Sunday, February 13, 2011

Book Review - A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York by Andre Schiffrin

This is a charming memoir by Andre Schiffrin, long-time publisher at Pantheon Books and later The New Press, published in 2007. For me, the memoir breaks down into two parts: the childhood story of leaving France in 1940 and coming to New York and growing up. The second part is Schriffin's intellectual development in America into a strong social democratic and Leftist political intellectual. I will take up the second part in a later blog.

Schiffrin was born in Paris in 1935 to a Russian emigre father and French mother. The father's family had been wealthy oilmen in Baku but the family fortune was swept away in the Russian Revolution of 1917. The father came to Paris and became a successful publisher and then editor at the prestigious Gallimard publishing house, apparently on the recommendation of Andre Gide. The father escorted Andre Gide, the preeminent man of French letters in the 1930s, on his famous trip to Russia in 1936. This was the trip that led to Gide's break with Communism, a much commented upon literary event. Gide did go on to work heart and soul to support the Spanish Republicans in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

With the Nazi occupation of France in 1940, the elder Schiffrin was dismissed because of his Jewish background in August 1940. This began a one-year odyssey for the Schiffrin family to the south of France where they came under sponsorship of Varian Fry, the famous American who was organizing the flight of Jewish and other endangered European artists and intellectuals out of France. The sponsorship was prompted by Gide's intervention, who sort of hovered over the Schiffrin family as a guardian angel for a large number of years. The family followed the refugee trail to Marseilles, Casablance, Lisbon and finally New York, arriving in August 1941. At critical junctures, Gide had provided support and money.

In 1948, and age 13, young Andre was sent back to France for a long stay. He stayed in Paris and later spent a lot of time in the south of France living in the Gide household. Schiffrin here reflects on the effects of the German occupation and the poverty of post-war France. His father never was able to return to his beloved Paris, mostly due to declining health. But also the exiles were not really wanted back. Jean Paul Sartre, who visited the Schiffrin family in New York in 1945, observed that most had been "forgotten." Andre visited the Gallimard publishing operations and Gaston Gallimard's grand apartment in the Palais Royale, but there is a lingering distaste that his father had not been invited back after the war. Schiffrin observes that the history of publishing during the Occupation was a "complicated one."

Schiffrin returned from France, continued on to Yale and then two delightful years at Cambridge University in England. He returned to a career in progressive politics and publishing.

No comments:

Post a Comment