Hunger for the New

After the Occupation, the urge to express opinions was quite overwhelming for a cerebral society. Galtier-Boissière was amused by the instant outpouring of prose by the French writers who had refused to write for the collaborationist press. An astonishing number of newspapers and literary magazines appeared, feeding the hunger for ideas. The greatest problem was the shortage of paper:Le Monde had to be reduced to tabloid size, and became known as the ‘Demi-Monde’. Paper supplies permitting, Les Lettres françaiseswas selling over 100,000 copies by the end of 1944.

The main complaint about this deluge of printed matter, however, was the similarity of political approach. Even the review Esprit, published by Emmanuel Mounier, propagated a form of Christian Socialism which sought to bridge the chasm between Catholicism and Communism. Like many who shared the ideals of the Resistance, Mounier now believed that revolution was a vital renewal of the organism; this even led him into accepting the brutal transformation of Soviet-occupied Europe as natural in the circumstances.

The Liberation produced a heady mood for the young. ‘To be twenty or twenty-five in September 1944,’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir, ‘seemed a great stroke of luck: all roads opened up. Journalists, writers, budding film-makers discussed, planned, made decisions with passion, as if their future depended only on themselves… I was old. I was thirty-six.’

‘Oh wonders!’ wrote Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, of his first sight of the Boulevard Saint-Michel after the war. ‘I was struck by the extraordinary concentration of young people, the highest in France to the square kilometre, in a nation which appeared to be a country of old people.’

Parisian youth had not been docile during the Occupation. Their response to the Pétainist slogan of ‘Work, Nation, Family’ had taken the form of ‘resistance, black market, surprise-party’. Many had acted as messengers or deliverers of tracts and underground newspapers; others dealt on the edges of the black market. Being forbidden, such activities acquired their own mystique of revolt. And ‘surprise-parties’ represented their revolt against a regime which they saw as boy-scouting in jackboots.

Some of them were zazous – a shamelessly unheroic and anarchic movement of disdain for Vichy, the Germans and all military values everywhere.Zazous, with their long greasy hair, have sometimes been described as the first beatniks, but the boys’ fashion for long jackets with high collars and the girls’ for very short skirts made them look more like teddy boys in the 1950s; while the anti-virile ethos of the boys had more in common with the hippies of the 1960s. To avoid military service, zazous used to crush three aspirins into a cigarette which they smoked an hour before their army medical examination. But zazous also ran a risk every time they appeared in public. If a gang of fascist youths from the Parti Populaire Français spotted a zazou, they would beat him up or, if a girl, torment her mercilessly.

Most zazous were children of the wealthy middle class. They organized their ‘surprise-parties’ – also known as ‘pot-lucks’, since American terms were all the rage – in the apartments of parents temporarily absent, with friends and gatecrashers bringing food and drink. These parties were essentially a response to Vichy’s ban on jazz and dancing, so if you owned some Duke Ellington or Glenn Miller records the word spread. Because of the curfew, the parties often went on all night. After the Liberation, the real zazoufashion died out, but the word remained a termof abuse, employed by the puritan left and right.

The Liberation changed everything for the young, or the ‘J3 s’ as they were often called, after the name of the ration category for fifteen- to twenty-one-year-olds. There was no more curfew, so they savoured the freedom of the streets at night, even if that meant freezing on street corners outside jazz clubs in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Staying up all night retained the thrill of the illicit. A lack of food produced a continual light-headed, sometimes vertiginous sensation. They ignored the last métro at eleven – many did not even have the fare – so they slept in doorways and walked home at dawn. The luckiest had roller-skates, on which they crossed half of Paris.

Clothes – best of all genuine American clothes – could be bought for almost nothing in the flea-market of Saint-Ouen, where clothes sent by the Jewish community in New York to help fellow Jews were on sale. So by giving each other crew-cuts imitated from the GIs, and dressing themselves up in second-hand check shirts with trousers cut so short they came halfway down the shin, with vilely striped socks and tennis shoes, the ex-zazous created a new style.

