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When our qualities are off wandering, what can we do with ourselves?

May 1, 2011 27 comments

Le Sabbat by Maurice Sachs (302 pages) 1939. English title : Witches’ Sabbath.

I was interested in reading Maurice Sachs’s memoirs, Le Sabbat after enjoying his Au Temps du Boeuf sur le Toit, which I reviewed here. As Guy Savage was interesred too, we coordinated and read it at the same time. So another post is published on his blog.  I recommend to read his review as it will show these memoirs in another light.

 Maurice Sachs was born in 1906, in a bourgeois family in Paris. He was of Jewish origin but never went to the synagogue. He has few memories of his childhood, except his English nurse Suzy and his wish to be a girl. His parents were divorced, he was living with an indifferent mother (very close to the character of Mrs Farrange in What Maisie Knew, now that I think of it) and never heard about his father after he left. He was sent to boarding school where he learnt nothing useful but read a lot and definitely accepted to be gay. Back from school, he spent a few years with his newly-wed mother. He lived his first true love with a boy named Oscar, a feeling he says he’d struggle to relive all his life.

When his mother inherited a large sum, she decided to manage it herself and went bankrupt. His world collapsed and he helped her evading to Great-Britain to avoid prison for debts. He was 15 when it happened, was left alone and had to fend for himself as almost all their acquaintances turned their back on him. After a while, he decided to join his mother in London, where he worked for a twelve-month as a bookseller. He chose to come back to France in 1922. He was only 16.

1922 was a turning point in his life.

Le Maurice Sachs louche, fuyant, combinard, ivrogne, prodigue, désordre, curieux, affectueux, généreux et passionné, ce Maurice Sachs qui s’est formé toujours un peu malgré moi, mais avec ma complicité et qui a donné ce personnage parfois répugnant, souvent attachant, auquel je donne tant d’importance parce qu’il est quand même moi, (…) ce Maurice Sachs dont j’espère qu’il écrit ici avec cette main qui est la sienne et la mienne la confession qui clôt un cycle de notre vie, date vraiment de ces premiers jours de l’année 1922 quand je revins d’Angleterre.

This Maurice Sachs who is shady, elusive, a real schemer, a drunkard, untidy, curious, loving, generous and passionate; this Maurice Sachs who grew up in spite of me but with my complicity and who turned into that repulsive but sometimes touching character and to whom I’m so attached because he is me anyway (…); this Maurice Sachs who writes this confession that closes a period of our life and hopefully writes it with this very hand that is both his and mine; this Maurice Sachs really dates back to those early days of 1922 when I came back from England. Chapter 9

In 1922, he started partying in Paris; it was the time of Au Boeuf sur le Toit, a place where the golden youth of that time used to hang out. He was part of Cocteau’s crowd and he adored him like an idol. He was his fan, worshipping the ground Cocteau walked on. He was 16 and had the same enthusiasm for Cocteau than a nowadays teenager could have for a rock star.

Thanks to Cocteau, Maurice Sachs met Jacques Maritain, a Catholic devout. He changed of guru, converted to Catholicism, planned to become a priest and got in a seminary. No one seemed more ill-fitted for seminary life than him. (apart from Casanova maybe?). After a few months of happiness and peace in blissful rituals, strict routine and soothing prayers, chastity became a burden. He left the seminary.

He was due to military service and had to spend 18 months as a soldier. He didn’t want to be an officer. He rather enjoyed life in the army, which is highly improbable for someone not so keen on discipline. There was no such rule as “Don’t ask, don’t tell” but he thought it more prudent to hide he was gay and manfully survived through his relationship with a girl who had elected him as her man of the moment. The other soldiers thought he was lucky, it was impossible to refuse such a gift.

Back to civilian life, he came back to Paris and had an awful meeting with André Gide. He worked as a librarian for Coco Channel, tried to be part of the high society of the Boulevard Saint Germain, always spending more that he could afford and thus always running after money.

After a while, he shipped himself to New York to manage an art gallery. A failure. Introduced in the NY society, he was hired as a speaker for a tour of the USA. During that tour, he met Gwladys, who wanted to get married to liberate from her parents and leave her little town of Morpheus. On a whim, Sachs proposed to her and she accepted. They got married in Morpheus after he converted to their Presbyterian faith. Unsurprisingly, the whole marriage turned into a big failure and he abandoned her. It was the kind of departure where the guy goes out to buy cigarettes and never comes back. Sachs writes “I had married her like a crazy man; I left her like a coward”.

