I purchased this book because I was interested in the qualia - sense, experience, feeling, quality - of living through the occupation of Paris, under the Nazis, as it unfolded, rather than as something where the knowledge of the outcome colors the past experience. In particularly, I was interested in the small details of things that were known and not knows, the things that seemed important at the time, and the experience of life under the Nazis. The diary form seems excellent for what I wanted.
What I obtained from this book was a great work of literature with finely crafted sentences and keen insights into the human condition I also got an introduction into the French mind and the importance of ideas and literature to the French. Finally, and to a lesser extent, I got a glimpse of World War II from 1940 through 1944 as seen through the eyes of a middle-age schoolteacher.
Jean Guehenno seems to epitomize the French "man of letters." He lives for and in his literature and books. He is recognized by his students other writers as a fixture of the left literary scenes. He is on a first-name basis with so many other writers. A large portion of his memoirs involves his reflections in his readings - Malraux, Rousseau, Renan, etc. One of the advantages for me is that I gradually became interested in the subject of French literature, a subject that had never previously interested me. The book has a very useful glossary to help the novice keep track of the French literary and political names that Guhenno kept dropping. At times this gives Guhenno the appearance of the distracted professor viewing life from his tower. For example notice the seamless transition in the entry for March 4, 1942:
//There were 500 dead and more than 500 wounded. At two o'clock this afternoon, all the sirens wailed - for nothing, of course. The occupying authorities were having fun.
Tomorrow morning the execution of twenty hostages.
I'm working on Rousseau. There is surely no other writer in our literature whose life I can enter so easily./// (p. 148.)
I don't intend this as a criticism. My point is that this is - I imagine - the nature of being a French "man of letters": emotional cries of anguish over captivity and loss of honor and, then, a quick segue into Rousseau or Stendahl. For Guehenno, I think, the life of the nation is both its genius and its people. The irony is that Guehenno can see this trait in other men of letters, such as Benda, about whom he remarks when Benda - a Jew - states that the war is "greater than the Jewish question"::
//Incredible, inconceivable, astounding - these are his words, and words that probably depict him. The only real world is his world: as for the one which is obliged to live with us, he renders on it the judgment of a delegate of God, of an angel. But that angel is irritated and his irritation gives away his fall among us, reveals him as human, too human, at least as much as all those he is getting ready to assail - his rivals, his colleagues.// (p. 170.)
It amused me to see that while Germans may be occupying France, it seems that what really matters is the internecine backbiting of the men of letters. In other words, this is a memoir that has really been lived (albeit Guehenno did mask names to protect some individuals.)
In fact, Guehenno's career was producing the "men of letter" class who were intended to become the leaders of France (see p. 127.) Guehenno's memoirs with their tight circle of friends and his constant sarcastic comments about the bourgeois, and Catholics and right wing literary clique reminded me of Simon de Beauvoir's The Mandarins (Norton Paperback Fiction), particularly Guehenno's bizarre approbation of Communism as the savior of mankind. You would think that experiencing one totalitarian system would cure him of any infatuation with the other, but he writes:
//The Germans are advancing in Russia, marching on Leningrad and Moscow. I always felt rather removed from Communist tactics: that mix of cunning and violence. But if Soviet Russia, if communism, is annihilated, I will feel that defeat as a great intellectual and moral downfall - which it will be, in fact. All the peoples of the world will be in mourning for their greatest effort and their greatest hope. for it doesn't matter how people lived in Moscow in actual fact. Nowhere did men ever have so much hope.// (p. 96.)
Similar sentiments could be found in The Mandarins - there is simply a French leftist fascination with the totalitarianism of the left.
This book is filled with insights and aphorisms.
//Mauriac who sees all the exploits of the collaborators from close up, gives this explanation: "You don't understand this because you're not Catholic. Believe me, on the day of the Last Judgment, men will continue to climb ladders, feverishly. It will always be a simple matter of standing one rung higher than the others...."// (p. 95.)
