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The French Writers' War, 1940â"1953
By Gisèle Sapiro, Vanessa Doriott Anderson, Dorrit Cohn
Duke University Press Copyright © 1999 Librairie Arthème Fayard
All rights reserved.
Choices under Constraints
For those of our townsfolk who risked their lives in this predicament the issue was whether or not plague was in their midst and whether or not they must fight against it.
—Albert Camus, The Plague
In order to pose the question of writers' political choices under the Occupation, we must first ask ourselves what the stakes were and how they were perceived by the literary community. But these stakes were not immediately clear. Of course, for those who heard it, the appeal of June 18 offered an alternative: defeat was neither foregone nor irreversible; the armistice was a political and military error. But who was this upstart young general who dared to rise up against the hero of Verdun? How much credit should be given to this military man, who had declared himself the head of the "Free France" government without any other formality? In the beginning, Vercors tells us, "Everyone believed that the government had authorized the general to speak, since he had just served as minister under Reynaud." This illusion was quickly dispelled. Two attitudes now became possible: acceptance or refusal of the German Occupation. But even if it were enough to sum up the range of choices possible at that particular conjuncture, which obviously isn't the case, this alternative remains purely theoretical. How did it translate into practice? The question is even more pressing since writers, just like the rest of the population, had to confront practical and material problems. The faculties of critical thinking that we attribute to writers as intellectuals—that is to say professional thinkers—should not mask the fact that these faculties are exercised from a given and necessarily limited point of view. Nor should we forget that, even if these faculties are not forged by and for practice, they are no less inscribed in the practical conditions of life, at both group and individual levels. Thus the principles that informed the modes of perception of the issues at stake, as well as the attitudes and the conducts adopted, need to be related to the specific conditions under which these issues appear in the literary field.
The Redefinition of the Stakes and the Space of Possibles
The apparatuses that both the Nazi occupant and the Vichy government put in place to control cultural production generated an obvious loss of autonomy and a real destructuring of the literary field. Repression, proscriptions, censorship, control of the means of production (notably through the distribution of paper), propaganda: French literature had never known such constraints, even under the Second Empire. Moreover, the division of the territory into two zones and the exodus of a number of writers who sought refuge either in the unoccupied zone or abroad led to the loss of the very geographic centralization that had been one of the conditions of the autonomization of the French intellectual field and its ability to compete with power during the Dreyfus affair. The crisis of representations caused by the upheaval of reference points further weakened the literary field's mechanisms of resistance to heteronomy. Finally, loss of autonomy translated into the subordination of the literary stakes to the political stakes: whether or not to publish in these conditions became a political issue. The most apolitical attitudes thus took on political significance.
The over-politicization of the literary stakes is directly linked to the transformation of the conditions of production. But it also arises from the eagerness of an entire fraction of agents (institutions and individuals) to serve the new powers. Thus, loss of autonomy also occurred according to the literary field's own logic. If the promotion of internal agents like Drieu La Rochelle to enact collaborationist politics in the cultural domain initially emphasized the blurring of reference points, it ultimately contributed to the solidarity of Resistance writers in their struggle to reclaim autonomy.
THE UPHEAVAL OF REFERENCE POINTS AND THE REIGN OF RUMOR
After the debacle, confusion was great. The defeat, the occupation of more than half the country by a foreign power, the scuttling of the Republic, the construction of an authoritarian regime, a whole month-long chain of events that occurred at breakneck speed—while scattered families were still trying to reunite and scarcity led to an obsession with material matters—generated a deep confusion and feeling of disorientation, of "floating," while awaiting clarification of the issues. "I float like a cork," Roger Martin du Gard wrote to Maria van Rysselberghe on July 22, 1940, "[...] and for the moment it is on the most stinking, the most fermented sludge that I float ... Vichy is something that exceeds all the images one can make of it."
Before the war, the shuffling of political reference points had increased confusion, due to the back-and-forth maneuvers that led a large fraction of the nationalists to adopt neo-pacifist positions—against sanctions for Mussolini's Italy as a result of the invasion of Ethiopia, for the Treaty of Munich, against France's entry into the war—whereas the anti-Fascists rallied the hawks. It was also the result of a schism on the left, between full-fledged pacifists and anti-Fascists, a schism that began to appear during the Spanish Civil War. The Blum government's politics of nonintervention—supported by the moderate or pacifist fractions against the Communists and proponents of the anti-Fascist cause—created divisions that were solidified by the Treaty of Munich and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Finally, it was the result of the pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, which sounded the death knell of the union of the left realized under the Popular Front and excluded the Communists from the political playing field. The rise of the Vichy regime increased confusion. As Robert Paxton says, "It was not clear in the south whether anti-Germanism meant opposing Vichy or rejoicing in its simulacrum of independence and its nationalist rhetoric."
