:: Article

Léon Werth’s Flight from Paris

By Mark Tewfik.

33 Days

Léon Werth’s 33 Days (Melville House, 2015),
translated by Austin D. Johnston

The opening scene of Curzio Malaparte’s great novel The Skin describes a group of Italian soldiers awaiting orders in Naples in 1943. The men are dressed in uniforms belonging to recently deceased British soldiers, who gave their lives driving the Germans out of Italy. Malaparte describes the blood stains and even bullet holes that turned these garments into second hand goods. The scene brilliantly captures the anguish of defeat and occupation: twice conquered, the living dead stand to attention. Malaparte also lights on the subject that sits at the heart of the Léon Werth’s 33 Days: “While everyone is good at winning a war, not all are capable of losing one. But the loss of a war does not entitle a people to regard itself as conquered.”

33 Days takes place at the beginning of the war and is a first-hand account of the exodus of Parisians fleeing the city from advancing German troops in June 1940. Accompanied by his wife, Werth set out for their house in the Jura mountains, not far from the Swiss border. By leaving at 9am, they expected to arrive somewhere around 5pm that afternoon. If they’d left a few hours earlier, as their son had, they would have done so. Instead they find that many of the roads had been closed and thus join a caravan of travellers being redirected through small villages on an ever more digressive route. Travelling in increments of twenty kilometres or so per day, the title of the book tells us how long it took them to complete the journey.

Echoing Malaparte’s sentiments in The Skin, the book is more properly speaking a meditation on identity, on defeat and nuance. This is Werth on the subject of war itself: “it imposes gross simplifications, it thinks poorly, it forces poor thinking, in gross categories”. These words approach the heart of Werth’s story, and its real preoccupation: dignity. More specifically, they demonstrate his concern with how one maintains one’s dignity once conquered, and how one should act to ensure defeat does not become humiliation.

Life on the road is difficult, and in many respects 33 Days stands in opposition to the reader’s expectations. Where one might expect a tale of flight, of covering hundreds of miles quickly, taking refuge in clandestine places, all in imminent danger – only some of this is true. Werth further confounds expectations when in the most dangerous places his prose is remarkably detached:

[S]ome airplanes are passing overhead; they drop bombs and fire their machine guns. People lie down in the roadside ditches, hide in the woods or cling to trees in the farmyard … The airplanes have disappeared. We learn that the farmhouse cellar contains two barrels of cider and a cask of eau de vie.

Werth may be Jewish, but rather than being chased through the woods like one of Spiegelman’s mice, his two immediate concerns are petrol and food. Furthermore, he discovers that outside of Paris they are only marginally more welcome than German soldiers.

France is transformed by occupation and, for the French, this is nowhere more evident than the caravan’s quest for the Loire. The Werths are no different in this respect – his wife is adamant they’ll be safe once they cross it. Meanwhile, we understand that the limbo of life in the caravan meant “the German advance was still on newspaper headlines. They advance, they cross the Somme, the Oise. Even if they cross the Seine, all is not lost. They will be fought on the Loire. We do not lack rivers, and strategy is the science of rivers.”

However, instead of decisive battles at the Loire and elsewhere, it’s only as they spy their first German soldiers that they realise that not only has the German victory happened, but it’s happened without them noticing. The story takes another twist once they finally reach the Loire and meet a Madame Soutreux: “it is she who holds the secret of the Loire; she is the goddess of the Loire. And … to cross I’m prepared for any concession, any indulgence.”

There are of course soldiers everywhere by this stage. Far from facing the kind of brutality we’ve come to associate with the Third Reich, though, most of these soldiers want little more than water to fill their canteens. To their enormous surprise, Madame Soutreux not only fills their canteens but brings them a bottle of wine. As if to prove this isn’t a one off, the next two soldiers that appear are treated to a bottle of champagne. These are not the kind of concessions Werth anticipated.

