BOOK REVIEW / Warm souffles and snobbery-sur-Seine: Jan Morris on the vulgar glamour that invaded Paris in the years following World War II
Saturday 23 July 1994
It is certainly no fault of the authors that I disliked almost every page of this substantial book. As one might expect from their previous works, they have done a thoroughly professional job in reconstructing the sensations of Paris in the years after the liberation of 1944, skilfully balancing historical narrative with social analysis, and tempering the appalling with the absurd. The trouble is that for my tastes almost everyone who figures in the story is somehow repellent, almost every event is squalid in one degree or another, and the impression left is of a thoroughly unlikeable and decadent people squabbling over the bones of their own disgrace.
Nobody can pretend that the French as a whole performed well during World War II. No resistance legends, no glories of France-in-exile can disguise the fact that in general they fought poorly, co-operated with their conquerors, behaved almost as badly towards the Jews as did the Nazis themselves, and willingly if not fulsomely accepted their own quisling Government of second-rate reactionaries. It is no good telling me that in similar circumstances the British would have behaved just as badly: I remember the British as they were then, and I simply don't believe it.
So the entire conduct of Parisian life in the first months of restored freedom appears to have been governed not by new hope and pride, but by murky impulses of hypocrisy, reproach and revenge, compounded by political ambition. Closet Fascists fought with lick-spittle Communists. Spurious war records were invented right and left. Even the Liberation itself was half phoney - did anybody really believe that the French army, which entered the city in conquerors' mode, was the true liberator? In fact it was to go on losing wars for another 18 years, until its last brutal legionaries left Algeria in 1962. Few Parisians, it seems, had the guts to face the truth about France's shame and failure; a true expression of the public morality seems to have been the salacious savagery of the mob, shaving the heads of poor collaborating prostitutes and jeering them down city streets, sometimes with babies in their arms.
And prancing and bickering through the shivering half-starved misery, sustained by black market and foreign largesse, all the scented silliness of Paris society soon revived again in haute cuisine and haute couture, attracting once more the Hemingwayans, the Mitfordians and the rest of the familiar international chorus which was to restore to the City of Light its vulgar glamour. Noel Coward boasts to his diary that he has given the Duke of Duchess of Windsor a five-course dinner including grilled langouste, tournedos with sauce bearnaise and chocolate souffle - adding, with his unfailing talent to amuse, 'poor starving France'. Truman Capote, asked by Colette what he expects of life, says yukkily that he doesn't know what he expects, but that what he wants 'is to be a grown-up person'. One of the book's photographs, says its caption, shows 'Elie and Liliane de Rothschild in the American Embassy plane off to Chateau Lafite with the Bruces', while another depicts the ball thrown for Lady Diana Cooper by all the mistresses of her husband the British Ambassador. . .
I hated it all, and not least when the Left Bank intellectuals re-appeared, gawped at in cafes by cultists and groupies, hamstrung by theories, half of them politically so purblind that they flatly refused ever to recognise the truth about Stalinism. Was there ever a less appealing idol than Simone de Beauvoir, who apparently believed that Soviet labour camps were morally irrelevant? Did ever arguments sound more threadbare than those which fired the ideologies and the jealousies of Sartre, Camus, Koestler, Gallimard and Malraux? Was there ever a more pretentious and febrile philosophy than existentialism, which so soon came to mean almost anything anybody wanted it to mean?
All in all, for me Paris After the Liberation is an unforgettable panorama of the distasteful. Arthur Miller, contemplating the cold grey Paris of 1947, came to the conclusion that 'there really was such a thing as a defeated people': but lest you think that all these were transient squalors, the immediate and forgiveable repercussions of war, Beevor and Cooper tell us that as late as 1961 some 60 Algerians arrested for demonstrating in Paris are believed to have been eliminated (thrown into the Seine) by official action. There are heroes in the story of course, genuine idealists and irrepressible activists of the resistance, but only one figure of the whole sorry cast remains in my memory as possessing true majesty: the gaunt, unshakeable and infuriating figure of Charles de Gaulle, stalking loftily through the carnage and the charade as nobly as Don Quixote himself, and almost single-handedly preserving what little there seems to have been of Parisian dignity.
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