Students seemed to live off nervous energy and ideas. The greatest hunger was for reading material, yet there was so little time and so much to read – Aragon, Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir, as well as Apollinaire, Lautréamont, Gide, and now all the American novels which proliferated in translation, such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Damon Runyan, Thornton Wilder and Thomas Wolfe. Everything formerly banned must be seen – whether the plays of García Lorca or the films of Bunñuel. Philosophy student or not, you needed to be able to discuss Hegel’s master–slave paradigm, the collected works of Karl Marx, and existentialism’s less than apostolic succession from Søren Kierkegaard and the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, via Martin Heidegger, then Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s professor of philosophy, Beaufret, had an immense prestige among students: he had actually met Heidegger. Young Communist students, swollen with the importance of their historical mission, were far from impressed. In the eyes of the party, Heidegger was a Nazi and existentialism was decadent.

Lycées as well as university faculties in Paris were very politicized, a situation which had grown far worse during the Occupation, when right-wing students had been recruited by the Milice to spy on their classmates. Now the Communists attempted to exert a political and intellectual hegemony. Their first target was Catholic students, but by manipulating issues anyone even on the left who did not demonstrate a strong commitment to progressisme as defined by the Communist Party was ‘objectively’ a fascist. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie made an appalling gaffe when he confessed in front of a Communist that he had been impressed by Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Every area of art came in for a relentless Marxist-Leninist critique. To admit that you enjoyed Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes demonstrated a pathetic and dépassé sentimentality as well as reactionary tendencies.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had written of 1940 in Pilote de guerre,La défaite divise.’ The Liberation managed at first to unite the majority of the country under the banner of progressisme, as the opinion polls demonstrated in the massive support for the nationalization of banks and heavy industry. Simone de Beauvoir wrote of ‘Paris in the year zero’. And indeed for Communists and their fellow-travellers there was a sense of marching with history. Another sign of the times, as Galtier-Boissière pointed out, wasVogue – of all magazines – publishing a poem by Éluard and a portrait of Marcel Cachin, the veteran Communist.

The death of the great poet Paul Valéry at the age of seventy-four seemed to underline the end of an era. Valéry, who had delivered the address of welcome to Pétain when he was elected to the Académie Française, died on 20 July 1945 – three days before the Marshal’s trial. He was given a state funeral: the coffin was carried through the streets of Paris, accompanied by a detachment of the Garde Républicaine marching to muffled drums. The coffin was placed just below the Trocadéro on a golden catafalque, lit by torches. Duff Cooper, who thoroughly approved of the French Republic’s respect for men of letters, reflected ruefully on the difference in his own country. ‘We have only to imagine how would be greeted the suggestion that the Brigade of Guards should march past the coffin of T. S. Eliot.’

The reappearance of the satirical paper Le Canard enchaîné brought some much needed humour to the French press. It had been absent since 11 June 1940. After Vichy the appetite for irreverence was huge, and the Canard had no scruples about bad taste. Its cartoon on the announcement of Hitler’s death was to show the Führer in heaven pinning a Star of David on God. On the other hand, the publication had its own code of values. It refused to attack collaborators during the frenzy of the épuration. De Gaulle could not have been more wrong when he listed it as one of the magazines taken over by the Communists at the Liberation.

Those on the right, who saw existentialismas another form of Marxism, were also mistaken. The Kremlin defined existentialism as a ‘reactionary bourgeois philosophy’. This was because existentialism was fundamentally anti-collectivist, declaring that man as an individual – not society or history – was responsible for defining his own life.

Sartre cannot be accused of following fashions. Having remained wary of Stalinismafter the Liberation, when praise of the Soviet Union was obligatory in progressive circles, he began to support it in the early 1950s, when French writers outside the Communist Party had started to see it for what it was. His Being and Nothingness was first published by Gallimard in 1943. A. J. Ayer, a sceptic, thought that, apart from a few good psychological insights, the book was ‘a pretentious metaphysical thesis’. He concluded: ‘Existentialism, on this evidence, was principally an exercise in misusing the verb “to be”.’

If Sartre had been just a philosopher, then few people outside a small intellectual circle would have heard of him. But by dramatizing his ideas and themes through novels and plays, and above all by his creation of doomed anti-heroes – Antoine Roquentin inNausea and Matthieu in The Roads to Freedom – Sartre touched a deep, pessimistic chord in youth to a degree unimagined since Goethe’s Werther led to a rush of suicides among the poetic souls of Europe. Albert Camus’s renown also stemmed largely from his anti-hero Mersault in The Outsider, and existentialism is now remembered more as a literary movement than as a lasting body of philosophy.

