Thursday, December 16, 2010

Book Review - "And the Show Went On" by Alan Riding

I posted this review of Alan Riding's excellent new book "And the Show Went On" about cultural life in Paris during the German Occupation of the early 1940s. This book will be discussed in more detail since there are several interesting themes and threads covered by the book. And of course, some of these themes echo to the present day. And most of the characters had their roots in the cultural landscape of Paris of the 1930s.

France was the major cultural space of the western world in the 1920s and 30s. But it was increasingly wracked by intense cultural conflict in the 1930s between a reactionary and anti-Semitic Right and a socialist and often Communist Left. Intellectuals in the two camps engaged in literary warfare against a wider cultural backdrop of world-class art, music, ballet, and theater.

Then came 1940 and total political defeat. The German Occupation became a petri dish in which to gauge how different individuals and groups reacted under an often deathly stress. Many French gave a grudging acquiescence to the Vichy government under old Marshal Petain since when you lose, you lose. Many turned against this government "by stooge." After Germany invaded Russia in 1941, the French Communists organized and executed a highly effective and very brave resistance. Many non-Communist resistants also joined the overall movement. So there was a small, vibrant underground cultural resistance.

More interesting is the journey of the Right Wing writers. From being hate-filled polemicists in the 1930s, this group now had the power through their magazines to denounce other Frenchmen and cause their arrest by the Germans, possible deportation to concentration camps, or simple execution in France. Somewhere in here you find the Seventh Circle of Cultural Hell. The irony was that many were brilliant writers and thinkers who took a wrong turn in their personal development, the lure of the romance of extreme ideology with its promise of total commitment so beloved by intellectuals. This is one of the most fascinating sections of Riding's book.

Another interesting section is the account of American Florence Gould, who hosted a very popular salon in Paris during the Occupation. She was also involved in shady financial shenanigans with high-ranking Nazis in a Monaco bank. She said she did this to protect her husband, who was suspected of being Jewish. After the war, she survived investigations into possible collaboration and went on to become a prestigious supporter of the arts and recipient of the French Legion d'Honneur. Riding concludes, "Over the years, Florence's wartime salon and her questionable choice of friends have been quietly forgotten." Money buys prestige buys "understanding" from the right people for the right people.

The last section deals with the "epuration," or period of revenge starting with the Liberation and lasting into the peacetime years. This became the mirror-image of the denunciations by the Right Wing writers--a period of false denunciation, settling scores, and for many the safety of silence.

What is not emphasized, but does come out, is that many average French people and workers behaved well under difficult circumstances while many of the elite and privileged behaved rather badly. This book is a beautiful exposition of how a good people behaved in an awful war.

1 comment:

  1. Good luck with your new blog. Looks like a fascinating subject. I do like history and Paris. I've taken high school students there twice. Paris under the Nazis is something I know very little about.