning.

2. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman

It’s no accident that the editors place this story first and name the entire collection after it, since it plunges us straight away into the horrors of Auschwitz, with its unflinching first sentence.

All of us walk around naked.

The inmates are naked because their only clothes, their striped pyjama uniforms have been temporarily taken away to be deloused. They are being fumigated in Zyklon B,

an efficient killer of lice in clothing and of men in gas chambers.

Note this tone and attitude which, right from the start, is laconic to the point of cruelty. Borowski’s narrator has had all his ‘outside world modesty’ burned away. Now he accepts all the facts of Auschwitz, no matter how grim and grotesque, as facts of life, and his prose, by stating these facts plainly and evenly, draws you into his world far more effectively than if he raged or wept. Borowski saw the worst things humans can do to other humans and describes it all the more upsettingly for being conveyed in such a flat factual style.

From the rear blockhouses we have a view of the F.K.L. – Frauen Konzentration Lager; there too the delousing is in full swing. Twenty‐eight thousand women have been stripped naked and driven out of the barracks. Now they swarm around the large yard between blockhouses.

Some critics, and the introduction, dwell on Borowski’s style, his use of simile and so on, or concut lengthy analyses of his moral position. But what comes over strongest to me, and what is in a sense most shocking, is the implicit attitude in the story that – it was just a job, a tough hard physical job, certainly, but a job which, like countless other labouring jobs, has its shitty bits but also its perks, moments when you can relax, share a cigarette or some food or vodka with workmates, enjoy the sunshine and feel pretty content with life.

It is the everydayness of the work which keeps drawing you in, Borowski’s persuasive descriptions of the mundaneness of it all – until you remember the purpose of all this activity – the systematic extermination of millions – millions – of human beings. Here is the ramp, where the cattle trains packed with Jews from all over Europe are unloaded, just before a new transport arrives.

Meantime, the ramp has become increasingly alive with activity, increasingly noisy. The crews are being divided into those who will open and unload the arriving cattle cars and those who will be posted by the wooden steps. They receive instructions on how to proceed most efficiently. Motor cycles drive up, delivering S.S. officers, bemedalled, glittering with brass, beefy men with highly polished boots and shiny, brutal faces. Some have brought their briefcases, others hold thin, flexible whips. This gives them an air of military readiness and agility. They walk in and out of the commissary – for the miserable little shack by the road serves as their commissary, where in the summertime they drink mineral water, Studentenquelle, and where in winter they can warm up with a glass of hot wine. They greet each other in the state‐approved way, raising an arm Roman fashion, then shake hands cordially, exchange warm smiles, discuss mail from home, their children, their families. Some stroll majestically on the ramp. The silver squares on their collars glitter, the gravel crunches under their boots, their bamboo whips snap impatiently.

Tadeusz’s job, along with his gang of kapos, is to open the doors of the trucks, pull out the bodies, some still alive, many dead, all of them stinking of faeces and urine. they have to force the living to line up to be loaded into lorries which will drive them off to the changing rooms, the gas chamber and the crematorium or throw the corpses onto other lorries which will also go to the crematoriums. On one level all very manageable, especially with SS men standing behind you with whips which they are quick to use, and behind them the guards with machine guns.

The shitty part was cleaning out the cattle trucks after they’d been emptied of the Jews locked up in them for days, if not weeks, without food or water.

We climb inside. In the corners amid human excrement and abandoned wrist‐watches lie
squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies.
We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand. (p.39)

The narrator looks around for one of the Jews awaiting loading into a lorry to take the dead babies off his hands. An SS guard makes a motion as if to start shooting the reluctant Jews and so a tall grey-haired woman steps forward and takes them. ‘My poor boy,’ she whispers to Tadeusz. If he has any moral or psychological or emotional response, it is not included. He just feels momentarily tired and leans against the side of the truck and then, when his pal Henri tugs at his shirt, confesses that he is angry at the victims. He could beat them and throw them into the ovens himself. It’s their bloody fault that he’s here doing this disgusting job. Damn them, damn them all! Henri says it’s normal: everyone hates the people weaker than themselves.

Once the lorries have all been loaded and every last Jew, alive or dead, has been packed off to be incinerated, once all the cattle trucks have been cleaned out, you can wash your hands and settle in the sun alongside your mates till the next shipment arrives.

The great perk of the job is that the kapos can keep all the food and drink they find among the suitcases and clothes the Jews are ordered to abandon on the loading ramp. Gold, jewellery and valuables were taken by the supervising Germans – and it’s true that any labourer caught stealing valuables was shot – but the food, nah, help yourselves.

With the disconcerting result that, in all these stories, food-wise, the kapos were pretty well off; especially if you include the astonishing fact that they were allowed to receive letters and food parcels from their relatives. Thus the narrator of these stories, Kapo Tadeusz, has a pretty healthy food stash including onions and tomatoes from his father’s garden, Portuguese sardines, bacon from Lublin and sweetmeats from Salonica.

This is all the harder to read if you recall Primo Levi’s descriptions of how the Jews in Auschwitz were systematically starved to death, supplied with pitifully inadequate rations which left them permanently ravenous. Tadeusz, by contrast, lives the life of Reilly. Oh, apart from his entire situation and plight. It is this constant oscillation, between moments of ‘normality’ and humdrum human foibles – and sudden moments of complete horror – which make the stories almost unbearable to read.

I shut my eyes tight, but I can still see corpses dragged from the train, trampled infants, cripples piled on top of the dead, wave after wave . . . freight cars roll in, the heaps of clothing, suitcases and bundles grow, people climb out, look at the sun, take a few breaths, beg for water, get into the trucks, drive away. And again freight cars roll in, again people.

The narrator

These longer stories are narrated in the first person by a deputy kapo, Vorarbeiter Tadeusz. the fact that he has the same name has led generations of readers to identify him directly with the author. But the introduction and various articles I’ve read contest this: apparently, other survivors testify that the actual Borowski was kind-hearted and charitable.

This kind of debate is entertaining but ultimately irrelevant to the stories: what matters is the workings of the text. In these, the narrator tries to be tough as nails but keeps failing. He knows he cannot afford to become at all connected to the people he is chivvying along to the gas chamber but, despite himself, he keeps making human connections and then feeling sick, more deeply nauseated than any of us reading this can possibly imagine.

He witnesses a mother furiously denying her small child who is running after her, calling out ‘Mummy, mummy’. The woman thinks she might survive if she has no child, so ignores and walks away from it. An enraged Russian kapo punches her in the face, tells her she is a rotten mother, and throws her onto one of the lorries and then her child after her. A watching SS man grunts his approval, ‘Gut gemacht, Gut, gut, Russki’.

More screaming wailing humanity shuffles, walks, staggers past. Then amidst the squalor, Tadeusz sees a vision, a beautiful young blonde woman, miraculously fresh and clean who asks him point blank: ‘What is happening? Where are we going?’ He can say nothing, there are literally no words to convey the situation. She nods her head and says, ‘I know’ and walks purposefully over to a lorry. That is all the author describes. We must imagine how he feels. And even getting a fraction of the way there is devastating.

To say the narrator is untouched by all this seems wildly wrong. He is stricken.

I go back inside the train; I carry out dead infants; I unload luggage. I touch corpses, but I cannot overcome the mounting, uncontrollable terror. I try to escape from the corpses, but they are everywhere: lined up on the gravel, on the cement edge of the ramp, inside the cattle cars. Babies, hideous naked women, men twisted by convulsions. I run off as far as I can go, but immediately a whip slashes across my back… (p.45)

Later he reaches into a truck full of still-steaming corpses, goes to grab the first corpse and, as in a horror movie, the apparently dead hand closes round his.

I seize a corpse by the hand; the fingers close tightly around mine. I pull back with a shriek and stagger away. My heart pounds, jumps up to my throat. I can no longer control the nausea. Hunched under the train I begin to vomit. (p.48)

Yes, he very obviously and severely is affected by what he is doing.

Similes

Among the functional but carefully chosen prose, glisten occasional, telling similes.

  • Now [the occupants of the cattle trucks] push towards the open doors, breathing like fish cast out on the sand. (p.37)
  • A huge, multicoloured wave of people loaded down with luggage pours from the train like a blind, mad river trying to find a new bed. (p.37)
  • Trucks leave and return, without interruption, as on a monstrous conveyor belt. A Red Cross van drives back and forth, back and forth, incessantly: it transports the gas that will kill these people. The enormous cross on the hood, red as blood, seems to dissolve in the sun. (p.38)
  • The morbid procession streams on and on – trucks growl like mad dogs. (p.41)
  • Again weary, pale faces at the windows, flat as though cut out of paper, with huge, feverishly burning eyes. (p.42)

Shining out like jewels in mud.


3. Silence

As mentioned above, I think the last eight of the stories here, being much shorter and generally set after the liberation, must come from his second collection, A World of Stone. Not only shorter, and describing a different period, but substantially different in style. More polished and canny.

Here is Borowski’s short story, Silence, in its entirety, as translated by Barbara Vedder.

Silence

At last they seized him inside the German barracks, just as he was about to climb over the window ledge. In absolute silence they pulled him down to the floor and panting with hate dragged him into a dark alley. Here, closely surrounded by a silent mob, they began tearing at him with greedy hands.

Suddenly from the camp gate a whispered warning was passed from one mouth to another. A company of soldiers, their bodies leaning forward, their rifles on the ready, came running down the camp’s main road, weaving between the clusters of men in stripes standing in the way. The crowd scattered and vanished inside the blocks. In the packed, noisy barracks the prisoners were cooking food pilfered during the night from neighbouring farmers. In the bunks and in the passageways between them, they were grinding grain in small flour-mills, slicing meat on heavy slabs of wood, peeling potatoes and throwing the peels on to the floor. They were playing cards for stolen cigars, stirring batter for pancakes, gulping down hot soup, and lazily killing fleas. A stifling odour of sweat hung in the air, mingled with the smell of food, with smoke and with steam that liquified along the ceiling beams and fell on the men, the bunks and the food in large, heavy drops, like autumn rain.

There was a stir at the door. A young American officer with a tin helmet on his head entered the block and looked with curiosity at the bunks and the tables. He wore a freshly pressed uniform; his revolver was hanging down, strapped in an open holster that dangled against his thigh. He was assisted by the translator who wore a yellow band reading ‘interpreter” on the sleeve of his civilian coat, and by the chairman of the Prisoners’ Committee, dressed in a white summer coat, a pair of tuxedo trousers, and tennis shoes. The men in the barracks fell silent. Leaning out of their bunks and lifting their eyes from the kettles, bowls and cups, they gazed attentively into the officer’s face.

“Gentlemen,” said the officer with a friendly smile, taking off his helmet-and the interpreter proceeded at once to translate sentence after sentence-“I know, of course, that after what you have gone through and after what you have seen, you must feel a deep hate for your tormentors. But we, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness. We must show our respect for the law. I assure you that the guilty will be punished, in this camp as well as in all the others. You have already seen, for example, that the S.S. men were made to bury the dead.”

“. . . right, we could use the lot at the back of the hospital. A few of them are still around,” whispered one of the men in a bottom bunk.

“. . . or one of the pits,” whispered another. He sat straddling the bunk, his fingers firmly clutching the blanket.

“Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?” Now listen to what the American has to say,”a third man, stretched across the foot of the same bunk, spoke in an angry whisper. The American officer was now hidden from their view behind the thick crowd gathered at the other end of the block.

“Comrades, our new Kommandant gives you his word of honour that all the criminals of the S.S. as well as among the prisoners will be punished,” said the translator. The men in the bunks broke into applause and shouts. In smiles and gestures they tried to convey their friendly approval of the young man from across the ocean.