This group, which dominated the artistic life of Paris after the war, had begun to assemble in the winter before the Liberation. Sartre first met Albert Camus in 1943, when Camus dropped in on a rehearsal of Sartre’s play The Flies. Simone de Beauvoir then met him with Sartre at the Café de Flore and found that he had ‘a charm based on a happy mixture of nonchalance and ardour’.

This gradually expanding group of friends lived around Saint-Germain-des-Prés, moving from one cheap hotel to another. They congregated, more by chance than by arrangement, in their habitual cafés, usually the Flore, where Sartre and Beauvoir wrote for six hours a day, but occasionally the Deux Magots. The Brasserie Lipp opposite was out of favour for a time, its Alsatian specialities having attracted too many German officers. Sometimes they joined Picasso and Dora Maar at Le Catalan in the rue des Grands Augustins, which was almost an extension of Picasso’s studio.

Those who gathered around Sartre became loosely known as la famille Sartre, in the same way that young writers and actors who gathered round Jacques Prévert were known as la bande Prévert. Prévert was famous as a scriptwriter; between 1936 and 1946, he worked on a series of scripts for the film-maker Marcel Carné – among which were Les Visiteurs du soir and Les Enfants du Paradis. But he never had much success with his poetry until 1945, when Gallimard published Paroles. Prévert’s limpid, irreverent, light-hearted verses hit post-war Paris like a breath of fresh air. They were set to music and sung in the street, and within a few years Gallimard had sold over 100,000 copies. Paul Boubal, the patron of the Flore, felt that Prévert and his friends had sown the seeds of the Saint-Germain phenomenon (at least in his own café); but Simone de Beauvoir rather disapproved of la bande Prévert, because they were politically uncommitted.

While waiting for the Liberation, Simone de Beauvoir gave badly cooked little dinners in her ‘toothpaste-pink’ hotel room, with at least half the guests sitting on the edge of the bed. Sartre talked of founding a magazine with Beauvoir, Camus and Merleau-Ponty, and this took shape in the autumn of 1945 when the first issue of Les Temps modernes was published.

Despite the bleakness of his philosophy, Sartre could be very engaging. One who knew himwell at that time described him as ‘overflowing with charm, I have seldom known anyone as amusing, as sympathetic and as generous’. He was always the first to support a good cause and help struggling artists. He organized a benefit evening for the artist Antonin Artaud, as well as giving himmoney. Very often, not wanting to hurt the pride of those he helped, he arranged for funds to be given in a roundabout way: financial help for the novelist Violette Leduc was always channelled through Gallimard, and paid as ‘royalties’ on her own work.

Simone de Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre was far more emotionally taxing than she ever dared admit. Sartre had nicknamed her ‘Castor’, the French for beaver. (Others referred to her as Notre Dame de Sartre, or La Grande Sartreuse.) At moments she could still look beautiful, but her seriousness and suppressed anxiety about Sartre had started to mould her face into that of an old maid. He had always dominated her, making her put up with his compulsive philandering – what she termed ‘désordres amoureux’. She remarked to a friend that ‘Sartre had a rather diabolical side to him: he conquered young girls by explaining their souls to them.’

In spite of the parties and the drinking, most members of la famille Sartre seemed to be finishing books to be published after the Liberation. The upstairs room of the Café de Flore often looked like a classroom, particularly in the winter of 1943–4: at one table, Sartre was at work on Roads to Freedom, Beauvoir was writing All Men are Mortal, Mouloudji was writing Enrico, and Jacques-Laurent Bost Le Dernier des métiers. They read each other’s manuscripts, and usually gave them the attention that work from a friend deserved.

Merleau-Ponty, however, wanted Sartre to read his manuscript as a philosopher, not as a friend. He left it with hardly a word, and Sartre, who was as usual very busy, glanced over it in a cursory way and made congratulatory noises. This was not good enough for Merleau-Ponty. Sartre recalls the incident: ‘He discovered my bolthole, and confronted me there. I suddenly found him standing in front of me, smiling, the manuscript held out. “I agree with what you say,” I babbled. “I’m very glad,” he said without moving. “You should still read it,” he added patiently. I read, and I learned, and I ended fascinated by what I was reading.’

