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There was champagne in the air but the bubbles faded away.

March 11, 2011 36 comments

Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. 263 pages. Published in 1939. Not translated in English, as far as I know.

One of the unforeseen consequences of my new rule of not buying English books in French translation is that I pay a lot more attention to non Anglophone literature when I visit a bookstore. This is how I discovered Au temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. I was attracted by the edition (Les Cahiers Rouges, by Grasset) and by the foreword comparing Maurice Sachs to Casanova. But there weren’t a lot of biographical details in it, probably for marketing reasons. Indeed, Maurice Sachs managed to be Jewish, Catholic, seminarist, homosexual and informer for the Gestapo. A tour de force.  

Born in 1906, Maurice Sachs (real name Maurice Ettinghausen) was born in a bourgeois family. His family was Jewish but not religious. He was raised by a divorced and unconcerned mother. At 17, he was left alone and had to fend for himself, after his mother flew to England to escape her creditors. Like Marcel Proust, his witty and lively conversation allowed him to enter into the best houses. He was fashionable, handsome and funny. He was a night bird and liked luxury and his first unscrupulous actions dated back to this time. He was frequently seen in gay bars and enjoyed paid sex. He would live two great passions in his life, but both would end badly. People say that even bold and weighting 100kg, he was incredibly attractive. Here is what he wrote about himself and which was apparently pretty accurate:

He gave himself away to a life of schemes and enthusiasms, of jokes and miseries, of makeshifts and pleasures, which brought him from one country to another, from one trade to another. Journalist, actor, friar, civil servant, knight of industry, merchant, critique, spy, factory worker, famous lecturer in the USA then obscure bum. He got drunk with alcohol and dreams, with Nietzsche in one pocket and Casanova in the other.

He was an intimate friend of Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob and has always been interested in literature.

Until WWII, he was nothing more than an amoral scoundrel. WWII made of him a despicable actor on the black market and a collaborationist. In 1942, he joined the S.T.O. in Hamburg and became an agent of the Gestapo. An adventurer like him never had the discipline to follow any rule and the same Gestapo imprisoned him in the very camp where the French résistants he had denounced where kept. When the Germans evacuated the camp in 1945, he was shot on the way by a SS because he didn’t want to walk anymore.  

Honestly, had I known this before, I’m not sure I would have bought the book. Reading him is as controversial as reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline. That’s where I think about the marketing reasons which prevented the publisher to mention these biographical elements on the cover or in the foreword of the book. This always raises the question about collaborationist artists: do we need to take into account what they did and censor them or can we focus on the literary qualities of their work and read them anyway? I’m tempted by the second option, to some extent. I have read Voyage au bout de la nuit by Céline. I finished this book by Maurice Sachs, I would have abandoned it if it had included racist or anti-Semite theories. However, I don’t want to read Drieu La Rochelle.  

In the end, what is this book about? The subtitle is “Journal of a young bourgeois at the time of prosperity. July 14th 1919-October 30th 1929.”, which is a pretty fair summary of the content. The title Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit is a reference to a famous Parisian dancing which was the place to be seen in the 1920s. The name comes from a play by Cocteau. “Without a doubt, the only considerable person of this milieu that had never been to the Boeuf was Marcel Proust. He used to say ‘Ah, I wish I were well enough to go once to the cinema and once to the Boeuf sur le toit’ ”

The dates are important: it starts on the first national day fest after WWI and ends on the Black Sunday, the beginning of the great economic crisis of the 1930s.  The book has three different sections: 1919-1920 is an almost daily account of Maurice’s life. Then nothing is written until 1928, where Maurice catches up the lost time of his journal by including the note books of his good friend Blaise Alias. Finally, 1928-1929, Maurice resumes his journal, but the tone is blasé. He is bored. He’s had enough of parties but remains curious about art and literature.  

It’s difficult to sum up, there is no real plot, just a tale of the moment. And what a decade! As historians say, the 20th C started after WWI. This journal is a testimony of the effervescence of the time. The youth was happy to be alive. The war was over and had washed away old principles. There was an incredible creativity in arts. Arts are on fire. Maurice meets Satie, Debussy, Cocteau, Picasso. He is subscribed to the NRF and discovers Proust. It’s the time when Juan Gris and Picasso are scene painters for the theatre. The times are changing. Sometimes, Maurice reminds us of the remaining flames of the 19th C:

A dire vrai j’ai rencontré dans son salon quelques hommes sans gloire que j’ai trouvé remarquables, parce qu’ils étaient cultivés, curieux et entraînants. J’ai assez souvent l’impression que c’est l’Affaire Dreyfus qui les a conservés, qu’elle les a secoués pour toute la vie. Honestly, I met in her salon some unknown men that I found remarkable because they were educated, curious and entertaining. I often think that the Dreyfus Affair maintained them, that it shattered them forever.

Blaise reports with sadness the death of Marcel Proust; the Jockey Club, where Swann used to go, is relocated.

For me, this journal just brought to life a whole world and put together and under light all the changes encountered in the decade. I enjoyed the anecdotes and the scattered thoughts of Maurice and Blaise. I chose to give you, reader, a taste of it through themes and events that struck me.  

New arts: cinema and photography

L’intoxication cinématographique continue, on ne peut plus s’en passer. Cinema keeps on intoxicating us, it’s an addiction.

Maurice and Blaise report the growing enthusiasm for cinema. In 1919, Maurice regrets that all the films are American. He longs to see French films but is aware that the number of cinemas must first increase to allow films to be widely seen and then profitable. Um. 

The number of cinemas gradually increases in Paris. Maurice and Blaise buy photographies by Man Ray and state that they are as remarkable as paintings.  