“And so the Kommandant requests,” went on the translator, his voice turning somewhat hoarse, “that you try to be patient and do not commit lawless deeds, which may only lead to trouble, and please pass the sons of bitches over to the camp guards. How about it, men?”

The block answered with a prolonged shout. The American thanked the translator and wished the prisoners a good rest and an early reunion with their dear ones. Accompanied by a friendly hum of voices, he left the block and proceeded to the next.

Not until after he had visited all the blocks and returned with the soldiers to his headquarters did we pull our man off the bunk – where covered with blankets and half smothered with the weight of our bodies he lay gagged, his face buried in the straw mattress – and dragged him on to the cement floor under the stove, where the entire block, grunting and growling with hatred, trampled him to death.

Commentary

It is short, and it is beautifully shaped. It has the brevity of one of Hemingway’s earliest stories and like them, is heavy with meaning beyond what it says.

You can, of course, have a 6th form debate about the morality of the prisoners murdering the man (presumably a Nazi guard or camp official) –

“Are the prisoners justified or ‘right’ to take revenge? Discuss”

But as regular readers of this blog know, I’m not very interested in morality, because it is generally an excuse for long-winded tergiversation which never arrives at a useful outcome. And also because nine times out of ten morality is, as Freud said somewhere, obvious. Making a song and dance out of it is generally a way of avoiding the obviously correct decision.

Quite obviously it is wrong to kill anyone, therefore they ‘shouldn’t’ kill the Nazi. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a moral debate, it’s a work of literature. The point is the tremendous artistry of the story.

1. Dramatic contrast Note the skill with which the clash of moralities, which is the ostensible ‘subject’ of the story, is fully dramatised. It isn’t an abstract debate but beautifully embodied in the contrast between the American officer and the unnamed mob. And everything about this confrontation or polarity is brought out by wonderful details. ‘The young man from across the ocean’ is not only young, he wears a freshly-pressed uniform. A whole clause is devoted to the state of his pistol, dangling with Yankee casualness against his thigh. Confident, happy, yet somehow superficial.

His speech is calm and fair and reasonable. It praises the Enlightenment values of Reason and Justice. It sounds like Lincoln at Gettysburg or the Founding Fathers in full flood:

We, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness.

Shucks. Compare and contrast the undisciplined mob who confront him, bickering inmates who steal from the nearby farms and are preparing food in filthy, unhygienic ways, chopping meat on dirty wooden slabs, throwing potato peelings all over the floor, gambling for stolen loot (the cigars). The filth and squalor of the barrack couldn’t contrast more vividly with the freshly-pressed uniform of the clean-cut young American.

2. Tension and suspense I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed the identity of the man they kill. No, he isn’t identified anywhere. It’s not even clear that he is a Nazi. This anonymity makes his lynching all the more… uncanny and… bestial. Generalised. Unfathomable.

In a similar way, I had to read the story twice to be really clear that the ‘company of soldiers’ running down the camp’s main road are indeed Americans. You have to wait through the long description of the men in the barracks, cooking and gambling, before you get to the word ‘American’ describing the officer. Only with this one word does the situation become clear and the whole scene is flooded with new meaning. An American is addressing the barracks. Then this must be after the liberation from the Germans. So this one word explains the freedom of the inmates’ behaviour, cooking and gambling and picking their fleas. They are free. And the soldiers running down the main strip, they must be Americans, too. Surely. Although a flicker of doubt remains. Not logical doubt, aesthetic doubt.

Similarly, I didn’t understand the whispered conversation among the three inmates while the American was still speaking, or why the third whisperer was angry, until it is revealed – after the American has left – that all three were stifling under the blankets the man they intend to kill and are impatiently discussing where to dump his body. That’s why the third man says, ‘Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?’ i.e. wait a few more minutes till the American leaves. Which indicates how impatient they are to carry out their revenge; how deep it runs.

You have to read the story at least twice for it to reveal its meaning.

Borowski’s deliberate delay or suspension of understanding is tremendously effective – in such a small space – in charging the text with energy. Arguably, the strategy carries on beyond the end of the story because we never get told the identity of the murdered man. 70 years later, we’re still waiting, and will wait forever. Some things are never explained.

Human psychology It is a portrait of men as they are, not as writers or philosophers would have them be. The point, the crux, the convincing thing about it, is the way the barrack full of filthy men cheer the American to the rafters. They admire him. They are grateful to him. They agree with everything he says. They are going to completely ignore him. When he leaves he is ‘accompanied by a friendly hum of voices…’ – what a brilliantly convincing detail – the American officer departs, proud of his virtue and the fine example the New World is setting the Old. Good man.

But morality has nothing to do with it. Animal passions, lust for revenge, lynch mob mentality take over. The entire story is an ironic comment on the fatuous other-worldly innocence of the American, of anyone who hasn’t lived through the camp, who hasn’t survived in the bestial world of the Lager.

Two minds

And it is also a subtler comment on human nature – not the obvious fact that people can behave like animals, we all know that. The slightly more interesting point that the same people can, with one part of their mind, listen, understand and agree with all the finest points of moral philosophy and ethical debate – and with another part trample and tear a fellow human being to pieces. The same people.

It is this fundamental schizophrenia of the human animal which comes over from all Borowski’s stories. In the story Auschwitz, Our Home, the narrator has a relatively cushy time  since he has managed to wangle his way onto a course to train as a hospital orderly. The hospital is lovely, with fine views of tree-lined roads, plenty of food, and the lessons are interesting. Of course, he knows that some of the surgeons are carrying out experiments on live human beings with no anaesthetics, removing their organs one by one to see how long they survive, just down the hall. But the symphony orchestra the hospital staff have organised is really wonderful, and you should see the canteen!

Or take another moment, described in the story, The People Who Walked On, when the narrator’s taking part in the regular football match between hospital staff and runs to retrieve the ball from the touchline. From here he can see through the barbed wire to the train ramp where he used to work, and the road leading off to the crematorium. Along it are trudging a new trainload of Jews to the gas chambers. He throws the ball in and continues playing the game. Five minutes later the ball goes out again, and he goes to fetch it from the same spot by the fence. Now the road and ramp are empty. Between two throw-ins of a football match 3,000 people have been gassed and incinerated.

Is it a searing indictment of the human mind that it can enjoy Bach while across the hall human beings are being tortured to death? Or a tribute to the human mind that it can find order and beauty in the midst of such horror, of such degraded surroundings? Kicking a ball around while people just like us are being gassed to death?

Or, as I read Borowski’s stories, do none of these trite and easy formulae fit the bill? The world is what it is and people do what they can to survive in it. That’s all we can know.

The earlier, longer, more diffuse stories are full of scenes of horror. They are documentary records of the kinds of tasks and sights encountered in Auschwitz, written as unflinching testimony. They are crafted to give an sense of duration and intensity, of the long days full of unremitting labour, and the day after day mundaneness of horror.

But the second set of much shorter stories are, for me, on a different level altogether. Their compactness, their brilliance of detail, their psychological insight combine with their elusiveness to escape summary or interpretation. They are wonderful and mysterious, like pebbles worn by a stream.

They offer no moral consolation but they are not fashionably nihilistic, either. They offer no answers or resolution. They are what they are, no more, and it is partly this restraint which makes them such powerful works of art.


Credit

Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria) and Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone) were published in 1948. This selection of stories from them was published under the title Wybor Opowiadan in Poland in 1959. This translation of that selection, by Barbara Vedder, was published by Penguin in 1967. Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition.

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The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre (2)

Never again, never, will I think about what I am – but only about what I do.
(Mathieu in his diary – p.134)

The Last Chance brings together all the fragments published during his lifetime, and then found among his papers after his death, of what was intended to be the fourth volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy (1945-49).

I read the first three books (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Iron in The Soul) when I was at school in the 1970s and they made a profound impression on me.

This scholarly edition – which brings together all the known fragments for the intended fourth book in the series, along with a number of essays about it and about the tetralogy as a whole – was published in France in 1981, but only translated into English in 2009.

The ideas and issues raised in the introductory material and essays are so numerous that I discuss them in a separate blog post, The Last Chance (1).

In this blog post I am commenting solely on the two large fragments of the uncompleted novel itself. These were given by Sartre the titles of: A Strange Friendship and The Last Chance.


1. A Strange Friendship (68 pages)

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in the village of Padoux, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, first in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D. (Wikipedia)

Mathieu and Brunet at the end of Iron in the Soul

In the third novel of the published trilogy, Iron In the Soul, we followed the activities of Mathieu Delarue, the ineffectual philosophy teacher – a sort of self-portrait by the author – and Brunet, the tough-minded Communist organiser, as they both, separately, retreated in June 1940 before the German advance in France and ended up in a small French village.

Here Mathieu finds himself deciding to quit the squad of demoralised men he’d arrived with, and instead throw in his lot with a still-pugnacious lieutenant and his platoon, who have arrived in the village after carrying out a fighting retreat.

Almost before he knows it, Mathieu has accompanied some of the soldiers to the top of the village church tower where they wait anxiously for the first German scouts to arrive. When the first Germans enter the village, Mathieu and comrades begin shooting at them, sparking a fierce firefight, which is only ended when the Germans bring up a field gun and blow the tower to pieces. The reader assumes that Mathieu, until the last minute firing from this church tower, was killed.

Meanwhile, by a large coincidence, without realising the closeness of his boyhood friend, Mathieu, the tough-minded communist, Brunet, has also ended up in the same village, but here he makes a very different decision. He decides to surrender to the Germans in the hope of recruiting and organising what is obviously going to be a larege number of French prisoners of war into a communist cell.

The final part of Iron in the Soul had followed Brunet’s journey, along with thousands of other POWs, to a holding camp in France, where there is no food and his condition deteriorates along with all the others, Decent feeding arrangements are finally made and, after a long period of lassitude, the prisoners are marched to a train station, loaded into cattle trucks and shipped off to a prison camp in the Fatherland.

In other words, both Mathieu and Brunet’s stories rely very heavily on Sartre’s own experiences of capture and imprisonment in 1940.

Throughout the long second section of Iron in the Soul, Brunet had found himself in conflict with a fellow prisoner, Schneider, who declares himself broadly sympathetic to Brunet’s communist intentions, but is much more a genuine man of the people – in contrast with Brunet’s well-educated background. At key moments Schneider points out the flaws in Brunet’s approach, in the way he’s handling the men and so on.

A Strange Friendship

A Strange Friendship opens with Brunet, Schneider and thousands of other French POWs imprisoned in a German prison camp in freezing winter conditions in January 1941. Because it’s based so closely on Sartre’s own identical experiences, we can be confident that the descriptions of the camp and of the horrible conditions are accurate.

What gets the action of A Strange Friendship going is the arrival of new prisoners at the camp, one of them being Chalais, a former Communist Party deputy. He turns Brunet’s world upside down by announcing:

a) that Schneider is none other than ‘Vicarios’, a French Communist Party official who had denounced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and was therefore expelled from the Party
b) that Brunet’s entire strategy within the camp, namely organising the prisoners, recruiting the willing ones to a communist cell, with the long term plan of undermining the Germans, is wrong

Chalais is a representative of the French Communist Party (which was, of course, a mouthpiece for Soviet Foreign policy).

He tells Brunet that the views he’s been putting about – that the war isn’t over yet, that the USSR will crush Germany, that the workers should reject the armistice, that the defeat of the Axis will be a victory for the proletariat, that the French prisoners should still consider themselves as soldiers (p.55) – are wrong.

