Charles Glass, who lives in London, is an old friend of mine. He is, moreover, a member of White’s; a witty conversationalist; an American with impeccable manners; immaculate, if slightly Brooks Brothers conservative, in his dress; and almost universally liked. Hence the fact that he has published, to near unanimous critical acclaim in Britain, a book that is both interesting and unusual is more than a little galling. We do not always like it when old friends succeed.
The prospect of an academically inclined, or at any rate heavily researched, volume on the fate of the American community in Paris under the Nazi occupation may strike some, as it did me, as a rather dry proposition. It brought to mind the predicament of the late Curtis Cate, another expatriate friend of mine, who used to contribute a spirited “Letter From Paris” to these pages. All his life dear Curtis wrote the sort of expensively researched books one comes upon as one leafs listlessly through catalogs of American university presses, yet he was writing them without foundation support and hoping to unload them on mainstream publishers. It was a dog’s life, perhaps a martyr’s.
“If Charlie is going to write about Americans in Paris under the Nazis,” I had been thinking, as the stubborn scribbler swapped mansards for garrets and shuttled between the sun of the Continent and the slush of London in the building of his juggernaut, “why doesn’t he go for a novel?” Well, I had been wrong. Americans in Paris is as riveting a read as any commercial blockbuster, despite the magically irrelevant detail that it sports a full hundred pages of notes and bibliography at the end.
What makes the book so unexpectedly thrilling is the author’s fierce, almost puritanical, reluctance to infuse the material he is molding into a story with his own ideas. The result is the historian’s version of “found art.” The plots, the characters, the people and their predicaments, seem to have a life of their own, as a piece of polished driftwood on the wall of a billiard room may conjure up some evocative shape, here a dragon, there a girl in a bikini. If to say of an historian that he does not preach is a compliment, then Glass is truly remarkable in that he does not so much as suggest, imply, or hint.
“The War was certainly uncomfortable,” recalled Jocelyn Brooke, believed by Anthony Powell to have been one of the few exceptional writers to have surfaced in England since World War II, “but not to be compared with the horrors of an English prep school.” When, years ago, I came across this passage—and quite a few similar ones, in the writings of both British and continental authors—I instinctively dismissed it as a ludicrous understatement, wherein the hard involucre of glibness was probably protecting a delicate pupa of braggadocio. Only after reading Americans in Paris do I now regard the sentiment it conveys as a near literal truth. The war, for many in Europe as well as in the United States, was very much a picnic. But for the tens of millions who had died, like my own grandfather, from being shot or bombed, it might well be remembered by the survivors for the refreshing change of diet and scenery it had occasioned.
Of death, as in the “Life and Death” of the subtitle, there is, in fact, hardly any in these pages. But that, in and of itself, is not quite as staggering as the almost scandalously unadorned and almost comically uninterrupted cushiness of everyday life, which is revealed as little more taxing in occupied Paris than in nominally autarchic Vichy.
Thus, in June 1942, Dr. Hermann Fuchs, “Bibliotheksschütz or ‘protector’ of libraries in German-occupied Europe,” called on the newly appointed director of the 100,000-volume American Library in Paris. True to Hogan’s Heroes and associated scenarios, the lady expatriate would later recall that Dr. Fuchs had “the stiffest back and the most piercing spectacles.” Whereupon, after what she described as “a very full interrogation,” the bespectacled, fearsomely Lavrenty Beria-like villain spoke to her as follows:
I gave my word that this Library should be maintained open during the war. I am glad that you feel able to assume its responsibilities. You have but to continue in the same way as your predecessor and subscribe to the same rules.
“The rules,” Glass comments dispassionately, “were that the library was forbidden to sell any of its books or furniture, to raise the salaries of the staff and, though Dr Fuchs neglected to restate it, to admit Jews.” June 1942, it may be recalled, was a geopolitical eternity before Stalingrad, before the battle at Kursk and Orel, before the Italian armistice. Hitler, in short, was riding high. For a representative of a world-crushing power to treat an enemy emplacement the way Dr. Fuchs does here—gingerly “neglect[ing] to restate” that the Jews, for which the Americans, bizarrely, are known to have a soft spot, have been disenfranchised—is, at least in such terms of reference as I had the privilege of being asked to accept throughout my Soviet adolescence, worse than laughable. It is irresponsible, undisciplined, and finally treasonable.
Another enemy redoubt was the American Hospital, which remained open throughout the occupation of Paris. Here the emplacement was not solely ideological, as in the case of the library, but was actually a hotbed of Allied intelligence activity, complete with ciphered messages, radio signals, and shot-down RAF pilots hidden in the hospital’s basement to await clandestine repatriation through the Resistance networks with which Dr. Sumner Jackson—its American head of surgery and earlier an officer in the British army—was secretly in contact. Had it been Stalin who had occupied Paris, NKVD operatives would have boiled Dr. Jackson and his family alive in motor oil, as a precautionary measure, well before they took it upon themselves to establish the facts in this case of espionage. Instead, up to the very end the Gestapo treated the American Hospital, and the Allied agents within, with the same delicacy of feeling with which the fearsomely bespectacled Bibliotheksschütz had approached the American Library.
“You don’t understand that anyhow. You don’t know Joyce,” said Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop, to a German officer “who had got out of a huge grey military car” attracted by a copy of Finnegans Wake in her window. “But we admire James Joyce very much in Germany,” the book-burning Nazi objected. Then he got back into “his great military car, surrounded with other fellows in helmets, and drove away,” only to return some days later, by turns begging and threatening Beach so she would sell him the little book he was coveting. The beacon of civilization would not be dimmed, however, and once again the Nazi “disappeared in a rage, booming down the street.” I think this episode alone does more to overturn some of modern history’s half-baked clichés than volumes of “revisionist” writings of the kind that it is nowadays fashionable to decry or to suppress, but the marvelous thing here is the author’s deadpan delivery.
These are but three of the dozen institutional flashpoints, among the many points of conflict between the 2,000 or so Americans who were, ipso facto since December 11, 1941, when Hitler declared war on the United States, agents of a hostile power in France, and the Germans who were never sure what to do with them. What a majority of the troublesome aliens seemed to have had in common was the unambiguous political latitude that allowed them to cultivate unambiguous moral certitude, notably with respect to the ruthless invaders who had extended it to them in the first place.
All these points of conflict or, at other times, merely of contact—familial, social, and intellectual—are carefully woven by Glass into the narrative, and each of them, thanks to the absolute equanimity with which the message is delivered time after time, packs a walloping punch of novelty. Charlie has written a good book, and I rather envy him.
[Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation 1940-44, by Charles Glass (London: HarperPress) 524 pp., £20.00]