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Who was Paul Morand?
A review of Fancy Goods and Open All Night by Paul Morand
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Paul Morand Fancy Goods/Open All
We do not hear much about Paul Morand at present. Yet between 1921 and 1939 he figured among the leading writers of the day in France. What happened and why? He was the elegant and eloquent spokesman of an age that he and many of his contemporaries believed to be thoroughly rotten, although he somehow excluded himself from the general disintegration. The part played by the myth of decadence (countermyth to that of progress) is central to an understanding of the exemplary fate of Morand.
The assiduous reader of Proust's roman-fleuve may well have noted the passing allusion to "charming Morand, the delightful author of 'Clarisse,'" in Le Temps retrouvé. Word of Morand1 s admiration had reached Proust and, late one night in 1915 or 1916, the invalid recluse paid a surprise visit to the young diplomat. Morand soon found him¬self dining in Proust's company at the Bjtz, as the guest of the ambitious Greco-Romanian Princess Hélène Soutzo (later his wife), who resided there. In response to Morand's "Ode to Marcel Proust," the creator of Swann penned an essay entitled "For a friend: remarks on style." This was published as the preface to Morand's first collection of short stories, Tendres Stocks (1921). Amid the flowery compliments, Proust criticized the budding author's imagery which (as he told a correspondent) he found over-elaborate and artificial.
Still, Paul Morand was launched. Readers thought there was something essentially "modern" about his quirky, lightly detached observation of women in the three stories of Tendres Stocks. Besides, there was the (then) intriguingly modish title: the juxtaposition of an adjective long associated with love and a noun of English origin that evoked material objects, Ezra Pound's translation of the title as Fancy Goods misses the suggestion of amorousness, the accumulation of fond memories of women Morand had known before and during the 1914-18 War. What seemed particularly new was the way in which his human beings failed to make real contact, a certain tough lack of feeling, an amoral stance that looked both sophisticated and disillusioned. The adjectives "charming" and "delightful" which Proust applied to Morand are not, perhaps, the first that now come to mind when considering this prolific author of stories, travel books, and novels.
Born in 1888, Paul Morand was brought up in a cultivated circle. His father, Eugene Morand, was a fin de siècle playwright, painter, and artistic functionary who numbered among his eminent friends composers like Massenet as well as the mighty sculptor Rodin. Eugène Morand also knew Oscar Wilde, whose funeral in exile he attended. Although the elder Morand sided with those who maintained the innocence of Captain Dreyfus, his home (so his son would relate) was firmly closed to Jews. Paul Morand's childhood and youth were profoundly influenced by fin de siècle attitudes, including the concept of art for art's sake, linked as ever with a deep pessimism. This pessimism was reinforced by his father's very French injunction to "be distrustful," and by the myth of decline and decadence (confirmed by his reading of Nietzsche) to which the author of Tendres Stocks subscribed throughout his life.
Things English were all the rage in the period of the entente cordiale. Young Morand was sent to study in England. At the suggestion of Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's sinister companion, he spent a year at Oxford. Appointed attaché at the French embassy in London in 1913, when in his mid-twenties, Morand was taken up by high society in its last rich glow before the lights went out in Europe. He knew everyone who was anyone, from the witty orchestral conductor Thomas Beecham and the ill-fated sculptor Gaudicr-Brzeska to Winston Churchill.
During the 1914-18 War, Morand managed to avoid the trenches. After prewar military service, he had been placed on the reserve, and he remained at the disposition of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He accepted his fate with stoicism. In 1918, when France had lost so many men, this noted sportsman failed his medical examination, it is thought due to the efforts of Princess Soutzo. From his Journal d'un attaché d'ambassade 1916-17 (published in 1948), it is plain that he sympathized with Joseph Caillaux, proponent of a separate peace with Germany. He also revealed there a deep admiration for Philippe Pétain, "the hero of Verdun, the anti-parliamentarian, the only man to understand modern warfare." In his diary Morand recorded the need for "a strong man" if France were not to follow the path of Russia in 1917. It is ironic that his bitter loathing for the "French gerontocracy" did not stand him in good stead in later years.
