“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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