Chalais ridicules de Gaulle’s recent radio broadcast saying the USSR and USA will enter the war, that the Vichy government is illegitimate, that the armistice the new french government signed with the Nazis was treason. With typical bullying insults, in his ‘loudspeaker voice’, Chalais says that Brunet has been dead wrong. He has, ‘objectively’, i.e. in the eyes of the inflexible Party, been merely a propagandist for Churchill and British imperialism.

Chalais tells him that he and his men must not oppose the Germans; the Germans are allies of our heroic Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will never enter the war. (Indeed, at this point and until it was invaded in June 1941, the Soviet Union for nearly two years supported the Nazi regime with food, oil and raw materials). The Soviet Union will wait until Europe has fought itself to a standstill and then dictate the peace in the interests of the proletariat.

So, instead of subverting the Germans, the communist party ought to cosy up to the Nazis in a bid to become officially recognised and to get a foot into the French National Assembly again.

To Brunet’s astonishment Chalais says they must work to attack the imperialism of the bourgeois ‘democracies’ (i.e. Britain), attack de Gaulle – who is merely a mouthpiece for British imperialism – and direct the workers towards pacifism, not towards enmity to the Germans (p.63).

Brunet listens with astonishment to this interpretation of the situation which is completely opposite to everything he has been telling the men he’s recruited to the communist cause. Chalais has the impeccable authority of being a senior party member, and of having been free – and so in touch with the communist hierarchy – more recently than Brunet himself.

Brunet tries to quell his misgivings, to make himself a servant of the Party and to obey.

This is an example of Sartre depicting how a man – Brunet – denies his absolute freedom, represses his own thoughts and feelings, in the name of Obedience to External Law.

(There is also a massive authorly irony at work here, because the reader knows that Chalais is dead wrong – when Hitler invades the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin immediately declares Germany the enemy and reverses every one of the policies which Chalais had been championing. Brunet was to be proved right. But not yet.)

The second section of A Strange Friendship jumps to a month later. The result of Brunet following Chalais’s instructions is that the camaraderie Brunet had carefully built up over the previous 6 months in the camp has evaporated, and Brunet is now regarded shiftily by the men he has so suddenly deserted. They no longer trust him.

In another one-on-one scene Chalais confronts Brunet with this problem – the men don’t trust Chalais and now think Brunet was lying to them. Chalais floats the possibility emerges that Brunet should co-host a Party meeting and stand up, validate Chalais and the Party line, and then humiliate and implicate himself – just as so many old Bolsheviks did in the Stalin Show Trials of the late 1930s (as depicted in the classic novel, Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler).

Brunet refuses. His unwavering faith in the Party is for the first time broken. For the first time he sees that the Party might be wrong, that the USSR might be wrong. If it loses the war, if the Party is abolished, Man will continue i.e. History is bigger than the Communist Party.

1. Here is Brunet explaining (to himself) his previous attitude to his own free thought i.e. that it was merely a bourgeois self-indulgence which he needed to repress.

So much for ideas. He’d always had them, like everyone, they’re just mildew, leftovers from brain activity; but he never used to pay them any mind, just let them sprout like mushrooms in the basement. So let’s just put them back in their place and everything will be alright: he’ll toe the line, follow orders, and carry his ideas around inside him without saying a word, like a shameful disease. This will go no further, this can go no further: we do not think in opposition to the Party, thoughts are words, words belong to the Party, the Party defines them, the Party controls them; Truth and the Party are one and the same. (p78)

(It’s worth remembering that Sartre was writing these passages just as George Orwell’s terrifying vision of totalitarian thought control, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published [June 1949]. Orwell’s book now stands alone as a classic of dystopian fiction, like an isolated mesa in the desert; but once it was part of the vast ocean of discourse about communism, for and against, which washed over European culture all through and for long after the war.)

2. And here is Brunet, moments later, for the first time in his life considering what it would mean if the USSR did lose the war, and if the communist cause was defeated.

He blows through the roof, flying in the dark, explodes, the Party is below him, a living jelly covering the globe, I never saw it, I was inside it: he turns above this imperishable jelly: the Party can die. He’s cold, he turns: if the Party is right, then I am more alone than a madman [to oppose it]; if it’s wrong, we’re all on our own, and the world is fucked. (p.79)

It seems to me he is undergoing the classic Sartrean awakening to the fact of his abandonment, to his complete aloneness, to the shocking reality of his freedom.

Back in the plot, Brunet realises some men have been despatched from a Party meeting chaired by Chalais to go and beat up Schneider – a traitor to the Party because he criticised Stalin’s Nazi-Soviet Pact with Hitler.

Recalling all their talks and all the help he’s given him, Brunet comes to Schneider’s rescue and interrupts the pair of thugs beating Schneider. But the two men – who Brunet himself recruited to the communist cause – don’t understand why he’s protecting Schneider. Chalais has explained that Schneider is a traitor, why is Brunet defending him? Is Brunet a traitor too?

In the childlike simple-mindedness of the Communist Party, well, yes, Brunet is a traitor. Sticking up for a bad guy makes you a bad guy. Brunet smashes one of the thugs in the face and the pair of thugs slope off, at which point Brunet realises that he has burned all his bridges. Now ‘his’ men belong to Chalais and everything he and Schneider achieved is destroyed, in fact his entire life to date has been negated. He has fought all his adult life for the Communist Party. Now the Party has decreed that he is a traitor and so he is a traitor. He must get away.

Brunet makes plans for him and Schneider to escape. In the face of a blasting howling January gale, they lay planks over the barbed wire fence surrounding the POW camp and escape – only for the floodlights to come on and them to be shot at from all sides. Brunet realises they’ve been betrayed, probably by ‘the comrades’, who want them more dead than the Germans.

As they run for the woodline Schneider is hit. Brunet helps him on and they fall down a wooded slope, coming to rest against a tree which is where Schneider dies in Brunet’s arms, not at all romantically, but vomiting and blaming Brunet for his death.

Brunet stands up and walks back towards the guards. His death is only just starting.

Commentary

1. You can immediately see why Sartre ran into problems trying to finish this story. The more it plunges into the minutiae of the argument between communists loyal to the Soviet-Comintern party line, and every other non-communist brand of leftist, as it stood in the winter of 1940-41, the more obscure this story becomes. Not least because, as the notes in this edition point out, the official Party line was itself continually changing and would, of course, undergo a complete volte-face when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

In addition, a vast amount had happened between spring 1941 and the post-war, Cold War era of the early 1950s when Sartre was writing. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, increasing general hysteria that the Cold War might escalate into a nuclear apocalypse.

Why write about the arcane disputes of this increasingly remote period of time, when your own times are so pressing and urgent? As you read the fragment it becomes increasingly obvious why Sartre gave up struggling with The Last Chance and switched to writing political commentary on the very fraught times he found himself in in the early 1950s.

2. Looked at from this distance of time, nearly 80 years later, all the characters seem like idiots – Brunet and Schneider and Chalais, all blindly defending the Soviet Union which a) they should already have realised was one of the most repressive regimes in human history b) went on to prove it in the brutal repression of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s c) collapsed in 1990 and is now remote, dusty, ancient history.

3. The entire plot exemplifies the way that the communists’ main talent appears to have been carrying out witch hunts against all other leftists, and then among themselves. This is the central theme of George Orwell’s terrifying memoir of the Spanish Civil war, Homage to Catalonia, which shows how the Communist Party systematically suppressed, arrested, tortured and executed all its opponents on the same side in the civil war – in the opinion of historian Antony Beevor, a major contributory factor to why the Republican side lost The Battle for Spain.

And the war of the Communist Party against itself is the subject of Arthur Koestler’s fictional recreation of the interrogation and show trial of an old Bolshevik in his classic novel, Darkness At Noon.

4. Looked at in its broader historical context, the entire sequence is more evidence to add to the 680-page analysis by historian Alistair Horne in his classic account, To Lose a Battle, that France’s defeat by Germany was entirely her own fault and overwhelmingly due to the ruinous divisions in her political culture. The french hated each other much more than they hated the Germans.

At one point Chalais, the hard-line Communist Deputy, actually says out loud that he prefers the Nazis to so-called ‘radicals’ i.e. to left-wingers operating outside the Communist Party (p.64) who he despises and calls ‘dogs’.

(It is important to remember that the French Communist Party called on workers to sabotage the war effort against Germany – to sabotage their own country’s war effort.)

Chalais prefers the Nazis to non-communist left-wingers. This is an amazing thing to really process and let sink in. And Chalais exactly mirrors the attitude of many right-wingers in pre-war France who declared ‘Better Hitler than the reds’.

Taken together it is a picture of a country in which nearly all sides wanted Hitler to beat them. I can see how this section was intended as an ‘analysis’ of the Communist Party line at a particular historical moment, and as a portrait of how it undermines and preys on a man (Brunet) who wants to be a loyal Party servant but finds himself torn between ideology and loyalty to the men he’s recruited.

I can see how it carries out Sartre’s mission to show his ‘heroes’ emerging from various types of ‘bad faith’ into the desolate realisation of their inescapable freedom: as, for example, Brunet realises that his ongoing presence is undermining Chalais’ Communist Party mission, that his own elimination is called for by strict Party logic – but refuses, in the end, to give up and insists on living.

But at this distance of time, the entire sequence seems like just a further example of the complete moral and political bankruptcy of mid-twentieth century French culture.

5. From a literary point of view, more interesting for me is the almost complete absence of any of the prose poetry which characterised the earlier books (and which I quote liberally in my reviews of them). The text is almost completely functional. It often reads like directions for a play: ‘X looks at Y. Y Says Z. X Gets up, leaves through the door.’  This suggests that a lot of the impressionistic poetry, the floods of feeling, the great waves of death and night and futility and emptiness which wash over the characters in the earlier books, that all this was put in later, during the revising, once the narrative scaffold was in place.

This text as we have it consists almost entirely of this very basic scaffold, bare present tense prose used to convey the dry-as-dust theological squabbles of a discredited belief-system and the toxic power struggles it led to.

Only at the end, in the final few pages, when the scales fall from Brunet’s eyes, does his mind then entertain some of the delirious hallucinations so common to the other characters in the series; and only in the escape over the wire and through the howling gale does Sartre let rip with some impressionistic prose.

I’m guessing this is deliberate. Maybe the grindingly boring, factual prose of most of the section is intended to enact the grindingly boring nature of revolutionary politics and its squalid betrayals.

Whereas the moments of high delirium which Brunet experiences in the last few pages, and then the intensely impressionistic description of the escape in the snow storm, represent the return of Freedom, the flooding into Brunet’s consciousness of the confusions, the overwhelming and bewildering sense of finally throwing off his disciplined devotion to The Party, and his arrival in the bewildering abandonment of his human Freedom.

To be free, in Sartre’s fiction, is to be overwhelmed with sensations and thoughts.

6. The whole thing is written as a tragedy but, to an Anglo-Saxon eye it has a certain grim humour. It is notable the way no Germans feature at all anywhere in the story: sure, they’re referred to a lot as the people who run the camp, but:

a) there’s no analysis of Nazi strategy, no mention of Hitler’s likely plans and intentions for Europe (which, though interesting, I can see would be extraneous to the core subject, which is the drama of Brunet’s disillusionment with the Party)
b) no individual Germans appear, even right at the end when they’re pursuing Schneider and Brunet in their escape. The Germans always remain disembodied shouts and bullets.

Again, to the sceptical outsider this is partly because – comically enough – the Germans don’t need to do anything. They know they can leave the French to carry on fighting among themselves, the right-wingers against the radicals, the communists against the Catholics. The French can be relied on to display not a shred of solidarity or patriotism.

Sartre is inside the French political world and so he takes endless internecine fighting for granted. I come from the Anglo-Saxon countries which had a bit more backbone and where patriotism really did unite the country against the potential invader: from a place where Canadians, Australians, Poles and other European exiles came together to fight the Nazis; not, as the French did, to betray each other to the Nazis.

