Books: Cultural Amnesia — Jean Prévost |
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Of all the casualties among the French Resistance, Jean Prévost (1901–1944) was possibly the most damaging loss to the future of French culture. Before the war he had stood out as a journalist with a wide range of enthusiasms, and, in a startling number of them, solid credentials: someone who could write so well had every reason to consider himself a literary figure, but his writings about sport were given additional weight by the fact that he was a sportsman as well. He enjoyed every aspect of a productive democracy and might, had he lived, have run into trouble with the left, because his range of enjoyments suggested that a capitalist society might be more fruitfully various, and less alienated, than Marxist theory allowed. Alas, the question of his future never arose. He joined the Resistance as an active member and was killed in the fighting. As I try to contend in the following note, his brave death, and not his conformist history, might have been the real reason his name took so long to come back to life. Jérôme Garcin’s Pour Jean Prévost is the essential, and still virtually the only, book devoted to a career short of time but long on implication. Suggesting as it does that one of the duties of a writer might be to place himself in danger, his life is probably fated to be more of a curiosity than a model.

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But my soul is a fire that suffers if it doesn’t burn. I need three or four cubic feet of new ideas every day, as a steamboat needs coal.

JEAN PRÉVOST WAS forty-three years old when he was killed in battle against German troops in the Vercors on August 1, 1944. He was one of the few writers who were verifiable heroes of the Resistance and thus he was fated to die a double death, because in the post-war period the French intellectual world’s climb back to health was long and slow and at a shallow angle. Figures who had been compromised were found less challenging to deal with than those who had been truly admirable. The admirable, indeed, became the negligible. Neither Prévost nor Marc Bloch was granted a tenth of the attention lavished on such flagrant collaborators as Drieu la Rochelle, Rebatet or Brasillach, whose graves were heaped with wreaths of understanding, sympathy and, all too often, outright approval, as if to have had friendly dealings with the enemy had somehow been evidence of an adventurous commitment. I wish I was exaggerating the case, but anyone who doubts it would only have to measure the short list of material written about Prévost against the whole shelves written about Drieu.

Before the war, Prévost had combined within himself, and seemingly without effort, two different writing careers, one as a student of literature and the other as a journalist writing at a high level on subjects which had not previously always enjoyed the quality of attention he brought to them. His studies of Stendhal and Baudelaire remain important to this day. (He had not yet quite finished the book about Baudelaire when he died fighting.) His journalism about cinema and architecture was better informed than most academic opinion on the subject, and far more engagingly written. He was a champion boxer who knew sports from the inside. As Jérôme Garcin notes in the study that rescued Prévost’s reputation from its oubliette, “he was not pardoned for wanting to talk about everything and to be read by everybody.” As the junior prodigy at Gallimard, as the whizz-kid of the Nouvelle Revue Française, he was looked down on by the established writers even when they were honest enough to admire his verve. Mauriac piously warned him against “cette prodigeuse facilité.” To get a picture of Prévost’s personality, you don’t have to put together all the ways his contemporaries approved of him. All the ways they disapproved of him would do it. Prévost was humanism reborn: its hunger, its scope, its vitality and its inner light—an inner light produced by all the aspects of life illuminating one another, in a honeycomb of understanding. As Garcin says, for Prévost encyclopédisme was a way of being. Behind the relaxed good looks, his interior mood was “a ferocious appetite nourished by a permanent anguish.” None of it would have worked without his pure heart. A passion for justice and a genuine sympathy with the common people—much of his concern about architecture was on their behalf—ruled out any ideological commitment. After the war, pure hearts were hard to find. Sartre had the unmitigated hide to look down on Prévost’s memory. The reason for Prévost’s “failure,” opined the all-comprehending philosopher, was that Prévost had not been confident enough to follow his star.

Unlike his fellow Resistance hero Sartre, Prévost had been confident enough to follow his star in the direction of the German soldiers, but Sartre left that bit out. There was a lot, after the war, that everyone wanted to leave out. The spontaneous universalism that Prévost had so ably represented in the thirties was irrevocably passé. The division of labour once again became the rule in clerical work. What a man like Prévost had once integrated into a single joyous effort was now broken up into separate specialities, each with its resident panel of shamans and charlatans. The once very real prospect of a widely curious humanism had decayed and separated into literary theory, bogus philosophy and ideological special pleading on behalf of political systems which had, as their first enemy, the irreducible complexity of a living culture. The separate practitioners in these fields all had their own reasons to forget that a man like Prévost had ever existed. But the single thing about him that everybody wanted to forget was his clear, clean decision about fighting the Nazis. That decision had been of a piece with the unpretentious nobility that marked all his work, including the popular journalism, which never flattered his readers except by making them feel talented. You can see what Sartre was afraid of. First of all, Prévost really was the Resistance fighter that Sartre only pretended to be—a pretence we could forgive him for, if he had not later on accused others of cowardice. But what must really have scared Sartre was the lingering memory of Prévost’s literary personality: the liberal, humanist, democratic gusto which would have ensured, had he survived the war, his ascent to the status that Sartre, after the accidental death of Camus, was able to enjoy unchallenged—the savant, the philosopher, the critic of life and literature. On that last point alone, the point of literary criticism, the books that Prévost did not write after the war are a lost library to break the heart. As with Marc Bloch in the field of history—but even more sadly because a gift like Prévost’s is harder to come by—a gap opens up that the imagination can’t fill. You find yourself unable to calculate the damage. Perhaps we can get an idea by trying to imagine what would have happened to critical journalism in English if Orwell had been killed in Spain.