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Now That One Looks Back

ISSUE:  Winter 1941

Icame back to Paris from the north. Helsinki-Stock-holm-Oslo-Stavanger to Perth by the new British Airways, just before the Finnish War. In the north at Marlebeck, in the woods by the river, thirty miles from a railroad, for days at a time we talked about the past, discussed at length the future. We could detour the war after a fashion. Yet day after day the swift rushing and the stagnant waiting had been going on. At Perth the fussy major cut my Norwegian cheese to crumbs and spoiled my northern Christmas tree ornaments with his pen knife; and nobody opened my suitcase full of books and papers.

The blackout in London was very black, yet strangely lightened by the cozy conversations on everything from politics to love, conversations carried on with faceless voices, taxi men and bobbies, and now and then a toff. The newspapers were full of leading articles and letters about the reorganization of Europe. Men slept in offices; the children were being shipped away; and brought back; and sometimes people merely moved about the town. It was disconcerting rather than unpleasant. When you asked the Bloomsbury doctors at the Peckham health center, now moved bag and patients down to a stately place in Surrey, whether it was war or revolution, the answer came hot: “But, of course, a revolution”; and if you asked the question again of Palme Dutt, the Communist, at tea in his study: “It will be a long war,” was his reply.

I did my jobs in the book trade as quickly as I could. And in spite of delays about the visa—not really about the visa but the permit to leave—I was back in Paris in time for Christmas dinner. I had gone away from Paris in the summer to see a playwright in the north. We pretended on the morning that I went away that the inner-outer tightness was the heat, vin d’ Alsace from the night before, and not the endless talk about another war. The little man with the bald head from Ce Soir, envying me my American papers, showed me his Nansen passport. He added a volume of “Dead Souls” to my stack of morning papers full of warnings, and joked about our living in a paper age—perhaps the iron age was over I The Gare du Nord had never seemed so noisy, so full of a kind of frantic liveliness. I said, still clutching my tickets, that I was so old I remembered having had the first passport any of my friends had ever seen. And he said he was so old he had lost his passport before I was born.

I went away in June and came back in December, landing not at Le Bourget but at some new little airport. No one came to meet me, of course, and the hotel in the rue Bonaparte had not received my message; but oh, how they shouted to each other that Mademoiselle had come back, where were her letters, bring her luggage up. . . . All the Americans were gone; they had left in September. Oh yes, the hotel was full, but someone could be moved. I could have my old room. Did I realize I had been gone five months, not three weeks as I had said? I confess I was warmed to be the center of such welcome. Then I understood how mistaken they all were; they were pretending the war was over and that the Americans had come back.

Genet, who wrote for The New Yorker, who had had the top floor suite these thirteen years, was gone, paying her rent a year in advance and promising to return in April. “Maybe,” I said, trying to be cheerful, and accepting as a present all her second class mail, cards from the grand couturiers, notices of concerts, a bundle of The Weeks. Nearly all the names on the letter boxes were Polish. The Poles slept late and came down for their letters in their dressing gowns, and there were hardly ever any letters.

The blackout in Paris was not so black as the nights in London; but where London had seemed galvanized into some sort of circular movement at least, life in Paris was still and empty. No women were in uniform; not many men either; millions were at the front; and there was a quiet displeasure in Paris when the British cheerfully assured the press that now their production was rising. “In a year—” Nobody in Paris wanted to talk about what would happen in a year. Nor was there any talk about the reorganization of Europe; and there was silence about “the revolution.” Rents were reduced by seventy-five per cent for those whose men had been mobilized, but wives had no adequate allowances. Their friends stood treat, or they went away to their families in the provinces. The Spanish children were gone from Orly and I could not find little Martinez to thank him for his drawings. Nor could I find the men from the Paris printers’ union who had given the children the etching press. “Mobilized.” The carpenters in the Cour de Rohan were gone, and the bookseller there who was helping me form the collection of children’s primers influenced by Diderot. Andre, home from China, was called to the naval reserve in Brest. Life seemed skimmed. So many of the waiters in the neighborhood were gone too, even the old ones; the Italians were still there, and the Greeks and the Czechs.