For Sartre this squalid little squabble among communists can be represented as a kind of noble tragedy – but for the reader outside the snake pit of French culture, it’s just another example of the Communist talent for eliminating each other, and the French talent for ruinous infighting.

Vive la France! Vive la Revolution! are essentially comic declarations.


2.The Last Chance (76 pages)

All the readers of the original trilogy of novels thought that Mathieu Delarue – the most obviously autobiographical character in the series, an ineffectual philosophy teacher much like Sartre – had been blown to smithereens at the end of part one of Iron in the Soul. But no, folks, he’s back and more plagued by philosophical doubts than ever!

Nothing is explained. The other sizeable fragment of the unfinished novel – titled The Last Chance – just starts with Mathieu in a German prisoner of war hospital, from which he’s soon transferred out into the wider camp.

The section opens with him helping a young man who has lost both his legs, amputated after being hit by a shell, put on his ‘pants’ (all the way through the text are reminders that this is a translation into American prose). Apparently, Mathieu was shot through the lungs and still feels weak, but survived otherwise unscathed. Huh.

As usual, two things happen immediately with Mathieu: he is nervous around other human beings, over-sensitively noticing all aspects about them, and his reactions to them, and their reactions to his reactions to them, and so on.

And his consciousness is, as usual, susceptible to being flooded with overwhelming, uncontrollable perceptions and sensations. His perceptions flood his mind. This is the Sartre of his first novel, Nausea, and a feature of almost all the characters in the first two novels in the sequence.

He opened his eyes, and saw nothing. He was nowhere. Between two wooden frames with rectangular holes, there were a table and benches, but it was nothing, not even furniture, not even utensils, not even things; the inert underside of a few simple gestures; suspended in emptiness. The emptiness enveloped Mathieu with a glassy dissolving look, penetrating his eyes, gnawing at his flesh, all there was was a skeleton: ‘I’ll be living in emptiness.’ The skeleton took a seated position. (p.110)

This is just the latest in a long line of occasions when Sartrean characters cease to perceive the world normally, cease even perceive themselves as human, instead become perceiving objects, lose all their personality, are suffused with grand abstractions like death, night, freedom and so on.

I like them. I like this way of thinking and writing. The world, very obviously, is far far weirder than official discourse permits, and Sartre is a great poet of this weirdness, the weirdness of being a walking, sentient nervous system adrift in a sea of things.

Just as characteristically, Mathieu then hallucinates that the dour defeated inhabitants of the wider POW camp are sub-human, insects, crustaceans.

Even though they filled him with a slight repulsion, and even fear, like the crazies he had seen in Rouen in 1936, he knew perfectly well that he was not in an insane asylum: rather, he was in a breeding ground of crabs and lobsters. He was fascinated by these prehistoric crustaceans who crawled around on the tormented ground of an unknown planet, suddenly his heart sank and he thought: in a few days, I’ll be one of them. He would have these same eyes, airs and gestures, he would understand these incomprehensible creatures from inside, he would be a crab. (p.113)

Weird, huh? And reminds me of the notion I developed in reading The Reprieve that there is something distinctly science fiction-y about much of the altered states Sartre describes.

He was most certainly not in Africa, not even anywhere on a human planet. He was walking dry and crisp, between the glass panes of an aquarium. The horror was not in him yet, he could still defend himself against it: it was in things, and in the eyes of those who saw what he didn’t see. But soon, because of the water pressure and the great sea-spiders, these panes would break. (p.121)

The contrast between the histrionic, science fiction prose poetry of the Mathieu section and the spare functional prose of most of the Brunet section clinches the idea that Sartre alters his prose style to match the subject/character. I am genuinely impressed by the range of styles and rhetorical effects Sartre can pull off.

The structure of the complete novel

As to the plot, all we have is fragments. In the notes, the editor Craig Vasey, explains that the plan for the entire book appears to have been something like:

  • Novel opens with Mathieu in the infirmary. He helps the amputee put on his ‘pants’.
  • Mathieu transfers to the camp where he thinks the defeated soldiers look like undersea crabs.
  • Cut to Brunet smoothly running his circle of comrades, until Chalais arrives and turns everything upside down.
  • Back to Mathieu: through his eyes we see fragmentary descriptions of camp life and mentality.
    • Ramard: someone has stolen a fur coat from the German stores, Mathieu helps a fellow inmate hide some stolen champagne.
    • The only first-person narrative anywhere in the series, apparently from Mathieu’s diary, as he meets the disconsolate architect Longin.
    • One of the prisoners gets hold of a newspaper from a new inmate and reads it out to Mathieu’s room-mates, with Mathieu interpolating his usual philosophic ruminations.
    • The Dream of killing: Mathieu has a recurrent waking dream of killing his room-mates. A form of post-traumatic stress triggered by his shooting German soldiers back in the church tower. Interestingly, there are seven fragments on this one theme which are obviously reworkings of the same scene: Mathieu is sitting in a prison office watching his colleague, Chomat, doing paperwork and imagines killing him with a knife slipped into the nape of his neck. Over and over.
  • Cut back to Brunet. It’s 40 days after he was captured trying to escape, the snow-bound escape attempt in which Schneider died. Surprisingly, he wasn’t shot but put in the punishment block. Now, released, Brunet returns to his old barrack with trepidation only to discover that Chalais and the cohort of comrades who had it in for him have all been shipped out. Gone as if they never were. He is no longer under imminent threat of assassination. Then Brunet gets wind of an escape committee, is taken to see it and discovers…
  • That it is run by his childhood friend, Mathieu. The book seems to have been intended to climax with the encounter between Mathieu and Brunet, each assessing the road the other has travelled. They don’t particularly like each other. In fact the main tone is one of boredom and mild dislike.
  • The novel climaxes with a dramatic and philosophical encounter between Brunet and Mathieu.

The encounter between Brunet and Mathieu should have triumphantly completed the circle. They met in the first book, The Age of Reason, where the manly and convinced communist Brunet tried to persuade the ineffectual philosopher Mathieu to join him.

Now Brunet has been disowned by the communist party and discovered how tough life is on the ‘outside’, whereas Mathieu has not only ‘become free’ by shooting German soldiers from that church tower, but also – we now learn – runs the team that organises escapes from the camp. He has become the man of action while Brunet has become the man of uncertainty.

And, in a final rather melodramatic twist, it is revealed that the snitch who betrayed Brunet and Schneider’s escape attempt wasn’t Chalais the Commissar, it was the fat, thieving prole Moûlu. And in fact, while they’ve been chatting, Mathieu now reveals that his fellow escape committee members have just tried and executed Moûlu by strangling him. Brunet is more angry than shocked.

But the reader is shocked.

Mathieu says Brunet will be suspected by the Germans when Moûlu’s body is found, so they’ll arrange for his escape early the next morning. And it’s here that this long, fragmented section ends.


American translation

The translation is by an American, Craig Vasey, Professor of Philosophy at the Mary Washington University, Virginia.

This is a shame because Sartre’s demotic French is translated into demotic American, which jars with the English reader. ‘Mad’ means angry’; ‘pants’ mean ‘trousers’; the Germans become ‘the Krauts’, so that it feels like we’re in a U.S. war movie.

Worst of all, all the men or blokes are referred to as ‘the guys’. Innocuous though this trivial verbal choice may sound, it has major ramifications because the word appears numerous times on every page. For me it dominated the entire reading experience and its continual repetition had the effect of making it seem like we’re in a movie about the mafia.

  • Twenty guys are washing quickly under a shelter.
  • The guys are putting on their coats; they are heading off for work.
  • Brunet looks at his guys with satisfaction.
  • ‘This guy’s name is Schneider.’
  • ‘Our guys in Algiers have the proof.’
  • ‘My guys can’t stand him.’
  • ‘He’s not that kind of guy.’
  • ‘Don’t say anything to the guys.’
  • ‘I’m going to send you up one of my guys.’
  • ‘These Dutch guys don’t speak a word of French.’
  • ‘Hey,’ say the guys, ‘it’s Brunet.’
  • ‘What do you guys want?’
  • All the guys are there, all the guys looking at him…
  • ‘Don’t think about it too much guys…’
  • ‘You guys are assholes…’

Credit

The French edition of The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1981. This English translation by Craig Vasey was published by Continuum International Publishing in 2009. All references are to the CIP paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of related books

Iron In The Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre (1949)

He felt himself filled with a sense of vast and pointless freedom. (p.92)

349 pages long in the Penguin paperback edition, Iron in The Soul repeats the format of the previous two novels in The Roads To Freedom trilogy by following a set of French characters over a very specific, and short, timeframe connected with the Second World War, in this case right at the end of the Battle of France.

Part one

Part one is 200 pages long, its first chapter has the dateline ‘New York: Saturday 15 June 1940 9am’ and the final chapter is dated ‘Tuesday 18 June 5.45am’. So it covers four days towards the end of the Battle of France.

In part one there is not much of the ‘experimental’ technique Sartre used to such effect in The Reprieve. In that novel I counted some 130 named characters, and the text made a point of cross-cutting unpredictably from one character’s actions and thoughts to another’s, from one scene to another, continually introducing new characters, sometimes just for brief cameos. This made it quite a challenging read but the reward was in the quite wonderful, almost musical, sense of rhythm in the interleaving of episodes, people and their deepest thoughts.

Part one of Iron in the Soul is more traditional, establishing fixed and static scenes and then following characters within them for substantial lengths of text, before starting new chapters or chapter sections to reflect new scenes and characters. Much more clear and comprehensible.

Timeline

Maybe a recap of the historical background would be useful. In spring 1940:

May 10 Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands
May 11 British and French forces begin a long line of strategic defenses to defend Belgium
May 12 German General Guderian with his three divisions reaches the Meuse River
May 13 the first German forces emerge from Ardennes onto the Meuse
May 14 German Panzer Corps fifteen and nineteen break through Allied defenses at Sedan allowing German forces to bypass the Maginot line
May 15 German forces push on toward Paris and the English Channel
May 20 General Weygand replaces General Gamelin as Allied commander
May 17-18 Antwerp and Brussels fall to Germany
May 21 Allied forces try to counter attack German forces but are repulsed
May 24 The Luftwaffe bombs Allied defensive positions around Dunkirk
May 25 German forces take Boulogne as more retreating Allied forces reach Dunkirk
May 26 850 British civilian ships and vessels help Allied forces evacuate Dunkirk in the largest military evacuation in history
May 28 King Leopold of Belgium orders his army to surrender to German forces
May 29 around 47,000 British forces are evacuated from Dunkirk
May 30 around 120,000 Allied forces evacuated from Dunkirk
May 31 around 150,000 Allied soldiers arrive in Britain

June 3 The German Luftwaffe bombs Paris
June 4 Allied forces continue evacuation of the coast. In all some 338,326 British and 113,000 French forces are evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain
June 5th Second part of the Battle of France begins with the German striking south from the River Somme
June 9 German forces launch an offensive on Paris
June 10 Norway surrenders to Germany and Italy joins the war by declaring war on France and Great Britain
June 13 Paris is declared an open city by the French government which flees to Bordeaux
June 14 German troops enter Paris
June 16 Marshal Petain becomes Prime Minister of France
June 17 French government asks Germany for armistice terms. Germans cross the river Loire in the west and reach the Swiss frontier in the south-east
June 18 General de Gaulle broadcasts on the BBC telling the people of France to resist
June 22 France signs an armistice with Germany
June 23 Adolf Hitler begins a tour of the captured city of Paris
June 24 The French officially surrender at Compiegne, site of the German surrender in 1918
25 June All hostilities cease. France has fallen