This confusion translated into hesitations, doubts, and about-faces. On July 14, the day the Germans entered Paris, André Gide found Marshal Pétain's speech—claiming that "the spirit of enjoyment" had won out over the "spirit of sacrifice"—"admirable." He changed his mind two days after the armistice when he heard the marshal's new speech, suspecting "some infamous deceit": "How can one speak of France as 'intact' after handing over to the enemy more than half of the country? How to make these words fit those noble words he pronounced three days ago? How can one fail to approve Churchill? Not subscribe most heartily to General de Gaulle's declaration?" Roger Martin du Gard, a sworn pacifist and in favor of Munich, apologized in December 1940 for having "renounced" his "deep convictions" in 1939 and "thought that there was no other solution than war, and that, this time, this war was 'just'"—which would, by the way, have no effect on the attitude of withdrawal that he adopted. In the unoccupied zone, Paul Léautaud, whose initial anti-German reflex would not long resist the occupant's politics of seduction, was astonished from the month of September on by the sudden reversal of institutional writers' positions:
It is a nice contrast, and rather unexpected: the reactionary writers, the conformist, official academicians, celebrating homeland, patriotism, honor, great sentiments, writers such as Abel Hermant, Pierre Benoit, Abel Bonnard [...] have collaborated from day one with the papers published in Paris, with the authorization and under the surveillance of the Germans. Writers who are somewhat marginal, "resistant" as they are called, like Descaves (a little) and myself, if I dare to name myself, are saying: "Not on my life."
For writers, the new powers' "call for bids" opened, despite an apparatus of constraints, a new space of possibles that did not offer itself up to immediate decoding. In the autumn of 1940, solicitations were the order of the day. Meant to ensure the literary legitimacy of these new ventures, they at first fed the illusion of a large and diversified supply, at least for those who weren't immediately excluded because of their origins or opinions. This illusion masked the restriction of possibles within the framework of the new conditions of production. Appointed by the ambassador Otto Abetz to revive La Nouvelle Revue française under his direction, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle urged writers to associate themselves with his project. During his September stay in Vichy, he summoned the former director of the journal, Jean Paulhan, and then the literary columnist of Le Figaro, André Rousseaux, a Catholic who had been an editor at Action française in the 1920s. Like Jean Paulhan, André Rousseaux declined. He would still be approached by Jean de la Hire and Jacques Chardonne, who wished to see Le Figaro return to Paris. Roger Vailland, a journalist at Paris-Soir who had withdrawn to the Southern zone along with his newspaper, met with his former professor, Marcel Déat, in Vichy. Déat was editing the revived uvre in Paris and asked Vailland to join him there. After long hesitations, Vailland declined the offer.
Senior writers were solicited first and most frequently in an effort to legitimate these enterprises. Their hesitations contributed to the loss of reference points during the first months of the Occupation, since younger authors usually situated themselves in relation to their elders, either in alignment or at a distance. But for the younger generation, these hesitations also inspired hope, at a time of social upheaval, that positions would become available, a hope that the extolling of the youth by the Vichy regime could only nourish. For the youngest ones, the cost of abstaining, of retreating from public life, a stance the writers of "refusal" would soon assume, could moreover appear greater, as this quote by Henri Membré, reported by Vercors, illustrates: "In fact, it's easy for a Gide, a Duhamel, to publish nothing under German domination; their work is done, it is famous, they will have no trouble finding their audience after the Liberation, whereas I, with just one well-received novel and another that came out too late? In five years, in ten years, I will be forgotten; I'll have to start over from scratch." For older writers, meanwhile, the threat of a takeover by the younger generation inspired a feeling of being cast aside, which likely played a part in André Gide or Paul Valéry's initial decision to lend their prestige to Drieu La Rochelle's project—although they would quickly change their mind. Roger Martin du Gard expressed this feeling in his typical form, that of "incomprehension"; harassed by pressing questions—"Why are you silent? People like you who have gained some credit for their work have a duty to light the way!"—and exiled in Nice, he felt he had even less "right to say a word" because he seemed "to have lost contact with the up-and-coming generation": "Do we even have a common vocabulary anymore? When I happen to hear young people hold forth, discuss, I am often struck by the feeling that I no longer speak the same language. That we no longer use the same words to mean the same things."
