Friday, May 20, 2016

Happy Birthday Balzac

I most recently wrote about an interesting sculpture of Honoré de Balzac that stands on the boulevard du Montparnasse (read below). Two hundred and seventeen years ago on this day the very man was born in Tours, Indre-et-Loire, France.

Balzac is known for his plays and short novels, many of which take place here in Paris. His works were written with such keen observation of human nature that he is attributed as a founder of realism in European literature. Much like today’s “fail fast” mentality, Balzac transitioned through a multitude of attempted professions before finding his calling in writing. After failing through school, he continued on to fail in his attempts to be a lawyer, publisher, printer, businessman, critic, and politician. Balzac even failed to complete his first three novels, only to be followed by great success in his later works and eventually his own statue.

The author’s life serves as inspiration for all those struggling in their pursuits. Sometimes the shoe doesn’t fit, and other times you just have to work a little harder to get it on. As Balzac himself said, “There is no such thing as a great talent without great will power.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Balzac in a Bag

The spot where I meet my groups for the start of my “Lost Generation” Montparnasse walking tour is at the foot of Auguste Rodin’s mighty, larger-than-life bronze statue of Honoré de Balzac. This walk is about the expatriate writers in this part of Paris of the 1920s, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and others. That’s what my walkers are here for.  But before we move off on the walk itself, everyone wants to know about this statue -- and rightly so.  It is a very strange sculpture with a very strange history to match.                                 

In 1891, Emile Zola talked the Société des Gens de Lettres, of which he was the president, into commissioning a statue honoring the founder of their literary society, Balzac, who had died forty years earlier. Rodin, a great fan of Balzac’s writing, was awarded the commission.  He promised to deliver it in eighteen months. After missing several deadlines he finally came up with a model that pleased him: a squat barrel of a Balzac exploding with raw vigor and, other than a band of cloth covering the massive bulge in his crotch, utterly naked.  “Indécent et hideux” was the judgment of the literary society.   

So Rodin went back to his studio and eventually created the final version: the giant Balzac we see today with the  famous monk’s cowl he wore when he was writing cloaking his body from shoulder to foot, a blur of a face, and deep, dark pits for his visionary eyes.  Rodin exhibited the work in a full-sized plaster model at the Salon of 1898.  The critics threw up their hands. They called it “a colossal fetus,” “Balzac in a bag,” “an obese monstrosity,” “a snowman” … Zola liked it, but he was no longer president of the society, and his role in the Dreyfus Case (1898 being the year of “J’accuse”) made him too controversial to be any help to Rodin. The Société des Gens de Lettres rejected the statue.

Four decades later, on July 2, 1939, the statue, now cast in bronze, was installed here on the leafy traffic island at the central crossroads of Montparnasse, the Carrefour Vavin, where the Boulevards du Montparnasse and Raspail intersect, facing the Café Rotonde and Le Dôme.  Another bronze casting of this Balzac statue stands in the garden of the Rodin Museum on the Rue de Varenne in Paris, and inside the museum is the “indécent et hideux” version which was so shocking to the literary society.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Samuel Beckett - Résistant

In a corner of Paris not known at all for its literary figures, a plaque here commemorates one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  “Irish Writer, Nobel Laureate for Literature, Samuel Beckett,” it reads.  The plaque stands in the Allée Samuel Beckett, a block-long stretch of the leafy esplanade of the Avenue René Coty, in the 14th Arrondissement, just down from the Place Denfert-Rochereau. Unimposing though this area may look, it was a key place for Beckett when he was part of the Gloria SMH Résistance network during the Nazi Occupation.  Gloria SMH conducted widespread espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance activities in Paris and Northern France for the British Special Operations Executive, the SOE, in London.  It was life-risking business.  More than 50 members of Gloria SMH would be captured by the Gestapo and sent to German concentration camps.  Many died there, including Beckett’s closest French friend and literary associate Alfred Péron. (Péron is seen in the snapshot, below, in his French Army uniform - taken just before the German invasion in 1940, his wife Mania at his side). 
Beckett needed no coaxing when Péron recruited him for the network on September 1, 1941.  He despised Hitler, Nazism, and racial hatred and was incensed by the forced wearing of the yellow Star of David by Jews.  Thirty-five at the time, Beckett had been living full-time in Paris since 1937, and with Suzanne Deschevaux-Daumesnil, his future wife, since the following year.  She fully supported what he was doing, despite the risks.

Beckett’s work involved translating French documents provided to him by Gloria SMH spies into English and delivering them to a photographer, code name “Jimmy the Greek” or “Tante Léo,” in the vicinity of today’s Allée Samuel Beckett.  The documents would be microfilmed, then smuggled by courier into Vichy France and on to the SOE headquarters in London. The risks for Beckett were many:   He could be arrested by Gestapo agents when documents were delivered to him, documents could be found in searches of his apartment, he could be stopped while crossing the city with the translations, caught as he delivered the documents to the photographer, or -- always a threat -- a member of the network could name names during torture by the Gestapo, or pro-Nazi spies could infiltrate the network.  In the end, a pro-Nazi Catholic priest was the one.  The network was broken.

Allée Samuel Beckett
On August 16, 1942, the Gestapo arrested Alfred Péron.  Fortunately, his wife Mania was able to telegram Beckett and Suzanne and warn them to leave their apartment immediately.  They did as she said, and just in time.  Gestapo agents came to their 15th Arrondissement apartment, ransacked the premises, and stationed guards to wait for them to return. They holed up for a few nights at their friend Mary Reynolds’s apartment at No. 24 rue Hallé, only steps from today’s Allée Samuel Beckett, then moved from hideaway to hideaway in Paris for a month before escaping to the South. They lived clandestinely in the Lubéron for the rest of the war.

As for Beckett’s friend Alfred Péron, he was incarcerated in three prisons in France before being deported to the huge Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where brutal treatment and malnourishment destroyed his health.  The Swiss Red Cross freed him when the camp was finally liberated, but too late.  He died on May 1, 1945. 

Samuel Beckett

Reference:  Damned to Fame, The Life of Samuel Beckett, by James Knowlson, Bloomsbury, London, 1996.