Tag Archives: French culture

The Notebooks of Major Thompson by Pierre Daninos

I have a very clear memory of a history class in which the subject of venereal disease was mentioned. I’ve long since forgotten how the topic started, but I recall the teacher explaining that the French called it, “the English disease,” and the British called it “the French disease.” This memory flooded back as I read The Notebooks of Major Thompson by Pierre Daninos, the second book from a virtual book exchange with Emma. I hadn’t heard of the book before, and since I enjoy comic fiction, I looked forward to reading it. The secondary title to the book is: An Englishman Discovers France and the French, and I suspect Emma selected this particular book as she knows that I enjoy watching films or reading books about people’s behaviour abroad. (Suggestions welcome)

Translated by Robin Farn, the novel includes a number of illustrations by Walter Goetz. The book is written from the viewpoint of Major Marmaduke Thompson, a rather affable fellow who finds himself, in late middle age, married for the second time to a French woman named Martine. He’s now living in France and trying to understand the natives. Several times throughout the book, Thompson references the author as P.C. Daninos–a man “who is naturally distressed that he is not English,” and that Thompson first met when Daninos was a liasion officer of Thompson’s battalion. It is Daninos, according to Thompson, who edits the ‘notebooks.’

Each chapter takes a loose approach to a topic in which Major Thompson attempts to illuminate the differences between the French and the British–the “two most dissimilar peoples on the earth,” and chapter 1: What is a Frenchman? starts with an anecdote of sorts in which Major Thompson claims that a brain surgeon friend of his “opened up an Englishman” in his Harley Street office and found a number of items–most of which are indelibly connected to the British “royal” family. In contrast Thompson begins his definition of the French as a people of vast “contradictions.” He can’t make sense of the fact that this is a nation of Republicans who worship the queen of England. I don’t know enough French people to know if this is true, so I can’t comment on that, but as a relic of the British Empire, Thompson seems a little uneasy about the French Revolution. The topic crops up frequently in his “notebooks” almost as if he’s afraid another revolution might suddenly erupt at any moment, and at one point he calls the French “these guillotiners of kings.” To give you an idea of the sort of humour within the book, here’s a quote:

The American pedestrian who sees a millionaire going past in a Cadillac dreams secretly of the day when he will be driving his own; the French pedestrian who sees a millionaire going past in a Cadillac dreams of the day he will get him out of it and make him walk like everyone else.

He doesn’t say what a British pedestrian would do…

Chapter 4-The Land of the Handshake had me a bit confused. I always see French people kissing each other on the cheeks, and I’m not sure of the etiquette of that custom. Thompson argues that “for the French–and for many others–England is the land of the handshake.” He then argues against this position and states that the French have perfected the art of handshaking to include “various nuances.”

According to Thompson’s fictional biography he appears to have retired from the army in 1945, and so he is a relic of the British Empire, serving in India, Palestine, and Egypt. He makes a perfect stock character for an Englishman, a great stereotype, and yet at the same time he is a bit dated. I, for one, can’t relate to some of his “Englishness” as his background is pro-royal, aristocratic privilege. But at the same time, I can relate entirely to other sections: The Case of Count Renauld de la Chasselière in which Thompson describes the “silences” of the British, for example. I’m frequently told I’m ‘aloof’ and ‘cold’.

Readers brings  their own experiences to the books they read, and so I read this book through a rather complicated prism. I’m probably a different sort of reader for this book as I’m British but live in America, and so while I read Thompson’s attempts to understand the French, I brought in my own experiences of being British in yet another foreign country. When Thompson made comparisons between the French and the British attitudes towards royalty for example, I found myself marvelling all over again about the royal worship I’ve encountered in America. For some reason, most Americans seem to think I should worship the royal family, and that I glue myself to the television set for every so-called royal wedding as if I feel some connection. I have literally been lectured by Americans for not having ‘proper respect’ which is hilarious to me since America had a revolution, ostensibly (yes we can argue that other motives were afoot) to get rid of the monarchy. But I digress….

My favorite chapter was My Dear Hereditary Enemy  in which Thompson discusses the upbringing of his son and the dreaded governess Miss ffyfth–a formidable woman whose history lessons include a pro-British (read anti-French) version of history:

Meanwhile, Miss ffyfth was striding onward through history. She was sorry for Joan of Arc, who was burned as a witch, but she was careful to point out that the tribunal which condemned her was composed of Frenchmen, and that King Charles VII did nothing to aid the girl (monstrous!). Soon she would get to Napoleon. Without even speaking of Trafalgar or Waterloo; Wellington had already beaten Napoleon at vimieiro–remember: Vi-miei-ro. In the end, the tiresome little man with his funny hat had never been able to realize his dream, which was to go to England. For there was the sea–la mer–and, above all, the Br–the Brr–the British navy, dear….