Raymond Queneau, poet, novelist and philologist, was – with Merleau-Ponty – one of the most distinguished members of Sartre’s circle. Queneau, who was a senior editor at Gallimard, led a scholarly life oppressed by the most profound despair; yet this never seemed to affect his conviviality, his infectious laughter, his passion for jazz and his fascination with logic and mathematics.

Michel and Zette Leiris were also part of the group. Michel Leiris was a novelist and ethnologist, while Zette managed the gallery of her brother-in-law, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso’s dealer, who lived with themsecretly during the Occupation. Their apartment, which had often concealed other Jews and members of the Resistance, was on the Quai des Grands Augustins, overlooking the Seine. Paintings by Picasso, Miró and Juan Gris hung on its walls above good French bourgeois furniture. They had many friends among the artists of the Left Bank, including André Masson, Giacometti and Picasso, whose studio was literally round the corner; and it was in their apartment that Picasso’s play Desire Caught by the Tail was first performed in a reading on 19 March 1944, over three years after it was written.

Camus was the presenter, with a large stick to thump the floor to indicate changes of scenery, which he described. The play was evocative of ‘avant-garde works from the 1920s’;, as the list of characters shows. Michel Leiris had the main part – le Gros Pied. Other readers included Jean-Paul Sartre as le Bout-Rond, Raymond Queneau as l’Oignon, Jacques-Laurent Bost as le Silence, Zanie de Campan as la Tarte, Dora Maar as l’Angoisse Maigre and Simone de Beauvoir as la Cousine. Picasso and his friends put it on for their own amusement, but ‘la fine fleur de l’intelligentsia parisienne’ was breathless in anticipation of a major event. By seven o’clock the Leirises’ salon was packed.

Picasso’s little comedy, almost an exercise in nostalgia, served only to underline the obvious. Surrealism as a movement was as good as over before the war, having virtually exhausted its potential to subvert received thought, and foundered on the political split when Aragon, Éluard and others felt that only Communism had the answer. One day in the Flore, Sartre asked Queneau, a former Surrealist, what he thought was left from the movement. ‘The impression of having had a youth,’ came the reply.

In May 1944, shortly before the Liberation, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were sitting in the Flore when they heard a voice. ‘C’est vous, Sartre?’ They were confronted by a tough, shaven-headed character with a broken nose. This was Jean Genet, described by his biographer as ‘the Proust of marginal Paris’. Genet may have had a ‘distrustful, almost aggressive look’ as a result of the toughness of a life in reformatories, on the street as a male prostitute and in prison, but ‘his eyes knew how to smile, and his mouth could express the astonishment of childhood’.

In the autumn of 1945, Simone de Beauvoir in a cinema queue on the Champs-Élysées met ‘a tall, blonde, elegant woman, with an ugly face bursting with life’. She assumed she was a woman of fashion but in fact this was the unpublished novelist Violette Leduc, who was living off her wits and strength as a ‘suitcase-bearer’, bringing back to Paris hefty cases full of butter and meat from Normandy, which she sold to black-market restaurants.

A few days later, Violette Leduc came to Simone de Beauvoir in the Café de Flore bringing the manuscript of her novel, L’Asphyxie. On being advised to change the ending, she disappeared and did exactly as she was told. Beauvoir was so impressed with the final result that she passed it to Camus, who was then on the editorial committee at Gallimard, and he accepted it immediately for publication. The only drawback was that Violette Leduc became completely infatuated with Beauvoir, who found that she had to lay down very strict rules if their friendship was to continue.

Violette Leduc struck up a close entente with Jean Genet, and these two outsiders provided a great deal of voyeuristic interest to Sartre and his friends. The one person with whom Leduc clashed temperamentally was Nathalie Sarraute, the novelist who had hidden Samuel Beckett during the Occupation. Leduc tried to get on with Sarraute, but their almost chemical incompatibility was made worse by jealousy: Sarraute was indubitably Sartre’s protégée, while Leduc’s position with Castor was far less secure.

The autumn of 1945 saw the great existentialist boom, although Sartre and Beauvoir were irritated that the label was automatically attached to anything they wrote. In September Beauvoir’s novel of the Resistance, The Blood of Others, enjoyed both critical and commercial success. Over the course of the next couple of months came two volumes of Sartre’s Roads to Freedom and the first number of Les Temps modernes. Sartre’s lecture, ‘L’Existentialisme est-il un humanisme?’, on 29 October 1945, was packed out; hundreds could not get into the hall, and women fainted in the crush.