In California he met Henry; they fell passionately in love and Maurice Sachs persuaded him to come back to Paris with him. After a few months of happiness in the country near Chartres, they were back to Paris. Their come back was a slow go down into the underworld of poverty. They were filthy poor, lived in a dump hotel, the Hôtel Saint-Joachim, among a strange crowd of semi-artists. Maurice Sachs drank heavily and spent his time chasing after money.

When Maurice Sachs wrote his memoirs, in 1939, he was only 33. Really young to write memoirs. I think he wrote this book when he was in rehab for alcoholism. It’s an exorcism. He tries to slough off his former self, the hateful Maurice Sachs who, as quoted before, was born in 1922. He wants it to be a resurrection, at 33, the age Jesus was when he died and resurrected. I’m not sure it is a coincidence.

Maurice Sachs had no moral roots, no principles. He just grew up like a weed. He was lazy, crazy, always making a fool of himself and always full of himself too. No idea of grandeur was foreign to him. That same grandeur that turned men into heroes during WWII turned him into a weed. His male models were either weirdos, debauchees or saints. He never compared himself to average men, to reachable models.

He was aware of his vices and aimed at virtue but he lacked persistence and temperance. Words like “decency”, “integrity” or “honesty” were in his dictionary but as a vague ideal he couldn’t reach for himself. This book can only foresee what he would do during WWII, black market, work for the Gestapo. As long as there was money to be earned, no moral issue could get in the way.

He drank heavily, tried drugs. And yet, with all this, he managed to be a member of the prestigious reading committee of the NRF (Nouvelle Revue Française) He always kept in touch with the literary world. How charismatic, witty and intelligent he must have been for people to help him along the way despite his despicable flaws. In the last years of these memoirs, he had started to write plays and novels but he doesn’t talk about his literary work.

For some reason, the guy was incapable to work. He could have been a waiter, a cleaner or whatever instead of living in misery in a dump hotel. It seems that having a regular job was impossible to him. He was too snob, too lazy for that. He had so much pride and blinded confidence in luck and in his personal qualities. He was a gambler. He gambles his life, bet on his qualities and always expected a turnaround of luck.

Maurice Sachs was a homosexual and I appreciated how he casually describes his sexual preferences in this book, although it was still a crime at the time. His lack of moral education was an advantage on that field. He was never taught to think homosexuality as a deviance. Cocteau was homosexual too and so was Proust. He knew he wasn’t alone and had great models in mind.

I thought his memoirs a little dry; I would have liked more anecdotes or thoughts about society and “l’air du temps”. I enjoyed the chapter about Proust and Albert, the model for Jupien. The description of Morpheus is really vivid and the other inhabitants of the Hôtel Saint-Joachim are depicted in a colourful manner. Sachs had a real literary style, rather close to Kessel for example. They were from the same generation and the reader can feel the imprint of the time. The syntax is still traditional; he uses the “imparfait du subjonctif”, a past tense nobody uses any more. It’s not heavy, it’s formal, more formal than Gary’s first short stories I read lately. He sounds a bit old fashioned too, like when he uses such expressions as “the age of manhood”. It would also be interesting to compare his style to Saint-Exupéry’s, another writer of that generation. As shown in the next quote, Sachs could write well but he was not innovative.

Je revois la commode bien polie et je ne sais quelle odeur de confort me monte aux narines, comme si le salon sentait le pain frais; quel appétit me revient du poulet du dimanche que l’on mange le cœur content.

I recall the well-polished drawers and a scent of comfort reaches my nostrils as id the living-room smelled of fresh bread; I’m reminded of Sunday chicken that one eats with a contented heart and a heartily appetite. (chapter 13)

I translated the quotes and I found Sachs really hard to translate into English. Curiously, Sachs mentions that being a writer was the first career path he thought of. Writing was important to him but he seldom evokes his literary work but for the last chapters.

There is a lot of name dropping in this book. It didn’t bother me, it came naturally to Maurice Sachs. He lived in the literary world and literature was the one and only topic he really studied.

