I wrote last month about my latest translation, Clouds over Paris, which I’m delighted was chosen by Hatchards as its non-fiction Book of the Month, and has been featured in The New European. I also wrote about the book for Hatchards’ blog, the text of which I thought I would reproduce here.
In September 1952, in his literary monthly Les Temps Modernes, Jean-Paul Sartre published fifteen pages of ‘Notes et impressions’, translated by Colette Audry and Marina Stalio from a German book published in 1950 entitled, Von unten gesehen:
Unlike many accounts of war, this book has not undergone any redrafting since. The events have not afforded the author any opportunity to repent. One appreciates all the more the keenness of his eye in lines written day by day, the cold detachment of this foreign observer, and the curious quality of expression.
Years later, another French Nobel Laureate, Patrick Modiano, came across the translation and was likewise struck by it, recalling it in his own book, Dora Bruder:
[the author] is in another world. He observes everything from a distance, attentive to atmosphere, to every tiny, mundane detail, and at the same time he is detached, estranged from everything around him, as though this world at war was no concern of his … He died in Berlin … during the final battles of spring 1945, amid the carnage of an apocalyptic world in which he had found himself by mistake, wearing a uniform that had been imposed on him but which was not his own.
The writer whose words so caught the attention of Sartre and Modiano, and which now appear in English for the first time, as Clouds Over Paris, was a young German conscript called Felix Hartlaub.
Hartlaub (1913–1945?) had had a liberal upbringing, in an educated, middle-class family, with both Jewish and Communist friends, in the city of Mannheim, where his father, Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub (1884–1963), the art historian, coined the term ‘New Objectivity’ in the Twenties. He worked for many years at the Städtische Kunsthalle (ten years as curator, then another ten as director) before the Nazis ejected him from his position in 1933 due to his advocacy for so-called ‘degenerate’ art. He was one of the first museum directors in Germany to be discharged by the Nazis. Fresh out of university, his son, Felix, was called up in 1939, initially serving in a barrage balloon unit before being sent to Paris where, between December 1940 and August 1941, he worked in the German foreign office’s archives commission. The following month, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht and sent briefly to Romania, before moving on to German High Command, for which he worked at various locations on the official chronicle of the war for the Nazis. In April 1945, he was detailed to the infantry, only to go missing sometime after 2 May during the Soviet taking of Berlin. He was 31. Hartlaub was officially declared dead ten years later, in 1955, that same year, the first collected edition of his writings was published in Germany.
Hartlaub’s evocative vignettes of Occupied Paris are an inside view of the city by an outsider, doubly so as he was neither a local nor a Nazi, but an intellectually curious twenty-something living abroad for the first time. The book conjures up both time and place, precisely documenting the locations described (one wants to retrace Hartlaub’s steps on one’s next visit Paris and take in the various views he saw for oneself), as well as taking the reader through different seasons and times of day, from frosty mornings to sultry summer nights. Intense descriptions of landscape, the river, trees, and weather produce resonant passages of nature writing; clouds especially seem to have held a particular fascination. However, the real interest here is as an account of life in occupied Paris seen from the ‘other’ side, recording both the occupiers and the occupied, German soldiers and French girls, what it was actually like on the streets, in the Métro, during the blackouts (Hartlaub would swap his uniform for civilian clothes in order to explore the city incognito, after dark), but also, for example, inside the sequestered ministry building where Hartlaub worked or the hotel above the Gare d’Orsay where he lived.
Short jottings, snippets of well-observed detail, as if you were reading the mental notebook of this young writer as he roves about the city, in the tradition of France’s nineteenth-century flâneurs, mix with highly descriptive prose. There is a range in register, too, from those expressive passages right down to coarse barrack-room talk. The various vignettes are obviously taken from life, but also feature (presumably) fictitious characters, along with a protagonist largely just referred to as ‘he’. It is here that you see Hartlaub the chronicler transforming into Hartlaub the budding novelist. For the book, as well as being a literary survival, is also one of literature’s what ifs. Hartlaub entrusted his manuscripts to his sister, the writer Geno Hartlaub (1915–2007), who began to publish them after the War. We don’t know what he might have done with his text before publishing it himself, and we don’t know what he —in the words of one modern German critic, ‘the greatest literary talent of his generation’— might have gone on to write. What is left to us shows a writer trying things out, experimenting with language and form. Much of the narrative is solitary, the writer quietly observing people and places around him, recording life in the city, and thus conjuring up so vividly a sense of what Paris in the spring and summer of 1941 was actually like. The result is a compelling, and strangely beautiful book.