Les Temps modernes wielded a tremendous influence. The title was partly inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times, but the name was principally intended to stand for an era of intellectual change. Its editorial committee alone was enough to guarantee attention, for it included Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus, Merleau-Ponty as philosophy editor, and Michel Leiris and Raymond Queneau for poetry and literature, as well as Raymond Aron and Jean Paulhan, the grammarian, who was the only one with any experience of running a literary review. Malraux was invited to join but refused, partly, one suspects, because he was abandoning the radicalismof his youth. Considering Beauvoir’s dislike of him – ‘he takes himself for Goethe and Dostoyevsky at the same time’ – it was just as well that he stayed out.

Gaston Gallimard agreed to back the publication and to give it office space; three of its editors – Paulhan, Camus and Queneau – were on Gallimard’s own editorial committee, to say nothing of the others who were his authors. The first problem was to secure a paper ration. Beauvoir and Leiris went to see Jacques Soustelle, de Gaulle’s Minister of Information, but he was reluctant because Raymond Aron, who had turned against the General, was on their committee. In fact, Aron was to leave not long afterwards because of an ideological dispute.

Simone de Beauvoir saw Les Temps modernes as the showpiece of what she called the ‘Sartrian ideal’. Almost immediately, however, she found herself swamped by manuscripts and besieged by earnestly ambitious young writers. It seemed as if half the young men on the Left Bank had been working on equally gloomy, pseudo-existentialist novels of the Resistance, because that was what was expected of them.

The theatre in France during the last two years of the Occupation had certainly proved itself alive, even if many leading members of the profession found themselves under clouds of varying sizes at the Liberation.

Parisian audiences had been educated to the avant-garde in the 1920s, and in the years before the war the playwrights Anouilh, Giraudoux, Salacrou and Cocteau had already prepared the ground for what is seen as the post-Liberation theatre.

Sartre’s first play, The Flies, was performed in 1943. So too was Giraudoux’s Sodom et Gomorrhe, although it was produced without France’s greatest actor-manager, Louis Jouvet, who had taken his company into a nomadic exile in South America. One of the great successes had been Jean-Louis Barrault’s production of Paul Claudel’s The Satin Shoe, but Sartre and Beauvoir felt unable to judge the play objectively, so sickened were they by Claudel’s ‘Ode au maréchal’. Early in 1944, Jean Anouilh’s Antigoneappeared, then shortly before the invasion of Normandy Sartre’s Huis clos was put on at the Vieux-Colombier. This play about hell, which Brasillach went to see before going into hiding, was the most influential. The notion that ‘Hell is other people’ passed into international currency.

More plays from the existentialist group followed over the next two years. In 1945 Albert Camus’s Caligula received great acclaim, while Simone de Beauvoir’s Useless Mouths was regarded as too mechanical. Then Sartre returned in the following year withMen Without Shadows and The Respectful Prostitute at the Théâtre Antoine, where his most politically important play, Dirty Hands, would follow. But while Sartre headed back towards realism with issues and moral dilemmas, the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ of Arthur Adamov, Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, all influenced by Pirandello, was about to wander off in a very different direction.

Without doubt, the greatest success of the immediate post-war theatre was Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot at the Théâtre de l’Athénée. Written during the Occupation, shortly before Giraudoux’s death early in 1944, it was produced by Louis Jouvet at the end of the following year. Even if the story today may seem a curious piece of radical chic fantasy (an inspired madwoman, in a sort of modern court of miracles, manages to trick the exploiters of Paris by playing upon their greed and to imprison them in the city’s sewers), Jouvet’s direction, Christian Bérard’s sets and the acting were superb. When the play opened in December 1945 and, for a long time to come, the little theatre was packed with both the beau monde and bohemia.

The world of painting and sculpture was also undergoing a period of intellectual and political ferment. When the Salon d’Automne opened on 6 October 1944, it was called the ‘Salon de la Libération’. All painters deemed collaborationist were banned, including Derain, Van Dongen, Segonzac, Despiau, Belmondo and Vlaminck.

