Résistance, by Agnès Humbert

A memoir of love and captivity through the eye of an artist
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The Independent Online

In 1940, Agnès Humbert – art historian, painter and mother of two – could have compromised with the situation in which she found France and herself. Instead, she was a leading member of one of the earliest groups of the Resistance. The enterprise was short-lived: in 1941, the group was betrayed. Some members were executed; others, including Humbert, were imprisoned until the end of the war.

Résistance, first published in 1946, is Humbert's record of her experiences, composed partly from the diary she had kept, and partly from her astonishingly vivid artist's memory. Her ability to recreate in painstaking detail her days – as an activist, slave worker, freed prisoner and potential nemesis of the fleeing Nazis – transforms the book from honourable reportage into a remarkable work."My memoir will be one among many," she writes. "Its virtue will be its faithfulness to the truth." Her "images without art, images of truth" are always framed in a way that manages to avoid what has been termed the pornography of violence. Rooted in its time and circumstances, hers is both a timeless testament and a timely one: the horrors she chronicles have continued to happen.

Humbert is skilled at depicting the minutiae of life under the Occupation. She remains involved in the practicalities of daily life: the illness of a mother, the marriage of a son, the death of a friend. Her connection with the life around her sees her through the travails of her captivity. Separated from friends and family, she forges bonds with her fellow-prisoners and is able to indulge their foibles and even their occasional promiscuity. Her artist's eye responds to random moments of sudden beauty.

She is sensitive to tales of marital and sexual alliances between the French and the Germans, many predating the war. This sensitivity leads her, later, to forgive many who were unwittingly caught up in the maelstrom of Nazism. She remains, however, uncompromisingly honest. "In the struggle between barbarism and civilisation killing is a necessary and unavoidable evil. Civilisation has to use the weapons of barbarism in order to prevail. That is the great tragedy."

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