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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.

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

March 11, 2011 36 comments

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 »

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