His work is full of literary references: he sees himself as a Balzacian heroe, as a new Julien Sorel. Proust is hovering over his shoulder as THE model, I think. He’s hidden in that sentence “C’est pourquoi elle était revenue y terminer ses jours pour tenter to recapture the past The English translation would be “She came back to end her life here in an attempt to recapture the past. In English, Time Recaptured is the last volume of In Search of Lost Time... The following quote reminds me of Candide by Voltaire:

Il faut être son propre jardinier : arracher ses mauvaises herbes, faire côte à côte avec soi-même le terrible chemin et quand on se dégoûte trop, suer les odeurs mauvaises, travailler, travailler jusqu’à ce que l’âme soi nette. Car il ne faut se remettre à personne le nettoyage de son être, à Personne. Sur cette route solitaire et brûlante, il y a pourtant des poteaux indicateurs. Il faut les examiner, suivre certains indications, repartir. Personne en chemin, personne à l’arrivée ; quelques bras tendus sur la route. You have to be your own gardener: pull out your weeds, walk the dreadful path side by side with yourself and when you’re disgusted with yourself, sweat out the bad smells and work, work until your soul is all cleaned up. Because you can’t rely on anybody to clean up your soul. On Nobody. On this lonely and scorching path, there are road signs though. You need to watch them carefully, follow some of the instructions, resume walking. Nobody on the way, nobody at the arrival; some arms held on the road. Chapter 13

Doesn’t Mlle Viaud who lives in the Hôtel Saint-Joachim look like La Cousine Bette?

J’y trouvais Mlle Viaud, une petite noiraude au visage tanné, aux mains sèches, qui faisait de la couture mais était l’âme des potins qui circulaient d’étage en étage avec une incroyable rapidité. Here I found Mademoiselle Viaud, petite, dark-haired with a tanned face, dry hands, who used to sew but was the soul of the gossips that circulated from stair to stair at an incredible speed. (chapter 32)

When he’s in the army, his lover’s name is Lisbeth and she sorts of force him into the relationship. Does he think himself as the Stanislas that Lisbeth (La Cousine Bette) loves and who has to put up with it? Is Lisbeth her real name or was it just for the literary reference?

Sachs also plays with words and knowing Guy was reading the English translation, I often wondered how the translator had fared with specific passages or translated double meanings of words. Here is an example at the end of chapter 14:

Tout en nous croit en elle, comme tout de nous a crû neuf mois en elle du jour de la fécondation” (All in us believes in her, like all of us have grown nine months in her from the day of fertilization). Sachs plays with the conjugation of “croire” (believe) and “croître” (grow). So the sentence could also be translated as All in us grows in her, like all of us have believed in her from the day of fertilization. Only the ^ on “cru” lets the reader know that the first meaning is the good one. Orally, the sentence can be understood in both ways.

I’d be curious to know what the translator did with “J’aurais aimé la voix d’une femme qui dit “mon ami” et qui veut dire “mon amant”, ce vouvoiement qui tutoie” (chapter 18) , which means I would have loved the voice of a woman who says “my friend” and means “my lover”, addressing to me as a “tu” but saying “vous”. In French, “mon ami” can be used for friend, lover or partner. Only the inflection of the voice can tell you what the person intends to say.

Like Rousseau in Les Confessions, Sachs is looking for the reader’s compassion. Though he doesn’t show any indulgence for his vices and never tries to present himself as a victim, he wants the reader to forgive him all the things he has done. I didn’t find Maurice Sachs likeable because of his unquenchable need for money combined with his laziness. Post Office was a novel about a drunkard and Bukowski is not a model for virtue. But he worked hard in that post office, enduring horrendous hours and dreadful working conditions. Maurice Sachs was never able to keep a position for long without taking advantage of it. Of course, you can always argue that he had a miserable childhood and that no one really took care of him during his formative years. That’s an explanation, not an excuse.

In the 1960s, Maurice Sachs would have been Jim Morrison, enjoying fame, money, sex, booze and drugs while dreaming of being Rimbaud or some other literary model.

In the 1980s, he would have been a well-read John Self, the fictional character of Money by Martin Amis. With his rotten background, he would have written commercials, enjoyed money, sex, booze, cocaine and would have died of AIDS before the end of the decade.

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