Part one of Iron In the Soul tracks its characters over the four days during which Parisians flee their city before it is taken by the Germans and when retreating Second Tier armed forces are abandoned by their officers and find themselves at a loss what to do. the key characters from the first novel recur:

  • Gomez is in New York scrabbling for a job in the art world.
  • His wife, Sarah, and son Pablo are caught in the huge stream of refugees fleeing Paris.
  • Daniel, the gay banker who married Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, has packed her off and roams the streets of an empty Paris like the last man in the world – until he encounters Philippe, the spoilt youth we met in The Reprieve, and sets about seducing him.
  • Boris Serguine, who we saw join the Army in The Reprieve, was wounded in the fighting but is well enough to go to the apartment of his mistress, the nightclub singer Lola Montero who, however, has been diagnosed with a stomach tumour but can’t bring herself to tell him.
  • We saw Boris’s sister, the prickly Ivich, give herself to a unnamed man in The Reprieve partly as rebellion against her bourgeois parents, partly because she thought war was about to break out and the world end. Nearly two years later, we discover she got pregnant, the man married her, she had a miscarriage, he’s off at the front fighting where, characteristically, she hopes he gets killed.
  • Mathieu’s intolerably pompous self-serving brother, Jacques, a lawyer, forces his wife to pack in a hurry and flee from Paris only to get half way across France and realise he wants to go back, and blames the whole thing on her. She is livid. She goes to sleep in the car dreaming of Mathieu.
  • And the ‘hero’ of the first book – over-sensitive, over-thinking, angst-ridden but ineffectual philosophy tutor Mathieu Delarue?We find him with a platoon of Second string infantry who never saw any fighting. For 200 pages they laze around wondering what to do after their officers have treacherously abandoned them, smoking and getting drunk – until a platoon of Chasseurs arrive who are battle-hardened and disciplined. On a whim – or more accurately, as a result of the incredibly complicated and tortuous meditations about the nature of ‘freedom’ which have filled the previous 800 pages, Mathieu decides to join them, is given a rifle, sent with a squad to be sharp-shooters up a church belfry and when the Germans finally arrive, is involved in a fierce firefight which ends with the belfry being blown up by artillery and Mathieu blazing away till the last minute like a Hollywood hero.

Part two

is significantly different. It took me a few pages to realise that the entire part – all 120 pages – consists of just three paragraphs. With the exception of just two small breaks, these 120 pages make up a solid block of print, with no incidental breaks or indentations. Possibly this is to reflect the subject matter. (Craig Vasey’s introduction to The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom IV tells me that in the original French there weren’t even the two small breaks: the entire 120 pages consisted of one paragraph; and that all the verbs were in the present tense, something the English translation here rejects.)

The ‘plot’ picks up (with savage irony / comedy  / bleak farce) at exactly the point where Mathieu is killed – for taking refuge in a cellar of a house off the square is his friend and contemporary, the strong, manly Communist Brunet. In The Age of Reason, there’s a passage where Brunet tries to persuade Mathieu to become a communist, but the timid philosopher, as with everything else in his life, hesitates and puts the decision off.

Anyway, Brunet has no idea Mathieu is up in the church tower about to be blown to smithereens. He has his own concerns. he fought bravely, most of his platoon were killed. Now he surrenders to the Germans as they finally take the village. He falls in with a trail of French POWs which grows and grows till it is maybe 10,000 strong, a vast concourse of knackered, defeated, demoralised men stumbling along dusty roads in blinding heat. Finally, they arrive at a disused barracks which has become converted into a POW camp.

Here the French are easily shepherded inside and locked up. The next hundred pages give in great detail the dialogue between a cast of about a dozen peasant and proletarian infantrymen, while Brunet makes his plans to create a Communist cell among them. While they fuss about food and the weather and gossip, Brunet is planning for the future.

In this he is sort of helped by Schneider, a tough, surly man who is not exactly a Communist, but agrees to help him. The spine of the section is the wary dialogue between these two men, with Schneider proving himself both more of a man of the people, and smarter than Brunet in various situations. It is difficult to know what this section is ‘about’. Possibly it is a prolonged examination of the nature of a ‘Communist Activist’, with Brunet given Schneider as a foil to dramatise different approaches to handling men, creating a cell, combating cynicism and fatigue, and so on.

Whatever the precise intention, the overt or political purpose of the section now feels completely redundant, part of a long-lost history. It doesn’t even – as with so much Sartre – lead to any real action, for next to nothing happens to this vast concourse of freed men. After five or six days without food, trucks eventually arrive with soup and bread. One madmen runs amok screaming and the Germans shoot him. For the rest the defeated Frenchmen adopt a holiday mood, sunbathing, playing cards, establishing billets in every available building, nicking stuff, squabbling. Both Brunet and Schneider find it almost impossible to motivate anyone. No Germans of any authority appear. They don’t confront the camp commandant or organise a strike or anything really decisive or dramatic. Instead Brunet and Schneider squabble with each other, and with the dozen or so named characters around them.

In the last of the three sections, the setting jumps a bit to aboard the massive train of cattle trucks in which thousands of POWs have been packed as it rattles north through France. A teeny tiny bit of suspense is given to this passage because the more intelligent among them (i.e. Brunet, Schneider, a few others) are pretty sure they’re being taken to Germany to become slave labour. The section shows the various forms of denial, fear, and panic among the POWs as they wonder which way the train will turn at the fatal set of points which will steer them either further north into France or East across the border. One character, a young printer who Brunet had recruited for his Communist cell, panics, jumps from the train when it slows at a cutting, runs away a little, then panics more and tries to return and catch up – only to be picked off by the German guards and fall dead beside the rails. That’s as dramatic as it gets.

When the train reaches the points they are set East, confirming Brunet and Schneider’s gloomy assumptions. They are heading East to a dark future. The final words are:

Above the dead body, above the inert freight-van, the darkness wheeled. It alone was living. Tomorrow’s dawn would cover all of them with the same dew. Dead flesh and rusted steel would run with the same sweat. Tomorrow the black birds would come. (p.349)


Themes

The futility of life

As to the mood and feel of the text, we are back in bleak Sartre-land where the sunshine is futile, life is pointless, breathing is an effort, and the hyper-sensitive characters are oppressed by life, by other people, by other people looking at them, dammit – and everyone agonises about their ‘freedom’, panting after this mystical chimera without ever quite grasping what this much-abused term actually means.

Gomez, the artist has escaped to New York, where he walks around hating the heat, the sunshine, the big buildings, the streamlined cars, the adverts, the magazines and, everywhere, pictures of happy smiling people – Not to grin is a sin, he thinks bitterly – while ‘over there’ i.e. back in Europe, people are suffering, suffering I tell you! This is intercut with the plight of his wife, Sarah, a Jewess, and small son Pablo, who are caught in a vast traffic jam of refugees fleeing Paris. These are Gomez’s thoughts:

He looked at the street, at the meaningless sun, at the whole meaningless day. There would be nothing now, any more, but meaningless days. (p.9)

These are Sarah’s thoughts:

We are no more than the feet of an interminable insect. Why walk when hope is dead? Why live? (p.25)

Sartre’s novels could almost be designed to validate teenage depressives’ most suicidal thoughts and, above all, to make the depressive feel special, superior to what Gomez calls the ‘human tide’ of people in New York with their ‘bright dead eyes’, and Sarah’s description of the refugees as ‘insects’ (a favourite insult term of Sartre’s; he memorably describes Hitler as having an insect face; Mathieu looks down from the church tower on the villagers like ‘frightened ants’; Lola feels that Boris while screwing her is like an insect, when the Germans arrive in the village Mathieu feels they have ‘the eyes of supermen and insects’, p.212).

Everyone else is an insect, or an inane grinning American with dead eyes, part of the machine, part of the bourgeoisie – I, I alone, suffer – look how I suffer – look how special I am!

Suicide

Both The Age of Reason and The Reprieve contain extended sequences describing the thoughts and sensations, the hyper self-awareness, of two men on the brink of committing suicide – Daniel with a razor and Mathieu jumping into the Seine, respectively. Having tried to kill myself, I can vouch for the exquisite sense of self-pity you feel at such a moment, looking at your doomed hands, your tragic face in the mirror, afflicted by sentimental thoughts that this is the last time you’ll look at your face, the last time you’ll turn out the bedroom light (or whatever), after you slash your wrists, take an overdose etc.

So, Ivich invites her brother, Boris, to join her in a suicide pact (p.72) though she isn’t really a serious character, just a spoilt wilful girl. Daniel comes across Philippe, the spoilt son of bourgeois parents, hesitating on the brink of the Seine, trying to nerve himself to throw himself in. Various other characters – for example Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, who is secretly in love with him – think they can’t go on, life is so damn pointless. What’s the point?

In Sartre’s novels, death, and suicide, are all around us. Describing the plot to my son he said, ‘sounds like teenage angst on steroids’.

Rootless, directionless, abandoned

What these people need is a sound spanking (as Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, memorably puts it). Or maybe just the support of a loving family, a job, some stability, something to focus their energy on. But their characters are all carefully chosen to be bohemian types, drifters, people without settled jobs or any real family commitments. Sartre selects a group of people with very few responsibilities and who we never see doing a single day’s work in their lives – thus allowing them all to give vent to maximum feelings of alienation and anomie, thus permitting them all to have lengthy and repetitive soliloquies about the pointlessness of life, about their feelings of abandonment.

As a married father of two, I see both marriage and especially fatherhood, as extremely demanding, responsible roles. Significantly, none of Sartre’s characters are married or have children in the traditional manner –

  • Gomez is married but has dumped Sarah and his son to run away and fight in Spain, then flee to America.
  • Daniel only married Marcelle as an existential dare, in reality he hates her and can’t wait to get away from her.
  • Boris is going out with Lola the singer, but routinely hates her, and in fact dumps her for the army.
  • Ivich got married to Georges after he got her pregnant but, inevitably, hates him, and hopes he’s killed in the fighting (p.66). Ivich loathes her in-laws, and she ‘detests’ the French (p.68), but then she hates more or less everyone.
  • Sarah looks at her crying son and realises she hates him (p.25).
  • The villagers hate the French soldiers who’ve been billeted on them (p.97).
  • Mathieu realises he hates his drunken comrades (p.132).
  • Philippe tells Daniel that he hates his step-father, the general (p.149).
  • Pinette’s girlfriend hates Mathieu (p.157)

In fact, most of the characters hate most of the other characters most of the time. Do all French people hate all other French people? Would explain their surliness.

So if you’re a drifter without a proper job, without any family ties or support, who hates everyone and despises bourgeois society, this is how you will end up feeling: full of despair and anomie. It’s hardly rocket science.

Alone

It is a key axiom of existentialism that every individual is alone, completely alone, and condemned to complete freedom. We are not hemmed in or supported by social structures or traditions or morality, for we choose whether or not to accept those: to blame society or others in any way for any of our acts is bad faith, is a denial of our utter freedom.

But Sartre’s philosophy of life – or his melodramatic poetry about the horror of existence – all begins in this primal, fundamental sense of your complete solitude, the basic feeling of alienation from others, from your fellow soldiers, or your family, from everyone else in the bar or cafe or nightclub, some sudden feeling of your complete aloneness in the face of an utterly indifferent universe.

This is the moment in the characters’ lives which the text keeps returning to like a moth to a flame.

