Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Viva la Résistance!

Doubtless because one of my friends was non-Aryan, they confiscated my lovely little typewriter, my entire stock of paper, and rough drafts of articles on art and folklore . . . They dismantled my dining-room table, as the mechanism for extending it seemed to offend them. . . The chest in which we keep the silverware got them terribly excited. In Pierre's bedroom they fell upon a tube of Indian ink that was doubtless of enormous interest. From a bowl in my bedroom where I keep small change - some fifty or so nickel coins - they deduced that I had read a tract urging the French people to remove these coins from circulation.

Agnès Humbert was born in 1894 to a French soldier and an English expatriate mother. In 1916, at age twenty-one, she married George Sabbagh, an Egyptian-born artist who served in the British army during World War I. Both became pupils of the Symbolist painter Maurice Denis. Her sons Jean and Pierre were born in 1917 and 1918, but by 1934, Humbert and Sabbagh were divorced. Humbert, who had been trained as a watercolorist, went on to study art history at the Ecole du Louvre, where she also earned two postgraduate diplomas in philosophy and ethnography. Having established a solid reputation as an art historian, she joined the staff of Musée des Artes et Traditions Populaires. True to her leftist and militant anti-fascist beliefs, she was a staunch supporter of the Popular Front and a teacher at the Université ouvrière (worker's university). Her professional life reflected her political convictions: she collected photographic documentation of the strikes of 1936 and traveled to Russia in 1939 to study Soviet cultural life. When World War II broke out, she was forty-three years old and had two grown sons.

Personal politics aside, Humbert does not fit the image we often have of a "resistance" fighter. She was not a young romantic. She was sympathetic to communism but she wasn't a revolutionary. Under the German occupation, she wasn't desperate and could have remained in her position if she just kept her head down. But the humiliation of defeat and invasion, and an ensuing sense of restlessness urging her just to do something, drove her and several fellow intellectuals to come together and form what became one of the primary foundations of the famed French Resistance. Humbert distributed anti-Nazi propaganda, edited an anti-Nazi broadsheet, and participated in nascent intelligence-gathering operations. But a Gestapo double agent betrayed the group, and she was arrested in March of 1941. She spent a year in a notorious Nazi-controlled French prison, faced a sham trial, and was subsequently deported to Germany to serve as an industrial slave laborer.

Résistance: A Woman's Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France, first published in 1946 but only just now appearing in English (to be released tomorrow, September 23, 2009, by Bloomsbury Books) recounts, in present-tense diary form, Agnès Humbert's nearly five years in Nazi captivity. Though she was never held in an actual death/concentration camp (i.e. Auschwitz, Dachau), the conditions she endured may well have matched what many Jewish inmates experienced. Close, constant, and unprotected contact with acid and chemical vapor destroyed the prisoners' hands and clothing, caused spells of blindness, and ravaged their lungs. Hygiene was nonexistent, from overflowing sop buckets to underwear unwashed for weeks. Beatings were frequent. The winter cold was relentless, air raids were a constant threat, and the scant food was barely edible. Humbert was also briefly held at Allendorf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, where she observed prisoners abandoned in cells with only the dead for company.

Still, throughout her ordeal, Humbert never lost her sense of humor, her pride, her principles, or her strength and ability to seek support and fraternity even when humanity seemed to be at its worst. Her voice is vivid and unwavering: a blend of irreverence, wry wit, and the occasional drift into intellectual contemplation. It is this latter quality that gives the narrative its unique voice. As Julien Blanc discusses in the Afterword, "Résistance juxtaposes two distinct types of writing - the raw spontaneity of diary entries and the more considered reflections from memory - corresponding to two distinct time frames. . . It is this hybrid structure, combining two literary genres that are usually quite distinct, that makes Résistance unique among such memoirs." For example, Humbert at one point shifts from a detailed description of the dangerous work performed by the prisoners in the textile factory to an ironic exposition on the eternal obedience and trustworthiness of the machine:
I wonder - a worthy subject for meditation - what Descartes would have made of industrial machinery. What a subject for a philosopher! Not just the relationship between man and machine, and all the upheavals, material, moral and social that come in its wake, but simply the thoughts that sometimes come into your head when you are working at a machine. There's not tricking a machine; that's just not possible. A part out of alignment? Production immediately slows down. A loose screw? The whole machine seizes up. I like and admire the incorruptible integrity of the machine. With work done by hand, there is always a little leeway, a margin of error, and any lost time can be made up with a little effort or improvisation; machinery, on the other hand, admits absolutely no possibility of inaccuracy or prevarication, is immube to all excuses, lies or flattery. Enduring, unswerving and fiercely tenacious, machines can teach men a marvelous lesson in integrity. The builders of the future, of our future, should take their inspiration from man's handiwork, the Blessed Machine!
In that respect, Résistance also differs from every Holocaust memoir I've read. In his introduction to Jakov Lind's Landscape in Concrete, a Catch-22-like novel about an overly obedient oaf of a German soldier, Joshua Cohen states that if the Holocaust might be regarded as the culmination or perfection of European industrial society, then so too has Holocaust literature largely exhibited "a perfection of European culture: Accounts of the tragedy have almost always been technically sterile, stylistically orderly, factual. Classical. Apollonian, to a fault." Humbert, though detailed and precise in her recollections, does not simply recite the facts as they happened, as Elie Wiesel did in Night. Résistance is ultimately as much about Humbert herself as it is about what happened to the Third Reich's political prisoners. Although her participation in the actual Resistance occupies only about 50 out of 270 pages, the remainder of the book is concerned with alternative forms of resistance: emotional, psychological, and even surreptitiously physical. The reader is both immersed in the horrific Nazi penal system and in the mind of a singular individual. Humbert's innate spirit and personality dominate the narrative as much as external events do.