Notwithstanding the bloodletting at the front, for some privileged individuals social life continued much as before in Paris, with dinners at expensive restaurants and visits to the theater. Parties were held at Morand's apartment in the Palais-Royal. He had met the effervescent Jean Cocteau, and was present at the notorious premiere of his ballet Parade in 1917, with music by Satie and designs by Picasso. After the end of the war, Morand continued to participate in the celebrated "Saturday dinners" whose guests would include Cocteau and his circle of noted composers, artists, writers—the jazzy milieu of Le Boeuf sur le toit. Morand himself soon came to be regarded as one of the leading representatives of the frenetic postwar era.
Ezra Pound, who moved to Paris in 1920, set about translating Tendres Stocks and its successor, Ouvert la Nuit, in his customary, controversially free manner, possibly sensing a fellow imagist in their highly chic author. Surprisingly, Morand's introduction to Ouvert la Nuit, where he ironically compared himself to a wandering Jew "arriving in a neat and tidy nation with that ghastly reek of people who have travelled all night," was omitted. Pound could well have found a fellow spirit in Morand's snide allusions to the unpleasant Montjoye (real name Aronsohn) in the story "Aurore," and similar niceties elsewhere. Morand's friendship with Proust supplied no prophylactic: he had already noted in his diary Proust's "complex" for telling anti-Semitic stories.
With Ouvert la Nuit, Morand tends to reinforce preconceptions about supposed national characteristics. In "La Nuit Catalane," for instance, the narrator believes that he is pursuing an affair with proud Dona Remedies, while she is intent on her task as a terrorist. This tale derives from the author's acquaintance with Soledad Villafranca, erstwhile companion of the executed Catalan anarchist Francisco Ferrer. The typical Morandian narrator's stance, as temporary participant and curious observer who expresses no judgment, becomes wearisomely smart. Morand's work ultimately conveys not just a failure of humane sympathy but a political outlook that posits the collapse of Western civilization into chaos. Its Spenglerian tendency indicates an anarchism of the Right that characteristically betrays a nostalgia for authority and order.
From 1925, when Morand was appointed to the French legation in Bangkok, he would seize every opportunity for travel. His books on his journeys—in the Orient, in North and South America, in Africa—eschewed romantic exoticism. From afar, Europe appeared "egotistical, democratic, divided." The author's distaste for democracy was manifest. The world was entering upon "the foul age of the half-caste," he wrote, much influenced by the racial theories of Ciobineau and his disciples. No sooner had he returned from one journey than he was off on another, restlessly in quest of new impressions and sensations, the self-confessed "man in a hurry," the typical "haunted traveller" of the intenvar years. Travel was then still largely an adventure for the well-to-do, as it had been for Morand's admired friend, the wealthy Anglophile writer Valery Larbaud. Marriage to Princess Soutzo, daughter of a merchant banker, enabled Morand to indulge further his fondness not only for travel, but for fast cars, horses, and women.
It was through his work in the cinema that he met an eighteen-year-old actress, Josette Day, later the unforgettable Belle in Cocteau's film La Belle et la Bête, who became his mistress and protegee. He had been commissioned to help write the script for Pabst's film Don Quixote, with Chaliapin in the leading role, Morand was not favorably impressed by the world of the cinema. His involvement with it coincided with the influx of refugees from Nazi Germany. In his satire France la Doulce (with significantly antique spelling) he directed his venom at "pirates whether naturalized or not," that is, Jews. Morand graciously said that his depiction of this "scum" had nothing to do with the great international artists of the cinema who were welcome in France—as if that excused his xenophobic diatribe.
The fact was that by October 1933 Morand had already ventured to reveal his hand in an editorial written for the first number of a new weekly edited by Henri Massis, longstanding friend of the Action Française. Here, the self-indulgent egotist and womanizer called for drastic measures and an end to immorality: "At this time, every country except ours is killing its vermin .... Don't let us leave Hitler to pride himself on being the only person to undertake the moral rehabilitation of the West." If more French blood was to be spilt "we want clean corpses," he added. The phrase became notorious.