  • He shivered. He felt suddenly naked and alone, a man, I. (p.102)
  • No one needs me. he sat down on the edge of the road because there was nowhere for him to go. Night entered into him through mouth and eyes, through nose and ears. He was no one now; he was nothing – nothing any longer but misery and darkness. (p.162)
  • Mathieu saw the smile and felt utterly alone. (p178)
  • She felt lost in a world of which she could make no use. (p.191) [Odette]
  • She thought: ‘I am alone.’.. He speaks to me and kisses me, but when I come to die I shall be alone… (pp.205-6) [Lola]
  • Where are the Comrades? Brunet felt lonely. Never, in all the past ten years, had he felt so utterly alone. (p.239)
  • [When the French prisoners of war arrive in a huge fences barracks] They were going to bury their filthy old war among these high buildings, were going to stew in their own juice, unseen of the outer world, isolated and alone. (p.241)

Even sex doesn’t unify people, it merely emphasises their inescapable isolation. There are two memorable acts of sex in the book and both of them emphasise the essential loneliness of the male protagonist: first the peasant Pinette screwing the post office girl he’s picked up in a field outside the village where Mathieu and the other soldiers are mooching about; then handsome young Boris making love to Lola the ageing singer. Lola has discovered she has a tumour of the belly and/or the menopause, both of which conspire to make sex very painful, but not as painful as the self-image she has, loathing her dry husk of a body and thinking of Boris as a repellent insect squirting her with sticky fluid. Lots of disgusting, viscous fluids in Sartre.

It is through a wound that you will enter me. When he used to touch me in the old days, I became like velvet: now, my body is like dried earth: I crack and crumble under his fingers… He rent her to the roots of her belly, he was moving in her belly like a knife. On his face was a look of loneliness, of morbid concentration. She saw him as an insect, as a fly climbing up a window-pane climbing, falling, climbing again. She was conscious only of the pain he was causing her… (p.204)

No, not even sex is an escape from the ubiquitous sense of aloneness, of abandonment, which Sartre sees as the permanent basis of the human condition.

In the climaxes of the two parts, the male protagonist is invincibly alone. Mathieu, wounded, and the only survivor of an artillery shell which has brought the roof of the church tower down on all his comrades, struggles to continue shooting for just a few seconds more before being obliterated. In those moments:

He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free. (p.225)

On the last page of part two, after the little printer has been shot dead and the train moves mechanically onwards.

Brunet was alone, rigid and uncomfortable. (p.349)

It is an oddity than a man so obsessed with the fundamental and irreducible aloneness of each human being became a Marxist, devoted to the idea of international solidarity. And that a man so obsessed with man’s terrifyingly absolute freedom, adopted the Marxist worldview which is characterised by the inevitability of History, that Marx had uncovered scientific laws of History which dictated that a Communist revolution was inevitable i.e that at some deep level human beings are not free. I leave this to the scholars to disentangle: it would certainly be good to reach a better understanding.

Science fiction states of mind

Not much happens in a Sartre novel. Page after page is filled either with lengthy dialogue between its ineffectual characters, or with even lengthier descriptions of their feelings of abandonment and futility. The firefight at the climax of part one, and the death of the printer at the climax of part two, are very much the exceptions which prove the rule. They are more or less the only bits of ‘action’ in the entire trilogy.

Every page features descriptions of the characters’ inner thoughts, lengthy internal monologues but these are not as they would be in a comparable English novel. The distinctive and unnerving feature of them is the extent to which they develop into often almost delirious hallucinations of the world around them, with objects coming alive, with great abstract ideas entering the sky or room or drowning them, with parts of their bodies becoming external objects (arms and particularly hands often seem to their owners to have become alien objects). Here is Mathieu in the bell tower of the village church.

Under their feet was the fragrance of spices and incense, coolness, and the stained-glass windows feebly shining in the shadows of the Faith. Under their feet was confidence and hope. He felt cold. He looked at the sky, breathed the sky, thought with the sky. He was naked on a glacier at a great height. Far below him lay his childhood. (p.200)

In a proliferating multitude of ways, the world around Sartre’s characters, including their own bodies, including their own ideas and sensations, come alive, infuse their thoughts, colour the sky, invade the world.

The effect is often bizarre, surreal or even druggy. ‘He thought with the sky.’

And very often these hallucinations go one step further by infusing these trippy states of consciousness with poetic renderings of grand abstract concepts like Death or Defeat or Despair. Characters frequently become dead men, anticipating their death (by suicide or in battle), realise that they are a dead man walking or thinking. Or death invades whole scenes, the huge vista of prisoners of war becomes a sea of the dead (to Brunet’s eye) or Paris becomes a vast tomb (in Daniel’s imagination), and so on.

Thus Daniel wandering the empty streets of Paris experiences what amount to such intense imaginative transports that they are effectively hallucinations. n a memorable simile the Boulevard St Michel becomes a vast beached whale. In fact, it was while reading the Daniel-wanders-round-empty-Paris section that it suddenly struck me that a lot of Sartre’s scenes have the feel of science fiction.

Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, was silence and emptiness, an abyss stretching horizontally away from him… The streets led nowhere. Without human life, they all looked alike. The Boulevard Saint-Michel, but yesterday a long southward spread of gold, seemed now like a stranded whale, belly upwards. He made his feet ring out upon the great, sodden, hollow carcass. (p.93)

This scene suddenly reminded me of all those science fiction novels in which a man finds himself more or less the only survivor of a disaster, a great plague or nuclear apocalypse.

Anyway, the passage quoted above could be categorised as a Level One hallucination, one which is still a metaphor of a recognisable state. But (as noted above) routinely Sartre’s characters progress to Level Two hallucinations in which the ‘reality’ around them becomes infused with great Abstract Concepts.

He looked at the empty bridge, at the padlocked bookboxes on the quay, at the clock-face that had no hands… A shadow slipped past the Prefecture of Police…Paris was not, strictly speaking, empty. It was peopled by little broken scraps of time that sprang here and there to life, to be almost immediately reabsorbed again into this radiance of eternity. (p.91)

‘Scraps of time reabsorbed into this radiance of eternity.’ This is a kind of philosophical prose poetry, in that it invokes ‘deep’ ideas, but without any systematic application, merely for effect. It is a kind of pseudo-philosophical lyricism for its own sake.

I am here. Time, with its great fanning future, collapsed. All that was left was a tiny flickering patch of local moments. (p.108)

Suddenly this visionary quality reminded me of the prose of the great psychological sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard. In the 1960s Ballard famously rejected ‘space opera’, the whole sci-fi tradition of rockets going to outer space, aliens and death rays – in order to concentrate on weird mental states achieved here on decaying planet earth. His characters wander landscapes of entropy and decay littered with empty swimming pools, abandoned motels, are attracted to car crashes or go schizo in high-rise buildings. They explore the altered states of inner space. Like Sartre’s.

All about him was once more swallowed in a planetary silence. He must walk, walk unceasingly, over the surface of a cooling planet. (p.134)

Reading Daniel’s visions of abandoned Paris I suddenly saw the surprising similarity between Ballard’s psychological explorations and the many many passages in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels which obsessively depict mental states of hallucinatory intensity – not for any philosophic or propagandistic purpose, well, OK, partly to promote the feel of his existentialist world-view — but much more for their weirdness, to bring out the strangeness of what it’s like to be the animal who thinks, the animal with self-consciousness, the animal lost in the fever of its own compulsive hallucinations. Here’s Mathieu among his soldiers hanging round the village waiting for something to happen.

We are a vermin’s dream: our thoughts are becoming muddied, are becoming less and less human: thoughts, hairy and clawed, were scurrying around, jumping from head to head; the vermin was on the point of waking up. (p.102)

At which point it dawned on me that Sartre’s philosophy of freedom, the so-called existentialist philosophy, is maybe a rationalisation, an attempt to give a structure and a meaning to what in fact, in the fiction, on the page, comes over as an unstoppable torrent of weird hallucinations.

His mind felt completely empty. He was dead: the afternoon was bleached and dead. It was a tomb. (p.76)

Mathieu is not at all dead as he thinks this, just like none of the other characters who let thoughts of death and the dead ceaselessly invade their thoughts are actually dead. But then maybe ‘think’ is the wrong word. Maybe it would be better to say that this is a poetic description of an intense feeling which is passing through Mathieu’ consciousness. Mathieu is merely the vessel for these delirious psychological states.

All Sartre’s characters are. They are channels for Sartre’s uncontrollable gush of weird mental states. One of the soldiers hanging round with Mathieu begins to tell the others the armistice with Germany has been signed, but hesitates… and suddenly they all grasp the dreadful truth without having to be told.

A dazzle off steel, then silence. The blue, flabby flesh of the afternoon had taken eternity like the sweep of a scythe. Not a sound, not a breath of air. Time had become frozen; the war had withdrawn… (p76)

Is hallucination the right word for this kind of writing? Sometimes. Other times it’s just a peculiar, a very distinctive, way of conceiving human beings and human consciousness, in which ‘thought’ is perceived as an almost organic process and – this being Sartre – generally a revoltingly nauseating one involving slime.

At one moment he was just an emptiness filled with vague forebodings, at another, he became just like everyone else. His forebodings faded; the general mood welled sluggishly up in his mind and oozed from his mouth… (p.97)

The vermin eyes had ostracised him, were looking up at him with an air of astonished solemnity, as though they were seeing him for the first time, as though they were looking up at him through layers of slime. (p.102)

The fact that the French prisoners of war are made to trudge through the heat for hours before reaching the camp, and then aren’t fed for five days gives Sartre the opportunity to let rip with the altered states caused by starvation and dehydration. For an extended sequence Brunet passes into a delirium somewhere between dreams and hallucinations. For example, he imagines all the soldiers are chimpanzees.

There were chimpanzees in the next cage, pressing inquisitive faces to the bars. They had sad and wrinkled eyes. Monkeys have sadder eyes than any animals except man. Something had happened, he wondered what. A catastrophe. What catastrophe? Perhaps the sun had gone cold? (p.274)

Note, again, the tinge of apocalyptic science fiction.

In fact this long second part is a strange mixture of very realistic slangy chat between rough Frenchmen, arguing, crying, going mad, blaming their officers, squabbling, cadging fags etc – and passages of quite stunning prose poetry. Sartre’s philosophy I leave to the experts on Husserl and Heidegger to nail down; it belongs to the European tradition which is difficult for us Anglo-Saxons to really understand.

But for me the revelation of these books is the surprising amount of purple prose and lyricism they contain, the extent to which they are truly writerly. As a last example, imagine a huge prisoner of war camp with thousands of dusty, downcast men lying, squatting, standing, leaning about everywhere, as far as the eye can see. And then:

The airplane passed overhead with a shattering din. The crowded faces lowered, then upturned, passed from black to white, like a field suddenly bursting into flower: in place of hard, black heads, thousands of camelias broke into blossom. Spectacles glittered like scraps of glass in a garden bed. (p.243)

There are lots of passages like this. Whereas his analyses of the political situation have passed into dusty history and his existentialist philosophy may or may not still have adherents – the vibrancy, the unexpected imaginativeness and continual weirdness of Sartre’s continues to haunts with its strange power.


Credit

La mort dans l’âme by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1949. This translation is not by the translator of the first two in the trilogy, Eric Sutton, but by Gerard Hopkins. It was published as Iron In The Soul by Hamish Hamilton in 1950. Iron In The Soul was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All references are to the 1967 Penguin paperback reprint, which cost the princely sum of five shillings (25p).

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Reprieve by Jean-Paul Sartre (1945)

Charles felt dirty, he was aware inside himself of a mass of damp and sticky innards. (p.202)

The Reprieve is the second novel in Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy. It is a long, panoramic account of the lives of some 130 characters during the fateful week in September 1938 when all Europe held its breath as Germany threatened to invade Czechoslovakia and spark a continent-wide war in order to ‘liberate’ the Sudeten Germans.