The Cafe Flore around the corner was as warm and smoky and noisy as ever, but people quarreled about the Finnish War and the foreign correspondents apologized for their officers’ uniforms. One told about the precise French censor who crossed out the word “invulnerable” when he had written of “the invulnerable Maginot Line.” Sylvette, who knew someone who knew someone in the Ministry of Information, was getting five hundred francs for writing Scotch jokes for someone to broadcast to England. And the British had sent a million pounds worth of football equipment to France to “help morale.” Unemployed and unmo-bilized cinema people sat in the Flore and complained that the Ministry of Information did not use them. Last year’s German and Jewish emigres began to filter out of concentration camps. Once or twice a week a suspect would be gathered in.

I would look around and, more and more, because I played with the idea, the Cafe seemed like the smoking room of a transatlantic liner. Only there was no pool on the day’s run. The ship had not moved at all. The boredom became cruel. One night, Picasso, who was our chief celebrity, murmured privately and softly to his girl that he wished the war were over and one could go back to life and work. Half an ounce of telepathy and you could have heard a chorus of such wishing, but it was Picasso’s whisper which brought on the scene. The handsome young Polish Jew, a bit self-conscious in his uniform and square cap, leaped to his feet and shouted “Defeatist!” The painter made as if to lunge and then growled that he was quit of the God-damned foreign cafe forever. He left, and the noise died; and the Pole left and we never saw him again. Nor Picasso either for seven weeks. And we talked a long time about how in a strange way the Spanish War had really been a war, whereas this one. . . .

I was always afraid to repeat what people said, but I wanted to draw out the letter from the old French scientist who had written, “This is not a good war, for behind the brutality of the enemy there is still a will to progress and in our democracy still too much conservatism fiixiste et egoiste” I hurried away to help Simone with her chores. She seemed to have found a regiment of simple people who had lost their jobs, soldiers with no one to knit for them, children who needed an older hand to take them to a clinic. We would talk a long time about the last war, her fingers busy knitting, and we said that what the British business man admitted in December, that everything in Europe had been somehow artificial since the last war, was true.

On the days when the sun shone, Paris was as beautiful as ever; old men and boys fished pour le sport on the Quai de Bethune; and when, at noon every day and every day, the radio played old tunes from other centuries, marching songs of Napoleon’s army, one was homesick for every war but this one. At night one could lie in bed and hear the radio bring a strange sort of unreal play—the news from the B.B.C. with a new virility in the broadcasters’ accents, Lord Haw Haw, the rabble-rouser from Hamburg, good music from Toulouse, and Stockholm and Leipzig, and the final news in English from Rome with any number of little items from the eastern Mediterranean not in the Paris papers. If it had not been for the war, one could have enjoyed the dramatic contest between truth and falsehood, propaganda, provocation, “protective publication.” One listened to Handel’s “The Seasons” coming up from Turin, Bach wafted from Daventry, Debussy from Berlin, the Traitor from Stuttgart making his reports on France. One broadcast in the late afternoon interested me most. Station Paris Cit6 was broadcasting propaganda to Russia; and I used to take my portable radio to the little man from Ce Soir, who now lay dying, shrunken to the delicate bone, his great brown eyes still burning with excitement over the treasures of culture on this earth. Who made the broadcast neither of us knew, but it was spoken in a clear, simple, cultivated St. Petersburg accent of pre-World War days, and described the material minutiae of the daily life of the Paris working classes. If the voice never appeared to be greatly concerned about the war, that was a matter of someone’s privilege to look on the brighter side. What was beguiling was the amiability of the lot described. What we all ate and what we drank, and how we scolded, and chaffed and made jokes, and took with salt all theories. If we were better dressed in good tricot in the broadcast than my own eye would have sworn to, it was at least a generality as precisely true as that “Paris is wearing sequins or sables.”