In an unprecedented mark of respect to a foreign painter, a special section entitled ‘Hommage à Picasso’ showed seventy-four paintings and five sculptures. On the morning of 5 October, the day before the opening of the exhibition, the front page ofL’Humanitéwas not, as usual, devoted to the advances of the Red Army. Instead, across five columns, its headline declared:

has joined the Party of the French Resistance

Picasso’s rise to political consciousness caused a good deal of mirth and cynicism in non-Communist ranks. Many considered the decision to join the Communist Party a sort of insurance policy to safeguard a fortune, reputedly worth 600 million francs. Cocteau wrote in his diary that it was Picasso’s ‘first anti-revolutionary gesture’.

When the Salon opened, traditionalists and friends of the excluded painters held a demonstration inside. ‘Take them down! Take them down!’ they yelled in front of Picasso’s paintings. Picasso is said to have been furious. Young right-wingers even went round Paris altering the chalked Communist slogans of ‘Pétain au poteau’ (‘Pétain for the firing squad’) to ‘Picasso au poteau’. The strength of feeling did not abate – everyone was a committed picassiste or anti-picassiste. A year later at the ballet of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a large part of the audience hissed the curtain which he had designed.

Picasso’s commitment to the cause acted as a powerful recruiting campaign for the party. He even wrote in L’Humanité: ‘Joining the Communist Party is the logical progression of my whole life, of my whole work… How could I have hesitated? The fear of becoming engaged in the struggle? But I feel much more free, much more fulfilled.’

Picasso’s stand certainly inspired his more-resistant-than-thou colleagues. When a Resistance group asked painters for a work each to be sold for charity, Derain and Segonzac, both accused of collaboration, provided canvases. But Picasso, hearing that their work would be included, refused to give a painting; he offered 200,000 francs instead. Immediately, other artists threatened to boycott the exhibition if the two canvases by Derain and Segonzac were not withdrawn. The organizers felt forced to give way, but because the works of Derain and Segonzac were far more valuable than those of the protesters they sold them through dealers, without a word of apology to the two artists.

The dictatorship of the progressive intelligentsia after the war was a phenomenon which had a number of reasons, but few excuses. Ever since the encyclopédistes of the mid-eighteenth century had encouraged the idea that thinkers would lead the masses to salvation, revolutionary and anti-clerical ideas generated their own form of spiritual arrogance. Jacobinismnot only glorified political upheaval, endowing violence with romantic qualities, it saw Revolution as an entity with a life of its own: a terrible monster to be worshipped.

The exaltation of theory over bourgeois morality gained strength during the Resistance. Communist ruthlessness, together with the party’s vaunted professionalism, attracted many of those ashamed of France’s collapse in 1940 and the collaboration of Vichy. Never again should the right wing, which had betrayed the country, be allowed to regain control. Never again should Europe permit the horrors of Nazi rule. Only one country was strong enough and determined enough to oppose the return of fascism, and that was the Soviet Union.

Communists vigorously claimed that they were materialists, yet the wilful blindness towards the reality of life in the Soviet Union could only exist as a form of unquestioning religious belief. The spiritual aspect of Communism had been brought home to the British ambassador when a young priest came to see him in Algiers during the early summer of 1944. ‘This emaciated young priest,’ wrote Duff Cooper, in a report for Churchill’s successor, Clement Attlee, ‘with the fire of religious fanaticism burning in his eyes, assured me that having witnessed the Communists dying with the Catholics he could not but believe that the Communists too would go to heaven because, he said, they had died as martyrs to their faith.’

The eager subservience of intellectuals and their desire to be led is vividly illustrated in a letter from the French Communist deputy in the National Assembly, Alain Signor, to Stepanov of the International Section in the Kremlin. It describes a meeting of the Central Committee. ‘I must tell you that never before have I experienced such a feeling of the power of our party,’ he wrote. ‘Jacques [Duclos] was superb… André [Marty] strengthened Jacques’ line of argument which even on its own had been very convincing. And finally Maurice [Thorez] showed by his contribution what a truly great guide he is for our party, a wise strategist and at the same time a true statesman… We must work hard. We must do much to catch up with you. But we will catch up and join you.’

After the Liberation, some of the lighter-hearted Communist intellectuals joked in private about the clichés that filled almost every article and tract – ‘sacred duty… the directing role of the Party… the glorious Soviet Union with Comrade Stalin at its head’. But any irreverent attitudes tolerated during the Resistance were soon suppressed by party cadres. There was a key question in the interview on joining the party: ‘What did you think of the 1939 pact between the Soviet Union and Germany?’ There was only one correct reply: ‘I put my trust in the party.’ Anyone who said that they had denounced it was immediately suspect. It was never a question of being right or wrong, it was a question of submission to discipline.