At the last minute, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Édouard Daladier persuaded the Czech government to cede to Nazi Germany Czechoslovakia’s western border regions, containing not only many ethnic Germans, but all her defences and much of her industry. Hitler accepted this deal, the threat of an armed confrontation disappeared, and all Europe breathed a sigh of relief.

Hence the book’s title – The Reprieve. This epic betrayal bought the western democracies exactly one year’s remission, until Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 began the Second World War in Europe.

The Reprieve is drastically different from its predecessor, The Age of Reason. That book had a cast of seven or eight characters but essentially rotated around the plight of one central figure – the depressive philosophy professor, Mathieu Delarue, who was trying to find the money to pay for his mistress’s abortion. It covered just two days and was divided into chapters, 18 to be precise, each of which began in a new scene or setting, in the conventional manner. The Reprieve, by contrast, is much longer and divided into seven very long sections, one covering each day from Friday 23 September to Friday 30 September.

But The Reprieve is massively different from a traditional novel – indeed it is a form of experimental novel – in two key respects:

  1. It has an enormous cast of characters, some from its predecessor, The Age of Reason, but most entirely new. And they are in locations all across France, as well as Germany, England and Spain. There are even scenes depicting the leading politicians of the day as they handled the negotiations about Czechoslovakia – Daladier, Chamberlain and even Hitler himself (we even get to see some of Hitler’s dreams!) So there is an astonishingly large number and wide breadth of characterisation.
  2. And, most distinctively, it jumps between the settings of the different characters, between conversations between characters, and even between characters’ thoughts – with no warning, sometimes in successive paragraphs (easy enough to grasp), sometimes in successive sentences (you need your wits about you) and sometimes in the same sentence. The same sentence can begin describing the thoughts of a character in Morocco and end by describing another in Paris, or Munich or a Czech village. Some sentences jump between multiple consciousnesses.

I found this technique absolutely riveting. It makes reading into a parlour game, a Where’s Wally challenge, a test of the reader’s alertness. I suppose it is also meant to give a panoramic impression of the age, and of the very weird intense atmosphere which united the inhabitants of the entire population of Europe as probably never before, with everyone huddled round their radios or snapped up the latest editions of newspapers to find out whether we were going to war. Thus, again and again throughout the long dense text, characters’ thoughts and feelings and impressions overlap and intermingle.

Sartre sometimes uses James Joyce’s technique of associating certain phrases with certain settings or characters, to evoke their mood or consciousness – but mostly you have to be very alert throughout as it is often only one word which reveals that the text has now jumped from one character to a completely different one – is now in the desert, on the beach, in the city streets, on a plane – and which of its huge cast of characters we are now following.

Generally, all these new characters have one or a few longish (a page, maybe) sections in which to establish their situation and character – after which brief introduction the text freely switches to them at a moment’s notice, for a paragraph, for a few sentences, or even for a few words embedded in a sentence about other characters. Occasionally, what have been established as key words or phrases are blended together in kind of poetic rhapsodies, in fugues which counterpoint a whole host of characters and destinies into webs of words.

Chamberlain was asleep, Mathieu was asleep, the Kabyle put the ladder against the charabanc, hoisted the trunk onto his shoulder, and scrambled up without holding onto the rungs. Ivich was asleep, Daniel swung his legs out of bed, a bell echoed in his head, Pierre looked at the pink and black soles of the Kabyle’s feet.

I found this ‘simultaneous method’ quite spellbinding.

Lunch-time! they had entered the blinding tunnel of mid-day: outside – the sky, white with heat; outside – the dead, white roads, no man’s land, and war: behind the closed shutters, they sat stifling in the heat, Daniel put his napkin on his knees, Hannequin tied his napkin round his neck, Brunet took the paper napkin from the table, Jeannine wheeled Charles into the large and almost empty dining-room with its smudgy windows… (p.101)

I like its profusion, its variety and its sense of the diversity of life!

A happy side-effect of this approach is that the lengthy – the really, really long passages in The Age of Reason in which Mathieu or Daniel or Boris dwelt on the emptiness of their lives, the meaningless of existence and in which they obsessed about the ugliness of their bodies and of everyone else’s bodies, and generally marinaded in disgust and revulsion at life — these are all a lot less in evidence and, when they do occur, are pared back to the bone. Some such passages are still attached to Mathieu, Brunet and a few others, but the overall effect it is far less self-indulgently solipsistic and self-pitying than in the first novel.

Instead of focusing in to create a stickily claustrophobic effect, the text is continually exploding out in multiple directions, jumping across numerous locations, invoking a big cast, creating a sense of openness, breadth, fecundity.

This greater objectivity is indicated in a small but telling moment when Mathieu (35) is telling Odette about the ugly sister of a student of his, Ivich (18), who he’s snogged a few times and might be in a relationship with, is detailing her list of psychological quirks (hates being touched, hates summer, hates her own appearance etc) and, having heard all about it, Odette briskly thinks, ‘A good spanking is what she wants’ (p.23).

And I couldn’t help thinking that a good spanking and being told to grow up is what most of the characters in The Age of Reason wanted.

The characters in order of appearance

I set off imagining it would be a relatively straightforward task to name and give brief thumbnail descriptions of the characters, but soon ran into problems.

Should I include characters who aren’t named or make only fleeting entrances, like the unnamed Arab who puts Maud’s suitcase on the bus roof, or the unnamed steward on the liner, or the unnamed lady sitting next to Hannequin on the train or the unnamed lady who gets Zézette’s signature for a feminist peace petition in the street etc?

Or should I go to the other extreme and only include characters who have substantial speaking parts and whose lives we get to know a bit? I compromised by listing every named character, no matter how brief their appearance.

  • Godesberg, Germany The old gentleman, key to the negotiations, who is revealed to be Neville ChamberlainNevile Henderson (British Ambassador to Berlin), Sir Horace Wilson (special emissary from Chamberlain to Hitler). Later attended by Woodhouse.
  • Pravnitz, Czechoslovakia Milan Hlinka, former woodcutter, now schoolteacher of a Sudeten town which is being taken over by the Czech Nazis, is sheltering in his house with his pregnant schoolteacher wife, Anna, and a child, Marikka, sent there by their concerned parents. In the house opposite live the Jägerschmitts, a German family who had fled a few days earlier as a result of Czech persecution, but now return in triumph, knowing that Hitler is about to triumph and that their – the Gis the cermans’ – day has come.
  • South of France Mathieu Delarue is on holiday at Juans-les-Pins with his brother, Jacques, and his comely wife, Odette. In The Age of Reason Jacques gave Mathieu a common-sense lecture about it being time he grew up and assumed his responsibilities, so now Jacques is the mouthpiece for the bourgeois view that the whole crisis is the fault of the Czechs, who are refusing to see reason and must bow down to Herr Hitler’s very reasonable demands (p.92, 95, 96, 178).
  • Paris Maurice is a young, strong working class member of the Communist Party, walking the streets with his shallow girlfriend, Zézette. They bump into Brunet, the tall, strong, mature Communist, one-time friend of Mathieu and inspiration to younger party members (who we know from The Age of Reason). (Brunet bumps into Joseph Mercier, Professor of Natural History, a momentary encounter seen by both.) Later Maurice makes love to Zézette in a hotel bedroom next to Philippe’s room. Next day he leads a protest at the Gare de l’Est, talks to Simon, and Dubech and Laurent. Maurice is mobilised along with Dornier and Bébert
  • Paris Stephen Hartley, New York journalist, getting his secretary/wife Sylvia to organise a berth on the last boat leaving France.
  • A sanatorium at Berck-sur-Mer in the Pas-de-Calais Charles is crippled by some disease, has to lie prone on a trolley, refers to able people as ‘the stand-ups’, is cared for by sentimental nurse Jeannine, resents ‘the little Dorliac woman’ who gives the nurses generous tips. On the day of the move he is attended by Madame Louise and finds himself in the transport train next to the irritating practical joker Blanchard.
  • Marseilles Sheep farmer Gros-Louis has come to Marseilles looking for a job. He hitches up with an unnamed Negro for a spell. He meets Mario and Starace, the sailors, they take him to a bar to meet prostitute Daisy, get him drunk, and beat him up down a back alley. Next morning, still bloody, he tries to get work at a depot, but Ribadeau the foreman points out to him that he’s been called up.
  • Rural France Daniel (the suave homosexual from The Age of Reason) is on holiday with his new wife, heavily pregnant Marcelle, one-time lover of Mathieu. He hates the countryside. He despises Marcelle. He is longing for a war to break out and rescue him from his predicament.

‘Oh God, if only war would come!’ A thunderbolt which would shatter this smooth-faced world, plough the countryside into a quagmire, dig shell-holes in the fields, and fashion these flat monotonous lands into the likeness of a storm-tossed sea.’ (p.42)