Transportation.

Maurice marvels at airplanes, Blaise reports the arrival of Lindberg in Paris after he flew over the Atlantic. It’s the time of transatlantic cruses. But the most important is the multiplication of cars and Blaise ironically notices:

C’est inouï, on ne voit plus que des autos sur l’avenue de l’Opéra. Il ne reste pas un seul cheval, pas un fiacre. It’s incredible; one can only see cars on the Avenue de l’Opéra. There isn’t any single horse or any cab left.

Everyday life and changes in mores

Clothes are less formal. Maurice is happy with it. Landru is on trial: special trains are organized to convey the public to the trial. Women are more independent; girls are allowed to go out at night without a chaperone. Blaise rants about the new place women have in the society: “Women took the fancy to take men’s activities, which is irritating, unless they give up their privileges”. And funny, this commercial, with Blaise’s comment:

« Grâce au rasoir Gillette, une Lady décolletée, dit un communiqué publicitaire, a toujours les dessous de bras blancs et veloutés »Mais au fait, n’est-ce pas une nouveauté d’après-guerre, l’aisselle tondue ? “Thanks to the razor by Gillette, a Lady in a low-necked dress always has white and peachy armpits” the commercial says.But anyway, aren’t shaved armpits a post-war invention?

Some things seem to never change in France.

I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in France you can count on the governments to tax cars and means of communication. Cell phones companies have been the last victims of this creativity but I see this is not a new tendency. Maurice and Blaise point out that TSF and cars are heavily taxed. “If the State isn’t prudent enough, they will put us off automobile for good.” But nothing, even high taxes, can break up the love story between men and cars.

And that one, that made me laugh out loud: “I wanted to take Louise to the theatre, but they are all on strike, even the Français and L’Odéon”. Priceless.

Publishing and art become a business.

Maurice relates anecdotes about Barnes buying paintings to Vollard. For me, these men are now names of art exhibitions and it was strange to read about them alive. Art merchants are more and more numerous:

Le marchand d’art moderne croit détenir un secret qu’il serait seul à partager avec quelques initiés, celui de la grandeur inouïe de l’art moderne. The merchants of modern art believe they own a secret only shared with some persons in the know, ie that of the grandeur of modern art.

Wait, haven’t I heard this before? Changes happen in the publishing world. Bernard Grasset (Actually the publisher of this book) tries new selling methods:

Grasset fait une publicité monstre pour LE DIABLE AU CORPS de Raymond Radiguet. C’est la première fois qu’on emploie au profit d’un livre des méthodes réservées aux savons, laxatifs, etc.Et ça a réussi : le livre se vend. Grasset advertises greatly Le Diable au Corps by Raymond Radiguet. It’s the first time that methods usually applied to soaps, laxatives, etc are used for a book. And it works: the book sells well.

And Blaise regrets the creation of new literary prizes: “There are too many of them. They become tasteless” I wonder what Maurice Sachs would think about our current literary prizes diarrhoea.

America 

It’s Prohibition time and Maurice’s American cousin comes to Paris to drink. Maurice observes his binge drinking and doesn’t understand the draw. I thought that the influence of the American way of life was due to WWII but no, Blaise blankly states

I think that America took a greater place in our lives, progressively, without us noticing it.

Our favourite films are American. We smoke American tobacco. We drink American cocktails, we dance American dances, the ideal feminine face is American, our taste for sports is American, the money we make seems American, even ambition turns out to be American.

It is war and victory that made us so permeable to Americanism.

I suppose it was already felt in this Parisian little world but will spread widely after WWII.  

I can’t help but quoting this “the Chicago Inn is my favourite restaurant because one can eat American cuisine there, which is one of the best in the world”. Poor Maurice hadn’t been to India, China or Morocco, he lacked comparisons. But being French and saying that about American cuisine either throws a doubt on his sanity or questions the damages done by fast-foods.  

Something that struck me because of today’s news: We are in 1923.

“Huge tsunami in Japan: Tokyo 76 600 casualties, 297 000 burnt houses, 36 000 collapsed; in a few minutes thousands of people are burnt alive. Someone who would have fell asleep at 11:55 and woken up at 12:30 could have believed that the hand of a furious god had destroyed the work of several centuries, by a terrible miracle”.

Literary life is abundantly quoted, as new books are published and new movements appear. Literature was a passion for Maurice, his curiosity was endless and his tastes quite sure. Dadaism and surrealism are the children of that time. Many, many writers are quoted and I forgot to list them. What was I thinking? Now I need to browse the book again. For example, he adores Proust. A whole post could be written about Proust and this book.  Lady Chatterley is a scandal but “could only have been written by someone exasperated by the Victorian prejudices.” Ulysse is a masterpiece. Malraux seems interesting. Hemingway leads Maurice into looking at American literature again, Henry James being almost European to him.

In addition, Maurice Sachs could be really caustic:

Dans les matches de l’intelligence, c’est toujours la femme nue qui gagne. In a competition for intelligence, the naked woman is always the winner.

All this is written in a whirlwind of words, thrown on the paper, really figuring the whirlwind of his life. He wanted everything; he gulped down life with avidity until disgust. When reading this, I was hearing jazz and Charleston, seeing women with short hair and cigarette holders. Despite the controversial temper of the author – and that’s an understatement – this remains a fascinating testimony of that period.

I have found an interesting article about Maurice Sachs here (sorry, it’s in French), if anyone is interested.

PS: A last quote, for you, Guy. At the Boeuf sur le toit could be heard « le ton aventurier, gaillard, assuré, satisfait de Simenon »

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