In August 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war, Morand was sent to London as head of the French mission concerned with economic warfare. He was thus eminently well placed to join General de Gaulle when France fell in June 1940. Instead, he suddenly decided to desert his post, and he made his way to Vichy. He had seen a vision of the end of a world (yet again) and of the imminent collapse of England.
Various reasons have been adduced for his return to France, including a liaison with a married Frenchwoman who had recently borne his child. But in reality his entire outlook, his longtime admiration for Pétain, his friendship with the Comtesse de Chambrun (Laval's daughter), made him an obvious adherent of the Vichy regime. Like so many of his countrymen, he thought that nothing could prevent German hegemony; and in any case (as he wrote in an article of 1941) he admired the patriotism, the vitality, the [Nietzschean] "tragic and Dionysian feeling of life" displayed by the Nazi invaders when compared with the hedonism and weakness of the French. The irony of his condemnation of French hedonism appears to have escaped him.
Morand swore allegiance to Pétain, lunched frequently with Laval, and was made head of film censorship (though he soon resigned). He moved easily between Vichy and Occupied Paris, where his notoriously anti-Semitic and pro-German wife welcomed in her salon Hitler's favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, as well as the equivocal author of On the Marble Cliffs, Ernst Jünger, whom the couple invited to Maxim's. In 1943, Morand was named Vichy's ambassador to Romania, where he did not distinguish himself. Not only did he engage in financial transactions to his own advan¬tage, he also ransacked the embassy in order to confiscate a two-way radio that had enabled members of his staff to communicate with London. When the air raids intensified in the spring of 1944, he fled from Bucharest, leaving behind only a skeleton staff. This was some months before he was appointed ambassador to Bern. He and his wife prudently remained in Switzerland after the war.
Charged with collaboration, he was sacked with the loss of his pension rights. Otherwise, no action was taken against him. His supposed "penury" was not excessive. A good few years were spent in the "wilderness": in a château in Switzerland; a house in Tangiers; a suite at the Crillon; and later, in his wife's Parisian mansion with the booty from his travels (a residence compared by one visitor to that of Citizen Kane). Then, after a period in purgatory, he was "discovered" and taken up by the so-called "Hussars," new anarchists of the Right like the novelist Roger Nimier and his friends. Having sought election to the Académie Francaise in 1936 and 1941, he ventured to renew his candidacy in 1958 to loud objec¬tions about his wartime conduct and President de Gaulle's veto. He was elected at last in 1968, although de Gaulle declined to receive the new immortal at the Elysée Palace in the time-honored manner.
Morand's tone in the latter part of his life (he died in 1976) was one of pained indignation and scorn for the modern world. He spoke loftily of his love of lost causes and of "everything that comes to an end," stressing his single-minded apolitical devotion to Art. There was no reassessment, no expression of regret. He liked to portray his own misfortunes through those of the luckless Fouquet, Louis XIV's disgraced Finance Minister (who actually spent nineteen years in solitary confinement in a grim dungeon). In interviews, he contrived to elude the subject of his behavior during the War. True, he and his wife had intervened with varying success on behalf of a few well-known Jewish acquaintances, doubtless enjoying a rare sense of power. With characteristic insouciance, he could write to Roger Nimier about Brittany in summer as "a concentration camp for tourists." A Proustian snob and salon Nietzschean, apparently he remained careless of the hitter suffering of so many ordinary human beings under totalitarianism.
Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, the fascist writer and collaborator, who was himself obsessed with decline, had already noted (in 1928) how widespread was the idea of decadence in his day. And he remarked then on the "strikingly disillusioned judgment on the worth of our civilization which appears on every page" of Morand's work. There is doubtless a depressing book to be written on the deleterious effect of the theme of decadence in twentieth-century French literature. There is also a warning to be drawn from Morand's writings and destiny about the consequences of failing to acknowledge what is truly valuable and life-enhancing in our culture.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 November 1987, on page 73
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