They spend eight days under Madame Soutreux’s roof and this goddess turned traitor gives life to Werth’s enquiry into life in a newly-defeated France. To call it a domestic drama doesn’t quite capture it, but what does one do if one’s own home isn’t actually taken away, but somehow becomes someone else’s? When is it appropriate to accept charity from one’s conqueror, and then when is it fair to judge the charitable soldier who also happens to be a Nazi? Furthermore, how does one distinguish and weigh the relative importance of events when everything is overwhelming?

Werth is far from hard-hearted – indeed his humanity is the very pulse of this book – and we watch him experiment despite himself in trying to find empathy with the Germans. These are extraordinary times, and much of 33 Days evokes the slow accretion of narrative and understanding in Conrad’s The Shadow Line.

There is none of the strident moralism of his great friend Antione de Saint-Exupery in the latter’s Flight to Arras, for example, and because it is written at least in part on the road, it doesn’t pretend to the grandeur of Camus’s The Plague. Instead 33 Days is riddled with doubt and self-consciousness, temptations and retractions. This sense of the uncanny – namely, being estranged in a familiar environment – drives much of the book. Toward the end of the work Werth says:

I know I almost sound as if I’m joking and relating the infinitesimal. But we never knew which of these small incidents would be the last. And one would like to think that in each of these contacts with the German conquerors, small as it might be, something of our dignity is involved.

Werth’s heroic examination of seemingly every event on this journey captures the existential drama of this long caravan. Yet it’s his search for an anchor in events that have estranged him from France that ensures the relevance of 33 Days.

Of course, his anchor is beside him throughout. Werth’s wife is a beacon of common sense. Where he worries about accepting any sort of help from the Germans, she pushes him to accept sensible things like shelter from the shells they’ve been warned are incoming. There is also a terrific digression as he sheepishly confesses to his worry over a book inscribed to him by Saint-Exupery. But if it seems silly, the few things of genuine importance, his wife and his friendship with Saint-Exupery, are the only things that provide any sort of grounding in this strange and harrowing time. Indeed, we would not necessarily be able to enjoy this book today if it weren’t for his more famous friend.

Werth met Saint-Exupery in 1931 not long after the latter had received the Prix Femina for Night Flight. The two became fast friends and confidants. Werth himself was no stranger to the world of letters – he published more than thirty works of fiction and non-fiction. On learning that Saint-Exupery was going to America, he entrusted the manuscript of 33 Days to him with instructions that he should write a preface.

In America, Saint-Exupery found a willing publisher in Brentano’s, and fully expected the book to appear – so much so that he refers to it in Flight to Arras (Pilote de guerre). However, the manuscript was misplaced by the publisher. When Saint-Exupery realised that the book wouldn’t be published, his introduction, Letter to a Friend, was heavily revised and published with a new title as Letter to a Hostage (Lettre a un otage) in 1944. (Saint-Exupery omitted Werth’s name throughout to protect him.) The manuscript of 33 Days was only rediscovered in France in 1992, though it was published without the introduction. Melville House has finally managed to reunite the two documents and publish them together for the first time in any language, as their authors intended.

As a testament to their friendship, Saint-Exupery dedicated The Little Prince (1943) to Werth, whom he cites as “the best friend I have in the world” and more pertinently: “he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs cheering up.”

With its gentle prose, the narrator’s constant questioning and occasional humour, 33 Days is a valuable record of the those fleeing Paris and a subtle yet fierce inquiry as to what it means to be occupied. It finishes with Werth back on the road with enough petrol to get him to the Jura mountains. He ends on a reflective note, for it is only 1940 and no one knows what will happen next: “What happens tomorrow isn’t important for the moment. We’re not calculating how much of France is under the boot and how much isn’t. The armistice is nothing but a pause, an interlude that allows a person to recompose himself.” Arriving home, he has regained his son, his fields and in a sense France itself. “And newspapers too, and human error and what must be called history.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Tewfik is a rare book dealer in New York City. He is the author of The Sleepwalker (Lanterne Rouge Press, 2015).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 12th, 2015.