Résistance: A Woman's Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France is both a powerful work and a valuable addition to the library of anyone interested in WWII/the Holocuast or simply history in general. It also has strong feminist appeal, not only in the figure of Agnès Humbert herself (who went on to hunt Nazis for the liberating American military), but also in the fact that, according Julian Blanc, women have been glaringly absent from many chronicles of the French Resistance, appearing only in obligatory, generalized odes to the abstract "woman of the Resistance." (Women as one-dimensional symbols instead of as three-dimensional human beings . . . grrrr, I hate that!) It is a true-life memoir with all the appeal of a fictional novel: it is suspenseful, fast-paced, vivid and descriptive, with a cast of memorable "characters." In other words: a great choice even for those who don't usually read non-fiction. Strongly recommended.

One thing I did find troubling, though, was Humbert's apparent sympathy for the Soviet Union. Judging by both Résistance and biographical information I also read, Humbert seems to have glossed over the atrocities committed by Stalin, who ended up killing more people than Hitler. At one point, for instance, she laments the arrival of young, innocent Ukrainian girls, recalling "the girls that I saw in the collective farms around Kiev in 1939, singing from sheer joie de vivre, and now here they are shackled in slavery." For the full story of these so-called "collective farms" in Ukraine, see "Holodomor."

Biographical information in the first paragraph comes Julien Blanc's Afterword.

10 comments:

Gavin said...

It sound like I need to add this one to my list of books for the War Through The Generations WWII challenge. Thank you for a great review.

Caitlin said...

Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz is another powerful & beautifully written diary of the time.

softdrink said...

Fantastic review. It sounds like a very powerful book...I'm inspired to read it.

Padfoot and Prongs - Good Books Inc. said...

Hey glad to hear you are on board! Please sign up with the Mister Linky Banner so you can save your place in the discussion!

Also great review!! With reviews like this you should be a huge benefit to the discussions.

E. L. Fay said...

Gavin: I'd be interested to learn how it compares to other WWII memoirs!

Caitlin: I've been wanting to read Primo Levi. I wonder if he differs from Joshua Cohen's description of Holocaust memoirs as "stylistically orderly"?

Softdrink: I hope you do. It's an amazing book and I'm glad I'm inspiring people to check it out.

Padfoot: Oh, I didn't see poor Mr. Linky. Was he hiding?

Emily said...

I think it was an extremely common situation for intellectuals victimized or disgusted by one of the totalitarian governments in 1930s Europe to default to sympathy for the other side, just out of a feeling that there was no viable third alternative. As much as I despised The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing paints an interesting picture of this mentality still going on among leftists in England in the 1960s: they felt like they needed to ignore the atrocities committed by Stalin and tow the party line, or their entire project would be undermined. By the 60s I think a stance like that was pretty much deluded, but in the 30s I can totally understand it, even if, from my comfortably democratic chair in 2009, it seems misguided. From what I've read it really did seem, at the time, like people had to make a choice between these giant absolutist regimes, because one or the other of them was going to end up ruling Europe entire. Dire situation! William Vollman really vividly evokes this deal-with-the-devil catch-22 in Europe Central.

Anyway, great review! It sounds like a pretty gripping narrative, and one with a distinctive voice.

Caitlin said...

Re: Primo Levi - There's a certain formalism to the way he lays out his story, but it works well because it plays strongly against the details of the story he's telling. The contrast between the familiar order of Once Upon a Time this happened & then this & then this & the brutality of what he's writing is pretty extraordinary.

Christine said...

That's a great book -- but not a new release. I read it over a year ago, and it's been out in Canada and the UK since fall 2008.

Maybe it's just the US release is later?

E. L. Fay said...

Emily: I'm on lunch right now, so my time is limited. I'll give your comment a better response tonight!

Christine: I won this through LibraryThing's Early Review program for August 2009. According to the press material that came with it, it was slated of a Sept. 23, 2009 release in the US. But I went to the library on Monday, Sept. 21, and there it was on the shelf! Go figure. Maybe they got it from Canada/UK?

Richard said...

If you ever want to see a great French resistance movie based on the autobiographical novel of a resistance member, check out Jean Pierre Melville's 1969 Army of Shadows, which is out on Criterion. A female resistance member happens to be one of the key players in the film, a point I only mention because you say that they're overlooked in most histories on the subject. Anyway, thanks for reviewing this book--sounds interesting!

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