The real act of self-abasement before the party’s authority was the need for all members to write their ‘bios’, which were detailed autobiographical notes including every peccadillo in their lives. This written confession demonstrated the individual’s trust in the party, but the real purpose was to give the party an effective hold over each member.

Introduction to a cell, with its sense of comradeship, was increased by the most emotional initiation of all – attendance at a mass rally. For many intellectuals, this was their first communion with the proletariat. Another opportunity was the open-air Fête de l’Humanité over a weekend in early September at Vincennes. The entertainment was all very proper. Bespectacled students from the Latin Quarter could wander around, savouring the smell of crushed grass, listening to accordions, and eating, drinking and mingling with the inhabitants of the ‘ceinture rouge’ – the working-class suburbs such as Aubervilliers, Bagneux, Gennevilliers, Ivry, Montreuil, Saint-Denis and Vitry. The party never ceased to eulogize its proletarian life-blood in the ceinture rouge, but few card-carrying intellectuals ever visited those districts. They were more interested in discussing literature and politics, and their greatest ambition was to mix with the intellectual stars of the party.

Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet were a devoted couple. Many people who liked Aragon deeply distrusted Triolet; they suspected her of being a Soviet spy. Nobody could have been more fiercely defensive of Elsa than Aragon. When he was invited without her to an official lunch at the Quai d’Orsay, he rang Jacques Dumaine, the chef de protocole, in a state of high indignation. Dumaine explained that to invite men without their wives was the usual practice at midday. ‘Monsieur,’ retorted Aragon, ‘I would have you know that Elsa Triolet is neither man nor woman, but a great French writer; as for myself, I have my own standards and do not wish to condone the practices of this government which calls itself provisional.’

Aragon was perhaps particularly touchy on the subject of Elsa Triolet’s standing as a writer during that second half of 1945, because many people had voiced their suspicions about the way she had won the Prix Goncourt on 2 July for her novel Le Premier Accroc coûte deux francs. They pointed out that with three members of the Académie Goncourt under a cloud, including Sacha Guitry, the only way to win back public support for France’s most important literary prize was to vote for a book which would be solidly supported by the Communist Party. Critics pointed out that Dorgelès, the Goncourt chairman, had approached Aragon several months before the vote; and later Aragon had published an article of his in Les Lettres françaises. It smelled strongly of a‘dédouanement’ deal.

Triolet and Aragon, ‘le couple royal’ of Communist letters, received guests in the palatial premises which the National Committee of Writers had taken over by the Élysée Palace, and entertained the most favoured to tea in their apartment amid the objets d’artthey had collected. The novelist Marguerite Duras, on the other hand, cultivated a far more informal atmosphere. Her apartment on the rue Saint-Benoît rapidly became a semi-permanent rendezvous for Communist intellectuals, more like a private club than a salon. Her friends included the poet Francis Ponge, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Clara Malraux (who had separated from André during the war), the Spanish Communist writer Jorge Semprun, Jean-Toussaint Desanti and his wife, Dominique, and André Ulmann, the editor ofTribune des nations. The writer Claude Roy compared it to a meeting place of the Russian intelligentsia in the last century.

The post-Liberation ferment, after the stuffiness of Vichy, was as much a clash of generations as of politics. One sociologist contrasted ‘the bourgeois theatre of our father’s generation with its stories about the stock exchange and finance, its calculations of income and dowries’ with the new theatre ‘where everyone proclaims their contempt for wealth, the impotence of finance, the boredom of middle-class life. Anouilh’s characters talk of “your filthy money”.’

Saint-Germain-des-Prés was unlike anywhere else in post-war Europe. In London, Edmund Wilson found a sense of depression and anticlimax. Graham Greene told him that he even felt ‘a nostalgia for the hum of a robot bomb’. But in Paris, the Liberation had given the intelligentsia a powerful symbol of hope, even though the country was bankrupt. Rather as the Grandmaison doctrine in 1914 had represented the passionate belief that French élan would overcome German artillery, for intellectuals after the Liberation it was an article of faith that ideas would triumph over ‘filthy money’.

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