Sunday, November 13, 2016

Book review - The way it felt: France 1940

33 days by Léon Werth,
Reviewed by Ian Beacock

In May 1940, Hitler’s armies swept lightning-fast into France and the Low Countries. Fearing the worst as the Nazis advanced, more than eight million panicked civilians left their homes and fled south. It was soon one of the largest mass migrations in recorded history. Today, the French simply call it l’exode: the exodus. Two million Belgians were on the road by June, roughly one-third of the entire country. Six million of the refugees were French. Somewhere between one quarter and one third of them were children. Entire cities emptied overnight. Reims, a bustling regional center in Champagne, lost 98 percent of its quarter-million inhabitants. The town of Evreux shriveled from twenty thousand souls to fewer than two hundred. By June 13, even Paris had been deserted; only the old, the sick and the poor remained behind. Southbound roads coagulated and clogged with overheating cars, teenage boys on bicycles, pushcarts piled high with suitcases and mattresses and tired children. The last trains to leave the capital were choked with people.

One of the refugees, a 62-year-old French novelist named Léon Werth, produced an astonishing eyewitness account of his passage into exile. “We’re not living in ordinary times,” Werth wrote that summer. “We are shipwrecked.” That the memoir was ever published is something of a miracle. Thirty-three days after they left Paris, Werth and his wife Suzanne arrived in Saint-Amour, a village in the foothills of the Jura mountains. The text was completed by autumn, but publishing it in the so-called “free zone” of Vichy France was out of the question: Werth was Jewish. In October, however, Werth was visited by his best friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a gifted writer and pilot who smuggled the manuscript out of France via Algiers and Lisbon. Werth never saw the book in print. Lost mysteriously for fifty years, the memoir first appeared in France in 1992. The first English edition of 33 Days appeared last year, a slim volume translated with great dexterity and feeling by Austin Denis Johnston.

Armed with an astonishing literary imagination, Werth was an extraordinary witness to important events. His cinematic testimony is the stuff of historians’ dreams. But Werth’s style of reporting, focused conspicuously on the tiniest fragments of daily experience, was also a startling challenge to classical forms of historical thinking and a subtle repudiation of the grand visionary politics of the twentieth century. His writing lingers because it emanates from that mysterious place where poetry and history bleed together, where small things are inordinately significant and we’re forced to distinguish what is real from what is true… 

Most of all, Werth recorded how senseless and incoherent the world had become. “Everything since Paris,” he wrote, “is inexplicable by the laws of reason.” Events now followed the logic of dreams. Even other human beings had become illegible, their personalities murky and their motivations unclear. Many other witnesses agreed. “In the space of several days, we have lost all certainty,” remarked Paul Valéry, a poet and fellow refugee. “We are on a terrifying and irresistible slope.” For Werth, writing about the experience was more than an act of documentation; it was a way of locating the terms that could explain this inverted and incomprehensible landscape.

Many observers saw past ages reflected in the chaos and confusion. The poet Camille Bourniquel remarked that “the Middle Ages have been reinvented.” Another writer thought that “France had jumped backwards six centuries, finding itself at the gates of a medieval famine.” Werth saw glimmers: Horse-drawn wagons carrying household possessions seemed “like the Merovingian chariots of feudal kings,” while Nazi officers reminded him of preachers, “authoritarian and litanic.” But he also sensed the presence of an even greater antiquity. The kindness of strangers put Werth in mind of Homeric hospitality, while his encounter with a French soldier on the banks of the Loire felt nearly mythical. “I see a Senegalese infantryman appear on the riverbank, like a god emerging from the water,” Werth marveled. “He rummages through his haversack again and offers me a pack of cigarettes. … It was a magnificent gift, like in legendary times.”

Werth began to feel that time itself had been wrenched out of joint, that in leaving Paris they had also, somehow, left behind the twentieth century. The messy and complicated present had been replaced by the rude simplicity of ancient times: night and day, motion and stasis, enemies and friends. Everyday errands like picking currants or searching for a tobacco shop became heroic quests. It often seemed to Werth as though supernatural forces had crept back into the world. A refugee woman cast in the role of “emaciated, disheveled sibyl,” muttering prophecies. The Loire a “guardian angel” offering the convoy miraculous protection.

This kind of temporal slippage makes for addictive reading; it is also a penetrating and unusually sophisticated way of understanding the condition of exile. From Adam and Eve’s garden expulsion to the perilous Mediterranean journeys of 21st-century Syrian refugees, exile is most frequently imagined as a physical experience: the crossing of borders and oceans under duress, the geographic separation of individuals from loved ones and homeland. Bertolt Brecht described it as the sensation of “changing countries oftener than our shoes.” Yet Werth treated exile primarily as a chronological condition, the feeling of distance from one’s own age. It was the sense, he wrote, of being hurled “outside normal time.” This is Werth as renegade historian and citizen philosopher, dissolving chronologies and distilling his memories to decipher the modern condition. Exile, he suggests in 33 Days, is really a species of anachronism. It is time more: