Home > 1930, 20th Century, French Literature, Sachs Maurice > There was champagne in the air but the bubbles faded away.

There was champagne in the air but the bubbles faded away.

Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. 263 pages. Published in 1939. Not translated in English, as far as I know.

One of the unforeseen consequences of my new rule of not buying English books in French translation is that I pay a lot more attention to non Anglophone literature when I visit a bookstore. This is how I discovered Au temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. I was attracted by the edition (Les Cahiers Rouges, by Grasset) and by the foreword comparing Maurice Sachs to Casanova. But there weren’t a lot of biographical details in it, probably for marketing reasons. Indeed, Maurice Sachs managed to be Jewish, Catholic, seminarist, homosexual and informer for the Gestapo. A tour de force.  

Born in 1906, Maurice Sachs (real name Maurice Ettinghausen) was born in a bourgeois family. His family was Jewish but not religious. He was raised by a divorced and unconcerned mother. At 17, he was left alone and had to fend for himself, after his mother flew to England to escape her creditors. Like Marcel Proust, his witty and lively conversation allowed him to enter into the best houses. He was fashionable, handsome and funny. He was a night bird and liked luxury and his first unscrupulous actions dated back to this time. He was frequently seen in gay bars and enjoyed paid sex. He would live two great passions in his life, but both would end badly. People say that even bold and weighting 100kg, he was incredibly attractive. Here is what he wrote about himself and which was apparently pretty accurate:

He gave himself away to a life of schemes and enthusiasms, of jokes and miseries, of makeshifts and pleasures, which brought him from one country to another, from one trade to another. Journalist, actor, friar, civil servant, knight of industry, merchant, critique, spy, factory worker, famous lecturer in the USA then obscure bum. He got drunk with alcohol and dreams, with Nietzsche in one pocket and Casanova in the other.

He was an intimate friend of Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob and has always been interested in literature.

Until WWII, he was nothing more than an amoral scoundrel. WWII made of him a despicable actor on the black market and a collaborationist. In 1942, he joined the S.T.O. in Hamburg and became an agent of the Gestapo. An adventurer like him never had the discipline to follow any rule and the same Gestapo imprisoned him in the very camp where the French résistants he had denounced where kept. When the Germans evacuated the camp in 1945, he was shot on the way by a SS because he didn’t want to walk anymore.  

Honestly, had I known this before, I’m not sure I would have bought the book. Reading him is as controversial as reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline. That’s where I think about the marketing reasons which prevented the publisher to mention these biographical elements on the cover or in the foreword of the book. This always raises the question about collaborationist artists: do we need to take into account what they did and censor them or can we focus on the literary qualities of their work and read them anyway? I’m tempted by the second option, to some extent. I have read Voyage au bout de la nuit by Céline. I finished this book by Maurice Sachs, I would have abandoned it if it had included racist or anti-Semite theories. However, I don’t want to read Drieu La Rochelle.  

In the end, what is this book about? The subtitle is “Journal of a young bourgeois at the time of prosperity. July 14th 1919-October 30th 1929.”, which is a pretty fair summary of the content. The title Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit is a reference to a famous Parisian dancing which was the place to be seen in the 1920s. The name comes from a play by Cocteau. “Without a doubt, the only considerable person of this milieu that had never been to the Boeuf was Marcel Proust. He used to say ‘Ah, I wish I were well enough to go once to the cinema and once to the Boeuf sur le toit’ ”

The dates are important: it starts on the first national day fest after WWI and ends on the Black Sunday, the beginning of the great economic crisis of the 1930s.  The book has three different sections: 1919-1920 is an almost daily account of Maurice’s life. Then nothing is written until 1928, where Maurice catches up the lost time of his journal by including the note books of his good friend Blaise Alias. Finally, 1928-1929, Maurice resumes his journal, but the tone is blasé. He is bored. He’s had enough of parties but remains curious about art and literature.  

It’s difficult to sum up, there is no real plot, just a tale of the moment. And what a decade! As historians say, the 20th C started after WWI. This journal is a testimony of the effervescence of the time. The youth was happy to be alive. The war was over and had washed away old principles. There was an incredible creativity in arts. Arts are on fire. Maurice meets Satie, Debussy, Cocteau, Picasso. He is subscribed to the NRF and discovers Proust. It’s the time when Juan Gris and Picasso are scene painters for the theatre. The times are changing. Sometimes, Maurice reminds us of the remaining flames of the 19th C:

A dire vrai j’ai rencontré dans son salon quelques hommes sans gloire que j’ai trouvé remarquables, parce qu’ils étaient cultivés, curieux et entraînants. J’ai assez souvent l’impression que c’est l’Affaire Dreyfus qui les a conservés, qu’elle les a secoués pour toute la vie. Honestly, I met in her salon some unknown men that I found remarkable because they were educated, curious and entertaining. I often think that the Dreyfus Affair maintained them, that it shattered them forever.

Blaise reports with sadness the death of Marcel Proust; the Jockey Club, where Swann used to go, is relocated.

For me, this journal just brought to life a whole world and put together and under light all the changes encountered in the decade. I enjoyed the anecdotes and the scattered thoughts of Maurice and Blaise. I chose to give you, reader, a taste of it through themes and events that struck me.  

New arts: cinema and photography

L’intoxication cinématographique continue, on ne peut plus s’en passer. Cinema keeps on intoxicating us, it’s an addiction.

Maurice and Blaise report the growing enthusiasm for cinema. In 1919, Maurice regrets that all the films are American. He longs to see French films but is aware that the number of cinemas must first increase to allow films to be widely seen and then profitable. Um. 

The number of cinemas gradually increases in Paris. Maurice and Blaise buy photographies by Man Ray and state that they are as remarkable as paintings.  

Transportation.

Maurice marvels at airplanes, Blaise reports the arrival of Lindberg in Paris after he flew over the Atlantic. It’s the time of transatlantic cruses. But the most important is the multiplication of cars and Blaise ironically notices:

C’est inouï, on ne voit plus que des autos sur l’avenue de l’Opéra. Il ne reste pas un seul cheval, pas un fiacre. It’s incredible; one can only see cars on the Avenue de l’Opéra. There isn’t any single horse or any cab left.

Everyday life and changes in mores

Clothes are less formal. Maurice is happy with it. Landru is on trial: special trains are organized to convey the public to the trial. Women are more independent; girls are allowed to go out at night without a chaperone. Blaise rants about the new place women have in the society: “Women took the fancy to take men’s activities, which is irritating, unless they give up their privileges”. And funny, this commercial, with Blaise’s comment:

« Grâce au rasoir Gillette, une Lady décolletée, dit un communiqué publicitaire, a toujours les dessous de bras blancs et veloutés »Mais au fait, n’est-ce pas une nouveauté d’après-guerre, l’aisselle tondue ? “Thanks to the razor by Gillette, a Lady in a low-necked dress always has white and peachy armpits” the commercial says.But anyway, aren’t shaved armpits a post-war invention?

Some things seem to never change in France.

I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in France you can count on the governments to tax cars and means of communication. Cell phones companies have been the last victims of this creativity but I see this is not a new tendency. Maurice and Blaise point out that TSF and cars are heavily taxed. “If the State isn’t prudent enough, they will put us off automobile for good.” But nothing, even high taxes, can break up the love story between men and cars.

And that one, that made me laugh out loud: “I wanted to take Louise to the theatre, but they are all on strike, even the Français and L’Odéon”. Priceless.

Publishing and art become a business.

Maurice relates anecdotes about Barnes buying paintings to Vollard. For me, these men are now names of art exhibitions and it was strange to read about them alive. Art merchants are more and more numerous:

Le marchand d’art moderne croit détenir un secret qu’il serait seul à partager avec quelques initiés, celui de la grandeur inouïe de l’art moderne. The merchants of modern art believe they own a secret only shared with some persons in the know, ie that of the grandeur of modern art.

Wait, haven’t I heard this before? Changes happen in the publishing world. Bernard Grasset (Actually the publisher of this book) tries new selling methods:

Grasset fait une publicité monstre pour LE DIABLE AU CORPS de Raymond Radiguet. C’est la première fois qu’on emploie au profit d’un livre des méthodes réservées aux savons, laxatifs, etc.Et ça a réussi : le livre se vend. Grasset advertises greatly Le Diable au Corps by Raymond Radiguet. It’s the first time that methods usually applied to soaps, laxatives, etc are used for a book. And it works: the book sells well.

And Blaise regrets the creation of new literary prizes: “There are too many of them. They become tasteless” I wonder what Maurice Sachs would think about our current literary prizes diarrhoea.

America 

It’s Prohibition time and Maurice’s American cousin comes to Paris to drink. Maurice observes his binge drinking and doesn’t understand the draw. I thought that the influence of the American way of life was due to WWII but no, Blaise blankly states

I think that America took a greater place in our lives, progressively, without us noticing it.

Our favourite films are American. We smoke American tobacco. We drink American cocktails, we dance American dances, the ideal feminine face is American, our taste for sports is American, the money we make seems American, even ambition turns out to be American.

It is war and victory that made us so permeable to Americanism.

I suppose it was already felt in this Parisian little world but will spread widely after WWII.  

I can’t help but quoting this “the Chicago Inn is my favourite restaurant because one can eat American cuisine there, which is one of the best in the world”. Poor Maurice hadn’t been to India, China or Morocco, he lacked comparisons. But being French and saying that about American cuisine either throws a doubt on his sanity or questions the damages done by fast-foods.  

Something that struck me because of today’s news: We are in 1923.

“Huge tsunami in Japan: Tokyo 76 600 casualties, 297 000 burnt houses, 36 000 collapsed; in a few minutes thousands of people are burnt alive. Someone who would have fell asleep at 11:55 and woken up at 12:30 could have believed that the hand of a furious god had destroyed the work of several centuries, by a terrible miracle”.

Literary life is abundantly quoted, as new books are published and new movements appear. Literature was a passion for Maurice, his curiosity was endless and his tastes quite sure. Dadaism and surrealism are the children of that time. Many, many writers are quoted and I forgot to list them. What was I thinking? Now I need to browse the book again. For example, he adores Proust. A whole post could be written about Proust and this book.  Lady Chatterley is a scandal but “could only have been written by someone exasperated by the Victorian prejudices.” Ulysse is a masterpiece. Malraux seems interesting. Hemingway leads Maurice into looking at American literature again, Henry James being almost European to him.

In addition, Maurice Sachs could be really caustic:

Dans les matches de l’intelligence, c’est toujours la femme nue qui gagne. In a competition for intelligence, the naked woman is always the winner.

All this is written in a whirlwind of words, thrown on the paper, really figuring the whirlwind of his life. He wanted everything; he gulped down life with avidity until disgust. When reading this, I was hearing jazz and Charleston, seeing women with short hair and cigarette holders. Despite the controversial temper of the author – and that’s an understatement – this remains a fascinating testimony of that period.

I have found an interesting article about Maurice Sachs here (sorry, it’s in French), if anyone is interested.

PS: A last quote, for you, Guy. At the Boeuf sur le toit could be heard « le ton aventurier, gaillard, assuré, satisfait de Simenon »

  1. March 12, 2011 at 3:17 am

    When you say he enjoyed paid sex, did he do the paying or was he the one who was paid?

    The issue of collaborationism raises its head with Simenon since he sold film rights to Continental films.

    Thanks for the quote. I hadn’t heard of Sachs.

    Like

    • March 12, 2011 at 9:33 am

      He paid for sex, according to the articles I’ve read.

      I think you’d be interested in all the details he gives about cinema and the films released at the time. It didn’t speak that much to me, I don’t know of old films enough.

      There’s a biography by Henri Raczymow and some of his books have been translated in English.
      I’m curious to read your upcoming review on Casanova.