January drifted by. I listened to people talking about Reynaud. The hairdresser in the rue d’Antin who was one of his election agents in the Bourse arrondissement promised to take me to the monthly dinner at which the Minister of Finance explained all public questions to his followers over a pot au feu. “Yes, yes, a water wave,” I would say, “but what makes you think Paul Reynaud is so clever, what has he done that is so brave?” And he would rattle on with gusto about past elections, the bitter heckling, how his hero was a man to be frightened of in the Chamber. “The barber is daft about a horse that he is betting on,” I said to myself, “but is this the people’s feeling?” It was not, certainly, the same sort of devotion one could see on the grave of Paul Vaillant-Couturier—editor of l’Humanite—the shabby but ever renewed carnations. That grave, it seemed to me, was something the English would never understand. But Paul Reynaud, a world-traveled individual, studying the British and their Empire, eager for their praise, exacting more from them than any French politician had yet been able to exact, commanded no such sad devotion. I still had a bright image of him as I had heard him speak in the Chamber on taxes in the winter after Munich—so different from Daladier, so positive, so arrogantly sure of his facts. The Left hated him, and paid attention to every word he said because every word counted. Facts, not oratory; but oratory, I remember saying to myself, can sometimes create new facts. “He will come in to power, he must come in,” one of his friends said to me. And “He promises what he cannot deliver,” said the sister of one of the cabinet ministers. It was part of the winter, more interesting than news from the front, looking at France’s Minister of Finance in this war of men and money and technics, now from below, now through the eyes of his friends and secretaries, and the British journalists who studied him too. He was sixty-three but he could climb a mast, had cycled all over France, and had one of the best collections of Japanese prints in Paris. When he had taken over the ministry he had the red brocade ripped off the walls of his office in the Louvre and had the simple paneling waxed.

And the ornamental clock on the mantel, a treasure from the time of Louis XVI, which had survived so many ministers without ticking, was hastily put in order. But a whole nation is not a clock. And something was wrong with the timing. His friends said he had come too soon, and others said he had come too late. Now that one looks back, the whole of February was a period of dissatisfaction—it was as if something were wrong with the projector and an audience waited while the film was being fixed.

I moved to the great white studio on the rue Gazan overlooking the Pare Montsouris. Out of the window one could see swans and ducks swimming in the icy pond, and rime frost on the trees. The war never seemed real at all except on the days when the American mail came in. We looked at the home papers and said cynically, “Well, in New York they are having themselves a war,” and sympathized with the ambulance drivers who were still in Paris and often more than a little drunk. In the metro, when I would see some permis-sionnaire pressing his girl to him as if every moment counted and life was terribly short, a sense of shame would rise in me.

People talked constantly of who would succeed Gamelin; and when Reynaud would come in; or would it be Chau-temps? Tabouis, of l’Oeuvre, and Marie-Jeanne, who wrote in Paris-Soir, both got their tips from the same 6migre Rumors from the Balkans came constantly but little of them passed the censor. Mme. Denis, patriot though she was, demanded of me, “If no one loves us, and no one is afraid of us, what are we doing in this war?” Ida reported of old Cachin, the Communist senator, still so stunned by the Berlin-Moscow pact, that he had no answer: “We are going through a tunnel. By and by there will be light.”

The English papers came irregularly and were always full of homely usual English commentary on rural and city life, too-smooth accounts of the Finnish War, and Parliament gathering a sort of dramatic force. I remember the night my friend the major came back from the front and we made a party with one of the American correspondents. I was seeing the major for the first time in his uniform, and was taken aback to behold on his breast every ribbon France has to give for valor. He was suddenly young, not merely the learned publisher with bright blue eyes of the year before; now I knew what his life had been since the last war. Never a week without studying military affairs, and his holidays were spent in the same way. He knew his Germany and he hated it, and with foreboding had seen the power grow. In the light of military history, like Reynaud, like De Gaulle, he distrusted the whole tactic of defense. “There is no victory in defense,” he said of the Maginot Line. And he was raw with discontent because of the goings-on in the Ministry of Information. He despised the press for telling the people nothing. He sensed the growing apathy; a spirit of revolt would have boded more good.

