I ran into Marguerite and Joseph Frank a week or so ago in the Coupa Café. He was in a wheelchair, recuperating from a fall, and both were enjoying the sunshine.
They were also reveling the recent publication of Joe’s new collection of essays, Responses to Modernity: Essays in the Politics of Culture (Fordham). They promised to send me a copy of the book – and so they did.
Here’s what Frederick Brown, author of Zola, had to say about the book: “Joseph Frank, noted for his monumental biography of Dostoevsky, is a critic of great cultural breadth, securely grounded in philosophy and in the literatures of America, Europe, and Russia. Responses to Modernity shows him at his best. What it does especially well is survey the intellectual life of France and Germany before and after World War II in the brilliant works that emerged from Europe’s dark night, in the patter of ideological barkers inviting young minds to part the curtain and enter their tents, in the story of those who fought shy of radical creeds and of those who couldn’t resist the lure of primitivism.”
I spent about an hour rambling through its pages the other night, enjoying Joe’s amiable, wide-ranging, and intellectually graceful style (he turns 94 sometime this year, by the way). He tackles the Bucharest triumvirate of Eugène Ionesco, E.M. Cioran, and Mircea Eliade in one essay, such figures as Jacques Maritain and Yves Bonnefoy in others.
I paused on this paragraph on the German occupation of France, in an essay on Herbert Lottman‘s The Left Bank:
“Lottman’s chapters on the German years of the Left Bank are the best of the book because they synthesize so much little-known material and succeed in clarifying a stretch of history that has remained relatively obscure.
“One learns, for example, that the entire French publishing industry collaborated with the Germans in one way or another, and all accepted the restrictions imposed by occupation authorities – such as the banning of all anti-German works, and of course books by Jewish authors.
“Collaboration was made easier by the sympathetic Gerhard Heller, the German officer then placed in charge of French publishing, who admired French culture, deplored Nazi excesses, and often helped his French literary friends out of tight spots. Is it Heller who records in his diary – published in France several years ago, and which enjoyed a succès d’estime – that he wept when the brilliant, gifted, and viciously anti-Semitic Robert Brasillach, the editor of the clamorously collaborationist Je Suis Partout, advocated sending French Jewish children to concentration camps along with their parents.
“Just who collaborated and who was in the resistance is often difficult to determine; Lottman states that a case could be made out, with equal plausibility, for the thesis that everybody collaborated as well as for the one that everybody resisted. For most of the Left Bank notables, “resistance” consisted of little more than writing occasional articles for the clandestine press that gradually sprang into being or, what was slightly more dangerous, helping in its production and distribution.”
Czeslaw Milosz, of course, defected in France, and during those war years, had translated Maritain’s On the Roads of Defeat, an important attack on collaborationism. He had been thoroughly immersed in French culture since his youth – I wondered what he thought about what he saw in postwar Paris.
I remember Robert Hass telling me, about the war years, “Oh, no, but the French didn’t experience what Czeslaw experienced. It was a society that essentially collaborated. The Poles thought existentialism was an improbable bad faith doctrine coming out of a collaborationist culture. They just never bought it.”
Then, the defection – I describe his fear and loneliness and total isolation when he took refuge in to the Kultura offices in Maisons-Laffitte here.