  • Staying at their hotel is a retired colonel, M. de Lestrange. The hotel-keeper’s son, Émile.
  • Marrakesh, Morocco Supercilious Pierre is on holiday having an affair with Maud Dassignies, a member of Baby’s Lady Orchestra. He despises her. On the boat home, she shares a cramped 3rd class cabin with other band members France, Ruby and Doucette and two unnamed women.
  • Paris Pitteaux is editor of a review named The Pacifist (p.125). His secretary, Irène, lets a young tearaway, Philippe Grésigne into his office to see him. The suggestion is that the boy is a rent boy and Pitteaux had some kind of sex with him, now the boy wants more money. Later Pitteaux is called to the house of General Lacaze, who is Philippe’s step-father, husband of Mme Lacaze, where he meets M. Jardies a mental specialist. Philippe has left a note, stolen 10,000 Francs and run away to make some grand pacifist gesture. The General holds Pitteaux responsible. Philippe goes to see a forger to forge him a passport, stays the night in a cheap hotel and hears Maurice making love to Zézette next door. — Irène lectures her kid brother René who is being mobilised. — Philippe falls asleep in a cafe owned by M. and Mme Cazin. The waiter is Felix.
  • Paris Armand Viguier, 80 years old, is dead. He lies stretched out on his bed among his luxury belongings while Sartre speculates poetically about his life dissipating into the objects around him, into an infinite future etc. He body is attended by a nurse, until an elderly relative, Madame Verchoux, arrives. Mme Lieutier asks the butcher in the shop opposite, M. Désiré, about M. Viguier, joined by Mme Bonnetain. –55
  • Marseilles Sarah, the plump placid friend of Mathieu’s from The Age of Reason, has come south to see her husband, Gomez, with their small son, Pablo who glamorises his father’s warriorhood. For a year earlier Gomez had simply walked out of their Paris apartment, headed to Spain and joined the Republican army. Now he has a week’s leave. Sarah she calls to them to come and hear the Negro singing in the street, the same one Gros-Louis had hung out with for a while earlier.
  • Crévilly, France Daddy Croulard, the old soldier, is instructed by the gendarmerie lieutenant to stick up posters round town calling for the mobilisation of all French adult men. Maublanc, a peasant, along with Chapin, Tournus, Cauchios, Simeon, Poulaille, Fraigneau drive their oxen and carts to the nearest barracks as a result of the mobilisation notices they’d read. Louisa Corneille, sister of the level-crossing guard, fiancée of Jean Matrat, watches them pass. Conversation between Madame Reboulier, Marie, Stephanie the tobacconist’s wife, Jeanne Fraigneau. Later Mother Tremblin, Jeanne, Ursule, the Clapot sisters, Little Rose… — 79
  • Paris A Jewish exile from Austria, Schalom, asks help from Georges Levy, then has a long interview with M. Birnenschatz, who we see wave off his pretty daughter, Ella. Then M. Birnenschatz’s talks to one of his staff, Weiss, who has been called up. Weiss says he is sticking up for Jews but Birnenschatz, although he is a Jewish refugee from Cracow, refuses to acknowledge his Jewishness, insists he is a Frenchman first and foremost.
  • Paris One-eyed Pascal is selling irises and buttercups at the Quai de Passy and watches the stream of cars packed with household goods, of families fleeing Paris.
  • Saint-Flour, France François Hannequin, pharmacist, tells his wife, Espérance Dieulafoy, that he is being mobilised and she fusses about the shirts and socks and boots he’ll need to pack. They meet Madame Calvé and Marie, Charlot the ticket collector and M. Pineau the notary.
  • France Jean Servier is a worker reading the sports page of the newspaper. Lucien Rénier finishes his lunch. François Destutt is a laboratory assistant at the Institut Derrien. René Malleville. Pierre Charnier.— 96
  • England Dawburn, journalist for the Morning Post attends a press conference given by an exhausted Chamberlain.
  • France Georges, a particularly feeble, ill, weak man, puts up with his querulous wife, goes in to see his baby daughter and – with typically Sartrean gloom – foresees her futile life, growing up weak and sickly like him, scorned by his schoolmates, feebly suffering, pointlessly struggling through her wretched existence.
  • Paris Maubert and Thérèse have fun tearing down mobilisation posters from the walls. –101
  • A hotel lobby in Paris Boris and Lola, who we know from The Age of Reason, watch numerous guests packing up and fleeing Paris e.g. Madame Delarive and overhear the conversation of a widow and a beribboned old man blaming the Popular Front and the ‘reds’ for arming Spain in 1936 instead of preparing to confront Herr Hitler.
  • A Paris brothel Philippe, determined to be a pacifist hero and do something significant, gets drunk and ends up in a brothel, where he is tended by kindly Negro prostitute, Flossie, who shows him to her friend,
  • The French government Daladier, Sarrault, Bonnet, Champetier de Ribes, Reynaud, 
  • London Fred watches Mr Chamberlain walk by and feels cheered.
  • Berlin Sportpalast The centrepiece of the Monday 26 September chapter is Hitler giving his speech about Czechoslovakia in which we are shown lots of characters across Europe tuning in, listening and reacting, including Karl, a devoted Nazi.
  • Round a radio are Germaine Chabrol and his wife.
  • Barcelona Gomez listens to the broadcast with comrades Herrera and Tilquin.
  • A bar in Paris where Bruno translates Hitler’s speech to the landlord, the Marseillais, the man from the north, Chomis, Charlier.
  • Mathieu’s flat in Paris His concierge, Madame Garinet.
  • Laon, France Ivich, back in her bourgeois home realises she rather likes her father, the Russian exile M. Serguine. –126
  • A nightclub in Paris Irène is being pestered to have sex by boyfriend Marc, who has been called up. Suddenly she sees Philippe, the boy everyone is looking for, being tended by a handsome Negress. When he leaves, Irène pursues him. Philippe shouts ‘Down with the war,’ is promptly beaten up, and is rescued by Mathieu. Irène begs him to help her take the half-conscious Philippe back to her flat. Being French, they go to bed. Being French, Mathieu has a long soliloquy about being, being in the flesh, being inside someone, being inside another person’s body, mind, memory. And so on.
  • Munich Jan Masaryk, Czech government representative at Munich, is left no option by Daladier and Chamberlain but to hand over the Sudetenland to Hitler. This scene is intercut with a completely different scene in which Ivich is angrily losing her virginity to an unnamed man, and hating every second of it – effectively being raped. So that a woman being raped is counterpointed with Czechoslovakia being betrayed and handed over to Hitler.

The interplay of characters, phrases and perceptions overlapping one character into another, is never totally incomprehensible (as it often is in the grand-daddy of this kind of experimentalism, James Joyce) and gives a wonderfully musical sense of counterpoint, of melodies or rhythms interweaving and interplaying. I found it immensely enjoyable.

Aloneness, freedom and decision

Sartre’s more thoughtful characters are oppressed by their self-awareness. They are always horrifyingly aware of themselves looking at themselves, barely able to keep up the pretence of existence, always at risk of drowning in an oppressive flood of impressions, of things.

I come upon nothing but my own self. Scarcely that: a succession of small impulses, darting centrifugally here and there, but no focus. And yet there is a focus: that focus is my self, and the horror lies there. (p.114)

Being a self is horrific in Sartre’s worldview.

And what prompts this nauseous sense of existing in the various characters, is the oppressive extent to which, at so many points, they feel utterly abandoned, adrift, alone.

Mathieu stopped and gazed up at it. A quite ordinary and unprivileged sky. And myself a nondescript entity beneath that vast indifferent arc. (p.296)

This is a key psychological basis of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. Every adult human is completely alone and completely free – no ties bind us, only what we choose. Everyone must decide for themselves, without ‘bad faith’ i.e. without blaming circumstances or upbringing or this or that political or cultural situation. Our decisions make us who we are, but we can only fully grasp this, and the crushing responsibility it brings, once we have psychologically experienced our terrible aloneness.

  • ‘We are now alone.’ (p.6) Milan
  • He felt alone (p.9) Milan
  • ‘Now we are quite alone.’ (p.10) Milan
  • A man felt isolated (p.13) Maurice
  • Daniel thought: ‘I am alone’. (p.43) Daniel
  • At the moment he was alone. (p.96) Maurice
  • … they are alone upon the earth.. (p.99) Pierre on the Arabs
  • Gros-Louis was glad of their company, but he still felt solitary. (p.135)
  • … she was quite alone… (p.140) Maud, as she masturbates the captain of the liner
  • He was no longer alone (p.159) Philippe in the boarding house
  • For the moment he was there, an innocent, ugly little boy with a diminutive shadow at his feet, alone in the world… (p.196)
  • So you are quite alone?’ ‘Quite.’ He repeated: ‘Quite alone in the world.’ (p.209) Charles talking to Catherine in the evacuation train
  • The Moroccan climbed over the cracked soil of Spain, he thought of Tangier, and he felt alone. (p.220) Soon afterwards the Moroccan is shot dead by a Belgian
  • He was alone in the night, so small and solitary, he knew and understood nothing, like a man about to die. (p.250) Gros-Louis, the illiterate peasant
  • There was no longer anyone in the world but Karl and his Führer. The Führer was speaking in front of a large swastika’d standard, he was speaking to Karl, and to him alone. (p.271)
  • She turned to her mother, to Ivy: but they had receded. She could still see them but not touch them. Paris also had drifted out of reach, the light from the windows fell dead upon the carpet. Contacts between things and people were imperceptibly disintegrating, she was alone in the world with that voice. (p.273) [Ella]
  • He was alone on this bridge, alone in the world, accountable to no man. (p.308) [Mathieu]
  • I’m alone in the street, surrounded by sleeping people, ignored by everyone. (p.310)  [Irene]
  • She felt utterly alone. (p.360) [Maud after peace is declared]

At some point or other, all the characters realise their solitude, alone on the surface of a friendless planet, confronting their futures, their destinies completely unaided.

A man alone, forgotten, devoured by darkness, confronted that fragile eternity. (p.297)

In Sartre’s philosophy, we are each of us completely free, utterly free to make decisions according to our own sense of values – and our decisions therefore define us. And the responsibility, the implications of this radical, total freedom, is crushing.

  • ‘I am free,’ he said suddenly. And his joy shrivelled into horror. (p.299)
  • I am free, he said to himself, and his mouth was dry… Freedom is exile, and I cam condemned to be free. (p.308)
  • I shall be my own witness, I am accountable to no one but myself. (p.337)

If there are any character developments (and for the most part there aren’t: Boris hates Lola, Ivich hates Mathieu, Daniel hates Mathieu etc) the two main ones are:

  1. Mathieu with a start realises he is free, but realises that the nature of that ‘freedom’ is completely unlike what he expected: he expected a sense of deliverance and joy, but instead he experiences terror and physical anxiety. He is free to do anything. (In fact, of course, he doesn’t do much; he sleeps with Irène and volunteers for the army. Big deal.)
  2. Daniel has a religious conversion. Being French, and so Catholic, this is expressed in the same language of extremity, the same hysterical exaggeration, as the other characters’ ‘existential’ musings. To be precise, Daniel becomes aware of being seen, not by a human, but by some unknown see-er who can see right into his soul. And that fixes his mobile tremulous over-intelligent personality. It fixes and transfixes him. It objectifies him. He experiences a massive relief.

Sarte Bullshit bingo

As with The Age of Reason, I began chuckling every time I read characteristic Sartrean key words – despair, anguish etc – and burst out laughing whenever one of his stricken characters had another outbreak of Weltschmerz and nausea – like the numerous episodes where Mathieu and Daniel, in particular, are likely to completely lose their sense of themselves and become pure looks, observing but empty consciousnesses, at one with the surrounding objects, their futures foreknown, foretold, suspended, empty, futile etc etc.

Key terms in Sartre Bullshit Bingo would have to include:

  • nauseam, vomit, slime, sick, disgust, contempt, revulsion, anguish, hate, despise, horror, dismal, white (as in the blinding white glare of the noonday sun), insect (people routinely feel like one; Hitler is described as having an insect face)

Prose poetry

You might not expect it from his reputation, but Sartre is a surprisingly poetic writer. A lot of the rhapsody is negative (slime and vomit and bodily functions) or describes rather esoteric psychological insights into the nature of death, destiny, and his persistent hallucination that the objects around us are watching us, respond to our thoughts, embody our moods.

But in other places, especially in the many descriptions of the sea associated with the Mathieu sections, Sartre is a swift and vivid writer of pure prose poetry.

Odette returned with a smile. It wasn’t the conventional smile that he expected, but a special smile just for him; in one instant the sea had reappeared, the lightly heaving sea, the Chinese shadows speeding across the water, the green aloes and the green pine-needles that carpeted the ground, the stippled shadows of the tall pines, the dense white heat, the smell of resin, all the richness of a September morning at Juan-les-Pins. (p.94)

Summary

Le Sursis is well worth reading:

  1. As a vivid picture of the atmosphere of France, and to some extent the rest of Europe, during that turbulent week in September 1938.
  2. As a fiction in its own right, especially the experimental use of a vast cast of characters whose thoughts and actions blend into each other in such an arresting challenging way.
  3. As an insight into the psychological basis of existentialism, which comes across as the codification of the very peculiar psychological states experienced by its inventor, M. Jean-Paul Sartre who suffers an oppressive sense of self-consciousness, which veers from feeling so emptied-out that he becomes simply a seeing object, a stone which perceives, through to the other extreme of becoming so exquisitely over-sensitive to the suffocating existence of the world around him, and of his own strangling self-consciousness, that he wants to stop it, to cease being so self-conscious, to become as senseless as a stone. Hence the passage where Mathieu looks over the parapet of the Pont-Neuf in Paris and wants to jump into the Seine (pp.308-309), to cease, imagining himself already dead, imagining himself in the past tense (and so on and so on).

Above all, though, it is a good indicator of the wretchedly demoralised state of French culture in the late 1930s which goes a long way to explaining why France surrendered so easily when she was finally attacked by the Nazis in June 1940 – surrendered and quickly set up the Vichy regime which enthusiastically collaborated with the Germans.

Mathieu, Boris, Daniel, Ivich, Philippe – they all lack backbone, spine, a real sense of purpose. When the test came, they all collapsed like a pack of cards. The book is a powerful portrait of a demoralised nation.


Credit

Le Sursis by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1945. This translation by Eric Sutton was published as The Reprieve by Hamish Hamilton in 1947. The Reprieve was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback reprint, which I bought 40 years ago for 85p.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

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