The politicization of literary issues, the political meaning now attached to publication in La NRF, for example, wasn't immediately perceptible, especially for those residing on the other side of the demarcation line. Doubled by geographical dispersion, the hysteresis effect meant that the space of possibles was still viewed as it was before the war, as writers' hesitations again show us. Should we publish in Drieu La Rochelle's NRF, the writers asked themselves? Jean Schlumberger, Michel Leiris, and Raymond Queneau flatly refused, but André Gide offered up his "leaflets," which appeared in the first and third installments (December 1940 and February 1941), although he continued to waffle until several letters, including those of Francis Crémieux (the Jewish literary critic Benjamin Crémieux's son), who accused him of treason, and Jean Wahl, who blamed him, called him back to order. Solicited by Drieu La Rochelle to resume his theater article in La NRF, Paul Léautaud immediately thought to suggest that hisJournal littéraire appear there, since the Mercure de France's disappearance suspended its publication. Jacques Bernard, the director of the Mercure, opposed this plan for reasons of competition. Still, Léautaud expressed his worries about the journal's publication conditions to Drieu, who assured him that he ran it in complete freedom. He rebelled upon discovering that the journal was subject to German censorship, then allowed himself to be reassured upon learning that Gallimard was paying the collaborators and that he had refused the entry of German capital into the house. Must we publish in LaNRF? Jean Grenier asked Armand Petitjean, André Fraigneau, and François Mauriac. "Why not write for La NRF?" Armand Petitjean replied in April 1941. This former journal contributor, who had been mutilated in the Phoney War, continued: "Drieu is weak, but sincere. As for myself, I'm going to publish an article in it in May, and I don't have any lessons to learn from the French after what I saw of them in June 1940." "It's a duty to write in La NRF to show that the French civilization continues," retorted the novelist André Fraigneau. François Mauriac, who was "very happy with its reappearance and [who had] congratulated Drieu, before having read it" but saw in the first issue "the opposite of what [he] expected: a pure space, a summit reserved for poetry, for pure literature, for ideas ..." still retained "a small weakness for this review"; he could still answer Jean Grenier in November 1941, when he was on the verge of committing himself to the first underground writers' committee: "But yes, of course, it is necessary to contribute to La NRF. Unnecessary to tell you that I'm not at all with Drieu, but I am not outraged by his attitude. Such is the position of France, today, that nobody has the right to cast stones at anybody. For who could be sure of taking the best side?"
Slowly, a kind of "cooperation" fell into place among the scattered writers. Correspondence, soon limited by the creation of interzonal cards, was replaced by generalized word of mouth spread by newsmongers, especially those who legally or clandestinely crossed the demarcation line. "We had just been admitted into the vast information system that was developing day by day and made word of mouth a much more powerful news vector than Radio-Paris," Jean Lescure recalled. Jean Paulhan was one of these newsmongers. Thanks to the position of "power behind the (literary) throne" that he had acquired during the interwar period, thanks to the breadth of contacts that he was probably alone in maintaining among the scattered authors, he was the "hub" that more or less preserved the unity of this fragmented field. From summer to winter 1940, whether through an abundant correspondence or chance encounters, he spread the writers' news and informed them, from day to day, of the conditions in which La NRF would reappear. He was also an indispensable mediator, "taking the pulse" of the authors vis-à-vis the renewed publication of La NRF, with which he was no longer involved. Even better, as we will see, he directed the authors, gave them advice and tips, and played the role of an oracle, since the verdicts he handed down—depending on whether or not they were heeded—predicted the authors' future in literary "eternity." He would be one of the pillars of the recomposition of the pole of limited production in the struggle to regain literary autonomy.
In a time of censorship and information control, word of mouth replaced official information channels which, reduced to propaganda, found themselves discredited. Marc Bloch, who noted this phenomenon for the Great War, quoted a comedian: "The prevailing opinion in the trenches was that anything could be true except for what was allowed to be printed." Things were no different during the four years of the Occupation. As Paul Léautaud observed in his Journal: "We are surrounded by lies, exaggerations, biased arguments on both sides. The coryphaei of the newspapers stamping them with their tremolos and their command tirades. How do you find the truth in all that, how do you know which side it's on? Anyone who gets worked up for either side is a naïve fool."
Excerpted from The French Writers' War, 1940â"1953 by Gisèle Sapiro, Vanessa Doriott Anderson, Dorrit Cohn. Copyright © 1999 Librairie Arthème Fayard. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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