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Witches’ Sabbath by Maurice Sachs

“If the reader grants with me that the whole of our life is nothing more than an attempt to fulfill the dreams of our youth, he will understand that it is possible to search throughout the whole of one’s life for a happiness one has enjoyed as a child.” 

I came across the name Maurice Sachs (Maurice Ettinghausen) while reading a review at Book Around the Corner. Sachs sounded like an intriguing character–one of those almost people. Never really the first rank of anything but always hanging on the fringes of the Paris literati. He was born to a Jewish family in 1906. He later converted to Catholicism, and led a rather colourful bohemian life which included a fair amount of scandal and financial skullduggery. During the German Occupation of France, he was part of the forced enlistment of the STO: Service du Travail Obligatoire (Compulsory Work Service). This was conducted under the Vichy government with the result that hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen were shipped to Germany as a labour force.   

There is very little information about Sachs in English on the internet, and some of it is false. According to articles I read, once Sachs was part of the STO he was employed by the Gestapo as a paid informer.  Apparently he ratted people out to the Gestapo but ended up in Fuhlsbuttel prison/concentration camp after refusing to denounce a Jesuit priest. Other articles said that the Gestapo were fed up with Sachs’s false reports. Considering the degree of vilification, it’s all rather vague. The stories of Sachs’ s death are as muddied as some aspects of his life. One version has him lynched by other prisoners he’d informed against, and that after his death he was fed to the dogs, but that version has been debunked. Apparently, in 1945 he was shot while being marched by the SS as they retreated from Fuhlsbuttel; his body was left on the side of the road.

I was intrigued by all this information as it hooks into some of the questions I have about what really went on in France under the Nazi occupation. There are a number of figures whose actions remain murky–were they informers or collaborators or was this a cover for something else? I’ve never lived under an occupation, but this all reminds me of Simenon’s life under German occupation in WWI. Just what is legal and what is illegal shifts according to who makes the rules, and Simenon’s Three Crimes is a wonderful exploration of how some people exploited occupation for their own gains.

But back to Sachs. One of the reasons I read the memoir was because I hoped for clarification on Sachs’s role as an informer. Some sources state that Sachs “made money” by helping Jewish families escape. But then wasn’t it expensive to get the necessary documents? How much did he charge? What was the going rate? How many Jews did he assist to escape? Or did he just take the money and inform against them? There are probably no answers to these questions but at the same time I thought of Dr. Petiot, the mass murderer who in WWI German-occupied France also promised safe passage to S. America, but the Jews who paid his asking price ended up in an incinerator. Was Sachs simply a weak man who sold out his compatriots or did he play a dangerous double game by walking on both sides of the fence? In one sense Sachs doesn’t seem the hero type, but then again, if he played a double game, perhaps it’s difficult to tell just what was in his head. But I can’t erase the fact that he was forced labour for the Nazis, was then stuck in a prison for at least some failure of cooperation only to end up being shot in the head right before the war’s conclusion.

So I came to the memoir expecting some answers. In terms of my expectations I was disappointed. There’s virtually no clarification about exactly what Sachs was up to before his arrest. The book was finished in 1939 with a later (1942) 3 page postscript added. Perhaps if he’d survived he would have modified the memoirs. 

So what is the memoir? It’s a strange hodge-podge of gut-wrenching honesty in which Sachs lays bare his soul while admitting his many flaws and mistakes. But it’s also a study in avoidance. I don’t necessarily blame him for that avoidance; if I had to write a memoir, I’d gloss over some stuff I’d rather not think about or perhaps not even mention it at all. That’s the problem with memoirs. A memoir is a trade-off. We only get one-side, one version in which events may be cherry picked–whereas a well-researched bio will dig into the darkest secrets. Bottom line, I concluded I’d probably have been better off reading a biography of Sachs rather than his memoir.

The book’s strength is in its aphorisms. I could go through the book and select witty and wise sayings galore (along the lines of a minor Oscar Wilde):

Elegance, pleasure, etc., are ruinous tastes which one escapes only by intense specialization or by mediocrity.

I regard myself as a bad example capable of giving good advice.

Theft is as irresistible as physical desire can be on certain nights.