//For years now, all propaganda has been trying to make freedom suspect.It had become somewhat silly to value freedom. It was as if valuing freedom meant wanting to be a dupe. I myself have overused Diderot's admirable sentence: "To have slaves is nothing; the most frightening thing is to have slaves and call them citizens." (p. 87.)
Here's an image that will be hard to forget: When Guehenno describes the place in Paris where Parisians were executed by the Occupation, he writes:
//I returned to the Vallee-aux-Loups, for i wanted to see. We follow a path along the vegetable garden, jump over a little wall, and cross a path. It is there. The occupying authority "used the terrain," a rather deep hollow in a sparsely wooded area. Bullets have slashed into the slope. People who have no doubt come from town are turning around a bunch of skinny tree stumps like the ones I saw twenty years ago in the Ardennes. We draw near. It is really there. The tree has been sawed off, ripped apart by bullets at the level of a man's heart. It was used all last winter, four or five times every week. The earth is all trampled down at the foot of the tree. It has lost its bark. It is black from the blood that drenched it. It can no longer be used now. It was shot too many times. It ended up collapsing, too. The people from a nearby farm carried off the top of the trunk and the branches. I am absorbed in looking at it. In the thickness of the trunk, a V - yes, a V - has been carved out with a knife. By whom? By the Germans, to sign their crime? Rather, no doubt by a French boy, as a tender greeting of friendship and hope to the men who came to die there, and a promise to avenge them.// (p. 109.)
And here is one I used today; in describing Marshal Petain's gradual reduction to a trope, Guehenno observes:
//"You have but one country, which I incarnate: France." An unhappy incarnation! One is stupefied by the idiocy of statements like this. He's Ubu the King! Getting old always means a hardening of the main trait in one's character: this former colonel has grown old, hardened in his authoritarian vanity.
Be careful to choose the main trait of your character well, while there is still time, while your arteries sill have some flexibility.//
Words to live by.
As for the World War II aspect, I was intrigued by the nastiness of the Nazi occupation: hostages and the regular execution of dozens of Frenchmen, invariably identified as Jews and Communists. Certainly, I had known it, but I hadn't really understood it before, but the descriptions of Frenchmen being driven to execution by firing squad with pieces of white paper already pinned to their shirts over the heart, or the singing of the Chanson du Depart as the marquees were led to execution, is something that made the subject less abstract. I was also surprised by how life continued on for most Parisians, and by the deportations of French as slave labor. Experiencing the development of the war as Guehenno learned those events - particularly the last sentences of the book - was exceptional.
I was also interested in the aspect of the collaborationists themselves. Petain and Laval were loyal and proud Frenchmen, whose political development had occurred in a democracy - Laval had been a Prime Minister of France - yet they quickly became German toadies. France could have continued to fight from its empire: what more could have been done to France than was done to it? Obviously, a foolish question, the answer being a lot more could have been done to France, but would Germany have done those things?
Another thing I was surprised by was the absence of any reference to the Final Solution. Guehenno knew that Jews were being deported, but while that deportation seems bad to him, he spends more time on the deportation of French workers. Likewise, it is almost a commonplace belief that everyone really knew about the Final Solution, that it was a poorly kept secret. But Guehenno doesn't even hint about it. In Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood, Joachim Fest mentions that the extermination of the Jews was mentioned by Allied radio once, and that his father then dug into the issue to confirm it. Did France not get the same broadcasts? Was Guehenno simply not interested, even though he had Jewish friends, and they don't mention it. He does note the week June of 1942 when Jews were forced to wear the yellow star:
//For a week now, Jews have been forced to wear the yellow star and call public scorn upon themselves. Never have people been so nice to them. It's because there is no doubt nothing more vile than forcing a man to be ashamed of himself at every moment and the good people of Paris know it. As Nietzsche knew it. "Spare every man," he said, "from being ashamed."// (p. 161.)
In any event, I feel that I got more than my investment returned from this book.