Maurice Barrès is hardly a name in the United States, even to American conservatives who could learn a great deal from his fiction and essays. A collaborator of Charles Maurras, Barrès had a deeper understanding of blood-and-soil conservatism than most Americans can grasp, and his celebration (in this book) of Metz under Yankee—I mean Prussian—occupation should resonate with many.
Born in the small town of Charmes in Lorraine, he attended a lycée in nearby Nancy, the locale for one of his most influential books (Les déracinés). In Paris he became, though the combination is somewhat paradoxical, a Romantic individualist, a socialist, and increasingly a nationalist. Eventually, it was the nationalism that triumphed, though of a peculiar sort, rooted in the soil of Lorraine. Lorraine, especially in the East along the Rhine, was very much a frontier zone between France and Germany, but it also gave birth to Jeanne d’Arc, the embodiment of the French nation. Barrès was very alive to this paradox, and, much as South Texans are among the most passionately American people in the United States, Lorrainers could be more self-consciously French than the inhabitants of more secure regions. Tragically, large parts of Lorraine were surrendered to the Germans in 1870, at the end of Louis Napoleon’s ill-advised war. Barrès was eight years old.
The author’s Lorraine, then, was occupied territory undergoing its own kind of Reconstruction, as the German Empire did its best to Germanize the population. Barrès, ardent Lorrainer and ardent French nationalist, beat the drum emphatically for the bloody and costly revenge known as the First World War. Colette Baudoche, published in 1908, is both a fine work of fiction and a magnificent piece of nationalist and regionalist propaganda.
I picked up this book from my modest French collection over the weekend for the sole purpose of practicing the language. While I admire Barrès for Les déracinés (the uprooted), a novel that takes up the evil effects of cosmopolitanism on intelligent young men from Nancy, and La colline inspirée, a reflective essay on the significance of landscape and geography for human culture, I did not expect to be more than mildly interested in this novel. Instead, I could hardly put it down and set aside a new Wodehouse book (The Girl on the Boat) I was looking forward to reading in my hammock as my patient wife labored in her garden.
Colette Baudoche, which is quite short, is available online. By the time I get into the book, some form of our forum should be operating.
The novel is set in Metz in the early 20th century. Colette and her grandmother occupy one floor of a respectable house. The conquest of Metz, the death of Colette’s father, and the departure of most of their relatives have left them impoverished but respectable. Neither has much use for Germans, and the grandmother has bitter memories of the conquest and humiliation imposed by the people they call, alternately, Prussians and Schwobs. The two ladies keep body and soul together by making dresses, a task that keeps them occupied a good twelve hours a day. To make ends meet–and to scrape together a small dowry for Colette–Mme Baudoche has decided to rent out the nicer half of their apartment, but months have passed and there are no takers. Ironically, they do get a tenant, a young German teacher from Koenisburg.
Dr. Asmus is part German stereotype–a giant with big hands with crude manners and clumsy sentimentality–and part Romantic idealists. Unlike too many of his colleagues, he looks forward to the opportunity of improving his French. While he stolidly insists upon the superiority of Germans in nearly every respect, he cannot help admiring the neatness of the French, their cheerfully mocking spirit, their sense of beauty. The subject of the novel is his growing love of all things French, including, naturally young Colette.
But I did not select this novel for the love story. What is most interesting is Barrès celebration of Lorraine (and France) and his portrayal of a decent German whose reading of Goethe and other great German writers has rendered capable of appreciating it. I’ll briefly take up the three scenes in which Asmus confronts the subtle elegance of free Nancy, appreciates the faded beauties of a village under German occupation, and a witnesses a memorial service for the French soldiers killed in resisting the Germans. Before that, however, there is Barrès’ own philosophy to consider.
Barrès regards Metz less like a provincial town and more like a city-state with its own civic identity. In my next Chronicles piece I had intended to take this up but ran out of space. Near the beginning he comments:
“The Messins (people of Metz, pronounced Mess in French) before the war, all soldiers or relatives of soldiers, lived in daily contacts with the agricultural region. The rentiers had their farms there, the merchants their buyers, and the most modest family family dreamed of a country house where each autumn they would go to supervise the grape harvest. All that produced an atmosphere very proper to the conservatijon of the old French type. Who has not known, reflected on this city, perhaps does not know the value of a civilization formed in the habits of agriculture and war.”
I think Southerners, especially, can appreciate this.
In the course of this brief tale, the somewhat comical Asmus becomes more and more infatuated with the decency of French culture, the restraint, the light-heart, the cleanliness. Spending the day in Nancy, he is enchanted with the Place Stanislas, named, I can only imagine, for Louis XV’s Polish father-in-law who was given Lorraine to rule before it was incorporated into France. As he falls in love with France, Asmus naturally is falling for Colette, whom he cannot help mentally contrasting with the philosophically serious Brunhilde he left behind. In the beginning he reads her pretentious letters to the French ladies and proudly shows off the scarf she has knitted from her own hair.