      Like

  2. March 12, 2011 at 8:32 am

    This sounds very interesting. I think I would enjoy this. I used to love Céline. I had read Le voyage au bout de la nuit without knowing anything about the author. I still think it is one of the best books of French literature but it is sure hard to forget about the author once you know.
    Sachs’ motivation doesn’t seem to have been anitisemtic or political. It was just a way to make money, right? In this context Guy’s question makes perfect sense, he could have been paid for the sex. But maybe I got you wrong and he was also antisemitic which is very well possible, as we all know, even though he was Jewish.
    The beginning of your post is interesting…

    Like

    • March 12, 2011 at 9:58 am

      “it is sure hard to forget about the author once you know.” That’s exactly the point. There was a controversy about Céline recently. He died 50 years ago and was listed among the personalities to celebrate this year. Jewish organizations protested, Céline was retrieved from the celebrations. Still, Voyage au bout de la nuit is a great book. Talking about him could have been the opportunity to fight against his ugly ideas. It could have been healthy. Plus, putting our heads in the sand and pretend that these people never existed is lying by omission.

      Do we need to stop reading all the writers who behaved like criminals ? For example, Rousseau abandoned his children and we don’t stop reading him. What he did was wrong and awful. But there’s something particularly ugly with collaboration, it is both murdering innocent people and betraying the society. That makes me think of Edith Wharton’s distinction between public and private offences in a French mind. Collaboration is a public offence contrary to abandonning children.

      You got me right, I don’t think Sachs was anti-Semitic. He was an opportunist without any qualms. He just had no moral compass. I don’t know what’s worse, actually : to have someone do horrible things because they believe in a lethal ideology or behave like a low life for money. At least you can buy the last ones and make them change their mind.

      Like

      • March 12, 2011 at 10:02 am

        Caroline : have you ever read CF Ramuz? I found one of his books, Aline also published by Grasset in the collection Cahiers Rouges.

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      • March 12, 2011 at 11:35 pm

        I know several people who swore off Woody Allen after the scandal.

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  3. March 12, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Yes I read some of Ramuz books he is one of my father’s favourites. He urged me so often I finally read a few but not Aline. One I want to re-read is La grande peur dans la montagne. I don’t like the Swiss Alps, they almost scare me, he captures the scary aspect of the mountains very well. Mountainous landscapes are too violent for my taste. That’s why the English landscape is one of my very favourite.
    I always wanted to read Mort à crédit but never managed so far.
    I think personally I despise people who stay passive much more than those who really do wrong by choice. It’s absurd, as the result is the same, but someone working for the Gestapo to make money still seems not as bad as when they did it because they were anti-Semites.

    Like

    • March 12, 2011 at 11:48 am

      I know what you mean about mountains. Have you ever been to Grenoble? I couldn’t live there. These big bare mountains all around the city make me anxious. I don’t know English lanscapes, I’ll see some soon though.
      btw, I’m not crazy about books describing mountain climbing. I get bored.

      Like

      • March 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm

        Never read a book about mountain climbing to be honest but it doesn’t sound gripping.

        Like

  4. March 12, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    I have never read a book on mountain climbing. It does not sound gripping at all! This will be your first time in England? I hope you will like it. You wanted to make a book themed trip, right? Will you manage to visit Bath? I think it is one of my favourite cities in the world.

    Like

    • March 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm

      I’ve read Into the Wild and tried Frison-Roche when I was young.
      I’ve been to London. Yes, we will visit Bath.

      Like

  5. March 13, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Do you think his memoirs would be good reading?

    Like

    • March 13, 2011 at 6:11 pm

      I was tempted by the memoirs, actually or by the bio. But I think I’d enjoy the memoirs better, I like his style.

      Like

      • March 13, 2011 at 9:16 pm

        The memoirs are available in English. Don’t know about the bio. The memoirs could be a lot of fun.

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        • March 13, 2011 at 9:30 pm

          I think so. Do you want to coordinate and read them at the same time? (the “when” is another problem)

          Like

  6. March 14, 2011 at 2:03 am

    I ordered a copy. Yes coordinating would be an interesting experience. I read a rather gruesome version of his death on wikipedia.

    Like

    • March 14, 2011 at 9:52 am

      I ordered a copy too. I found a review of the bio and they say the gruesome version isn’t true. The bio seems well documented. (It’s the link in my review, but it’s in French)

      Like

  7. March 14, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    I am going to start work on translating that article as it will be good practice for me anyway.

    Perhaps we can coordinate reading the Sachs and then post the same day or something like that?