The two men presently forgot about me entirely. They drank in old wine to an old tradition. They talked about the French army, “the best in the world,” like two men contending for a bardic chair. I listened. They fell into anecdotes about courage in all its forms. They talked of the thousand years of war in French marrow. I listened. They spoke of the instant warrior in every Frenchman, and of democracy; and the comradeship in this business. I listened and thought of rude things like the birthrates in Europe, seven Germans born for every four Frenchmen; eleven Russians born for every seven Germans. Not for worlds would I have interrupted them, so many miles across the table they were from me. Yet as they talked I could see quite plainly the frozen corpses in Karelia. I know how the snow lies in the Finnish woods in winter, covering the stumps. Now covering men. And Jessie writing, “Even Red hordes are other women’s husbands.”

Away from Paris, perhaps merely because we traveled, the world became lively again. My laissez passer came through and I motored up to Nonancourt with N-, who had laid down her music and her farm to drive a car for one of the American civilian-relief units up toward Soissons and Epernay. Once we passed a convoy of ammunition trucks, a solid file two kilometers long. Soldiers and shells, but as amiable as a traffic jam on the Jericho Turnpike. We drove through the beet-field country and watched the laborers’ cottages teeming with children, Czech and Polish children, for so it has been since the last war. We passed the cemeteries: Germans who died before Versailles, Frenchmen who might have made a world. There is no regimentation so terrible as a field of wooden crosses. The blackbirds sang in the willows, for the spring breaks early along the Aisne. Now and then we passed a village, old and yet new, one of the restorations made after the last war, in the image of what had been blown to bits in ‘17 or burned to the ground in ‘71. And no doubt it would all be repeated again: destruction, and then new houses in the old patterns built for whatever immigrants pressed by the European system should come to dig by the Aisne.

I returned to Paris uneasy, no longer imagining that the long period of inaction meant an indefinite postponement. The convoys, the many planes I had seen overhead, the sight of so many uniforms on the men in fields and on the road were more convincing than rumor or headlines. Abruptly, too, the Finnish War was over. People pretended to have

expected something else, yet Madame M-said to me that

she had been working for the Finns day and night. “I did not know you were,” I said. “It was not too wise to have publicity,” she replied, “for whatever we did the Germans did more.”

It was arranged that Simone and I should go north to the chateau where she had grown up, to see if her father’s library contained any treasures of old children’s books, a rare Fontaine or some forgotten Image d’Epinal.

Now that I look back, that weekend seems full of premonition. There is no lovelier chateau in Normandy, small, perfect, untouched Louis XVI. The ancient park, the gracious rooms, and the enormous untended gardens made one exclaim at the talent of eighteenth century France. In either wing there were soldiers. We made the acquaintance of one handsome young lieutenant who seemed to have some request to make. And sure enough, the smiling soldier, with time upon his hands, wanted to make curls for us. He was a barber from the thirteenth arrondissement in Paris and had gone to the war with the tools of his trade. “If there were only time,” I said. And afterward, as we moved about the place, we said discontentedly, “Ah, if only a plumber were in that platoon, and as eager to be at his normal work.” In the courtyard of the next farm the manure piles were high and untouched. No one had been released to tend the fields. In the park, villagers, so Matnan said, dared to speak of what they would be doing with the estate when the war was over. “We keep the estate,” said Simone, “because my father, by clever engineering, made our springs a water-supply for the village. But they are tired of paying taxes to us for his wisdom.”

Simone’s father, the old advocate, has been dead some years now. He left his watch to the chief electrician of the village, as a token of respect and affection. The property went to his widow; and the son and daughter-in-law who lived there might perhaps preserve it for another generation. But a visitor from abroad could not but observe that the only other large building in the countryside was a rather ugly school-house, the Jean Jaures school, built in the ‘twenties, and so far as I could discover, no great sum had ever been spent for teachers. And as we stopped to call on the electrician’s wife —she had been a Belgian refugee in ‘14—it seemed to me that I was seeing neither war nor revolution, but the long slack change from one century to another.

Now that I look back I remember that I thought: “Why, they are all just letting the old cat die,” and again, “Because of too little revolution perhaps we shall lose the war,” and then as I met the little barber again, hoeing in the garden, “How French he is, and how human!”


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