Recommended with Reservations - Two French Writers
Perhaps a sense of caution should temper the inclination to recommend certain books. There are some that leave a permanent mark, possibly even a wound, on the mind or more seriously, on the heart. I read two works by 20th century French authors this past month. One kept my interest, the other scorched me with a desolate sense of loss. I’ll start with the one that wounded my heart so you will be warned and may choose it or avoid it.
Hélène Berr was a highly gifted and beautiful student at the Sorbonne, a recent graduate about to begin an advanced degree in English Literature, when the Nazis occupied Paris. She kept a journal of the period, from April, 1942 to February, 1944. It was lost for many years but was rediscovered in a remarkable manner and is now available in English. Hélène and her distinguished and generous family were Jewish and the journal is a narrative of the gradual tightening of the Nazi noose in a way that conveys fear and resignation in the face of an inescapable doom. Not only was Hélène a brilliant scholar and accomplished musician, she was a woman of remarkable bravery who fought to save Jewish children and get them to safety. There is an entry that describes her first day of wearing the yellow star required of Jews that you will never forget. Through all the terror, Hélène refuses to give up what she loves. Jews are not allowed to attend university, but she continues to read, study, spend time with friends, play music, fall in love, and risk her life to help children in danger. In February of 1944, knowing that time was short, she turned over her journal to the family’s devoted cook. At only 24 years of age, Hélène died at Auschwitz just days before the arrival of the Allies.
Hélène mentions many novels that she was reading over the period, mostly English or Russian. I came across one, The Thibaults by Roger Martin du Gard that Hélène refers to in several places. I realized that I had a copy of this novel, bought in a second -hand bookstore and waiting patiently for my attention all the long years. As soon as I finished the Journal, I went and found the neglected Thibaults. My edition is in English, a good thing since I am a bit too lazy to read it in French, looking up hundreds of words in my worn-out dictionary. Martin du Gard won the 1937 Nobel Prize for Literature for this novel, which is mostly forgotten everywhere but in France. The book is long, 871 pages, and covers the period from about 1900 to 1914, just as the Great War is looming. It is a saga about a wealthy Parisian family, a philanthropic, remote father, an ambitious physician son, and a tormented misfit younger son. I was engrossed in the book and read it with considerable interest in the portrait of pre-war Paris. The characters are strongly drawn, and the outlook pessimistic. You get into the heads of the two brothers who are unable to really communicate with each other although they long to do so. This is a theme throughout the book; the human tragedy is the inability to be honest and open with the people one loves, and the consequent death of possibility. Again, I can’t recommend the book unreservedly because it is such a commitment of time and some degree of effort.
In the same journal entry that mentions The Thibaults, Hélène writes “I think about history.I think about the future. About when we will all be dead.Life is so short and so precious.And now that I see it being squandered criminally or pointlessly all around me, on what can I rely? Everything loses its meaning with death constantly staring you in the face.”And a little further, “But it is not fear as such, because I am not afraid of what might happen to me; I think I would accept it, for I have accepted many hard things, and I’m not one to back away from a challenge.But I fear that my beautiful dream may never be brought to fruition, may never be realized.I’m not afraid for myself but for something beautiful that might have been.”