Maurice Sachs’s parents divorced when he was a young child, and this caused some financial hardships. Sachs’s mother sounds feckless and was not much of a money manager, but then again it sounds as though she acted in adulthood exactly as she’d been raised (spend and don’t worry about bills). When Sachs was a teenager, his mother, heavily in debt and facing arrest for writing a rubber cheque for 60,000 francs, swallowed poison (reminds me of Madame Bovary). The poison swallowed was an “insufficient dose” for death; she recovered and Sachs sold his mother’s last piece of jewelry in order to get her out of France before she was arrested. It was, he says:

“The best thing I’ve ever done in my life up to that point, the only human and valuable gesture of my whole existence.”

Yet he was castigated by the rest of the family who “would have prefered” Sachs to take the side of “economic morality.” Sachs adds the details that the cheque was written to “one of the richest men in France,” and that if anything he was the one most wounded by his mother’s fecklessness since he was bankrupted and lost, through his mother’s mismanagement, 700,000 francs “she legally administered.” The incident with Sachs’s mother involving the rubber cheque sets the stage for Sachs’s later attitude towards financial responsibility& debts.  

He recalls being “penniless in the middle of a rich family.” He admits stealing “two sous” as a child from the bag of wealthy visiting relatives in order to buy a tart, but repeat thefts illuminated that the thrill came from  “the anguished delight of the theft” and not the anticipated “craving for an almond tart.” Perhaps being surrounded by those who lacked nothing gave him a taste for luxury while he lacked the necessary means and drive to achieve this lifestyle. Sachs recalls wishing that he had been born a girl, and from this he draws the conclusion that he was predisposed to homosexuality. Sachs, however, did have a few brief adult liaisons with women but found them unfulfilling when compared to his homosexual relationships. Sachs details his childhood, his adolescence, his giddy youth, time in a seminary and his military service, yet he remains deliberately vague when it comes to his relations with some of the great names of the day. When finally unleashed in the salons of Paris and as a frequenter of Le-Boeuf-sur-le-Toit,  Sachs’s charm and fine connections explain why the doors of Paris salons opened to him. Repeatedly.

At times he is mercilessly honest about his character flaws. At one point, he’s barely eating, selling books, when he’s yanked out of poverty and given a job as a secretary which includes room and board. Sachs admits he misused the opportunity, getting into debt and not caring much about his employment. At another point in his varied career, he started a publishing business with Jacques Bonjean. He missed a great opportunity when he failed to publish All Quiet on The Western Front–a book he’d received from Count Kessler via Misia Sert. In typical Sachs style, he admits that the book sat on his desk for four months “during which I had neither the curiosity of the presence of mind to have it read by someone who knew German.”  Later, Sachs gets a job as Chanel’s secretary and claims there was a “misunderstanding.” Other sources state that he stole from her.

There are times when Sachs writes with deep regret and a sense of shame:

The Maurice Sachs who has left irritating memories in the minds of some (and some good impressions in the minds of others, and a mixture of the two elsewhere), the shady, evasive, scheming drunken, prodigal, chaotic curious, affectionate, generous, and impassioned Maurice Sachs  who has always taken shape somewhat in spite of myself, but with my complicity, and who has produced this occasionally repugnant, often attractive personality to which I give so much importance because it is, after all, myself, that Maurice Sachs whom I have since mistreated, humiliated, deprived, then encouraged to do better, whose worse defects I have tried to canalize, whose defects I have tried to develop, this man whose human dignity, along with its attendant virtues, I have never despaired of (since he mattered more to me than anyone else), this man doesn’t bear my true name, but whose circumstances I can no longer change to give him my own because we have come too far together, this Maurice Sachs whose hand along with mine I hope is writing here the confession that closes a cycle of our lives….

While parts of the memoir assume a confessional tone, Sachs is clearly seeking understanding from the reader.

Nothing is this book will be comprehensible if the reader does not admit a constant duality in being, more punctilious, more complicated in its workings than the opposition, in each of us, of good and evil, a doubleness of each of the soul’s impulses:

There’s a self-loathing here that lingers beneath Sachs’s words. He recognised the duality of his nature but seemed unable to control the characteristics that dragged him down, but merged with that self-loathing is no small degree of self-delusion. We see opportunities handed to Sachs squandered, but still he continues on a roller-coaster ride of fortune.

I’ll admit that as an Anglo reader, I missed some aspects of the book. References to René Blum, Jean Couteau, Gide, and Max Jacob had me turning to the internet and some phrases were not translated. Now after reading the book, I have the impression that I saw but a glimpse of Sachs, and this glimpse is distorted–slightly out-of focus.

Book Around the Corner and I decided to read Witches Sabbath and post our reviews at the same time. This is an exercise in alternate reactions to the same material, so check out her response for another opinion

Translated by Richard Howard

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