    Like

    • March 14, 2011 at 3:51 pm

      I helped you, I already translated in my post the quote by Sachs included in the article. Do you want me to look at your translation when you’re done?
      Yes, that’s a good idea. It’s going to be interesting.

      Like

      • March 15, 2011 at 1:58 am

        I’m doing ok. Translated the first two paragraphs so far.

        Like

        • March 15, 2011 at 9:00 am

          OK, feel free to ask if you need any help.
          Perhaps you could upload a pdf file of your translation in your review of the memoirs.

          Like

  8. March 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    A shame it’s not translated because it sounds marvellous. I find the 20s fascinating. In many ways it’s one of my favourite decades, probably because I didn’t have to live in it

    It’s a funny thing about the past. It’s easy to imagine oneself hanging out in Paris dancing to jazz and drinking pernod. The reality though is most of us would be serving the pernod or sitting at a less appealing table wishing those people over there dancing to jazz would shut up for a moment so we could eat in peace.

    Like

    • March 15, 2011 at 3:15 pm

      The memoirs are translated.

      You’re right about the image we have from the past. The 1920s are the time of my great grand-parents. If I think of what they were doing at that time, I suppose my 4 great grand-fathers were happy to be in France : one to be away from Mussolini, one to have left Italian poverty behind and the two others were probably rejoicing to be French again after the German occupation of Lorraine. None of them was dancing jazz and admiring Picasso, as far as I know.

      However, these people don’t drink Pernod. They drink cocktails (a novelty in the 1920s coming from the USA) and champagne. You and I would have been drinking Pernod (Pastis, actually, since Pernod is a brand) as it is a drink from the working class. But it is a Southern drink, I’m not sure it was popular in the North at that time. Popular classes were probably drinking white wine.
      Is Pernod part of the romantic image of France abroad ? Because here and now, it’s more the drink of old people. Nobody drinks pastis around me. I have some at home only for cooking purpose.

      Like

      • leroyhunter
        March 15, 2011 at 9:59 pm

        When I was a teenager, Pernod mixed with blackcurrant was a popular drink as the (to young palates) disgusting taste was disguised without affecting the turbo-charged effect of the booze.

        Pernod & black was colloquially known as “the leg-opener”, which I suppose from a certain point of view could be considered romantic…

        Like

        • March 15, 2011 at 10:15 pm

          Pernod and blackcurrant ? I’ve never heard of this, but after a little research, it seems to be called a “canisse” in French.
          I’m not a fan of Pernod anyway, it’s a strong taste. When I hear the name, I see an old peasant with a beret. That’s the image. So when I was a teenager, drinking Pernod wasn’t cool at all.

          Like

    • March 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm

      Max: I just bought an el-cheapo copy of the memoirs as I couldn’t find this reviewed book in English. I love memoirs anyway.

      Like

  9. March 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    Book Around The Corner: It’s not a brilliant translation or anything I’d be proud of–just enough for me to understand what they’re talking about. Anyway, on to the next section….

    Like

    • March 15, 2011 at 8:10 pm

      I knew you would answer that and and I’m sure you underestimate what you’re doing. But of course, it’s up to you.
      It could have been useful for other readers, as I have been too lazy to translate it in English myself.

      Like

  10. March 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    I thought Hemingway mentioned Pernod. Perhaps I misremember. There’s a restaurant in London, Hawksmoor, that does retro and period cocktails. Some tremendous mixes in fact. I’m quite a fan.

    The book tempted me more than the memoirs, but the memoirs may be worth trying. I’ll wait to see what Guy makes of them.

    Like

    • March 15, 2011 at 7:58 pm

      I don’t know a lot of Hemingway’s life. Was he staying with rich and fancy people or rather mixing in bars? In bars, he can have drunk Pernod.

      This book could find its public, too bad it hasn’t been translated. A small publishing house could be interested, no?

      Like

      • March 15, 2011 at 8:04 pm

        I was thinking of his novels more, I don’t really know anything about his life.

        But yes, they were in bars so that’ll be the explanation.

        Like

  1. May 1, 2011 at 8:56 am
  2. July 26, 2013 at 11:07 pm
  3. May 30, 2014 at 11:14 pm

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