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Remembering the Liberation of Paris

August 26, 2014 Leave a comment

Among all the cities of Europe that fell under the Nazi boot in the Second World War, the loss of Paris touched a raw nerve among those who fought the German war machine.

Paris was no Stalingrad, fought over from house to house, nor was it the victim, like London, of merciless aerial attack. It stood as a symbol of culture and freedom — of what had been lost to the Nazis and what must be regained for the world.

When Paris fell to the Germans on June 10, 1940, it truly seemed as if, in the words of an earlier British foreign minister, the lights had gone out all over Europe.

By August, 1944, the Allied armies including a sizable Fighting French force under General Jacques Leclerc, was fighting its way across France. As town after town was liberated, Free French leader Charles de Gaulle met with General Eisenhower.

Allied forces were at the River Seine, yet no effort was being made to go into Paris. “I don’t see why you cross the Seine everywhere, yet at Paris and Paris alone you do not cross,’ de Gaulle told the Allied commander.

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The truth was that the Allies preferred to by pass Paris, only taking the city later, after the Nazi armies had been finally smashed. It would take the divergence of four thousand tons of supplies a day to feed the hungry five million of the French capital.

In Paris, a Communist-led Paris Liberation committee saw things differently. Its leaders wanted to present de Gaulle with a fait accompli: a new Paris Commune, a capital that would be forced to accept Communist rule.

When the Resistance began its uprising in Paris, no one knew how the Germans would react. German commander, General Deitrich von Choltitz, had orders from Hitler to leave the city “a field of rubble.”

It took a secret mission by a Gaullist sympathizer who carried word to U.S. General George Patton that Paris was descending into civil war to force the issue. Eisenhower finally gave the go-ahead, and Leclerc’s Free French began the march on Paris.

At dawn on Friday, August 25, 1944, Simone de Boivoir was up at dawn to see Leclerc’s soldiers march down the avenue d’Orléans. “Along the sidewalks, an immense crowd applauded … From time to time a shot was fired; a sniper on the roofs, someone fell, was carried off, but no one seemed upset, enthusiasm stamped out fear.”

That night, General de Gaulle addressed France from the l’Hotel de Ville, the city hall of Paris:

“Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people, with the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the eternal France!”

There would be no Paris Commune. De Gaulle and the Allies had arrived in time

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Memories of Jack Layton, and more

August 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Travelling about Europe this past week, I followed the sad news of the death of Jack Layton, and his funeral today (Saturday, August 27) in Toronto. I write this in the Toronto International Airport, awaiting ground transportation to take me home.

So much has been said and written about Jack Layton that anything I could add would probably be redundant. I last spoke to Jack one Saturday morning when Deborah and I encountered him in a bookstore on Danforth Avenue. He was filling the role of the “constituency man.” getting about his riding and keeping in touch with people and things.

Margaret Wente has a lovely account of Jack’s funeral at Globe and Mail Online.

Jack Layton’s death was the subject of a long account I read in the International Herald Tribune while in Paris. I was there doing some research on a book idea.

Interestingly, there’s been quite a bit of Canada in the European press this week. The Sino Forest scandal on Bay Street made the Financial Times of London, and I ran across a review of Maureen Jennings’ new book, Season of Darkness. She’s the author of the books behind that great TV series, Murdoch Mysteries, featuring an 1890s’ Toronto detective with a flair for solving cases through clever use of newly emerging scientific criminology.

In Paris, we watched with several thousands others the ceremonies in front of l’Hotel de Ville commemorating the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944.  This year tribute was paid to the resistants who rose against the Germans in the final days of the Occupation. It was a moving ceremony and while the crowd was not large by Parisian standards, it included many young people, presumably all mindful of the importance of that historic day.

Back in Canada, the prevailing sentiment in wake of the death of Jack Layton seems to be a yearning for politicians to learn from the positive and optimistic view he expressed so eloquently, especially in his final campaign. I have always felt that the first priority of a national leader should be to provide people with reason to feel positive about their country and themselves. Not blind patriotism of the flag waving type so endemic to the United States, but a genuine sense of delight about a country’s prospects and the promise it holds for its people and their place in the world.

It is probably unrealistic to expect the aura around Jack Layton’s passing to persist for more than a brief moment. But one can hope that the flame he set alight will burn in the hearts of men and women in our public life for a very long time to come.

The Paris Wife and Hemingway at the Ritz

August 11, 2011 Leave a comment

On August 25, 1944, Paris was liberated by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the  2nd Armoured Division of Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s  Fighting French. Every year since then, Parisians have gathered on this date to celebrate the restoration of their city’s freedom. Among the celebrated personalities who helped “liberate” Paris was Ernest Hemingway, at the head of his own rag-tag little army. He checked out the bar at the Ritz Hotel where he’d drank many a martini, visited his friend Sylvia Beach who’d had to give up her Shakespeare & Co. bookshop during the occupation, then returned to the Ritz to share a dinner with eight officers. They signed each other’s menus with the identical inscription: “We think we took Paris!”

So this is a good time to be reading Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (Bond Street Books), a fictional rendering of Ernest Hemingway’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley Richardson. It is a story well-known to anyone who has read Hemingway biographies, yet it sympathetically explores the emotions and attitudes that Hadley and Ernest must have shared and felt, in a way that is possible only in a work of fiction.Nevertheless, The Paris Wife is faithful to the historical record.

Hadley Richardson was an earnest and adventurous midwestern girl when she met Hemingway in Chicago in 1920. He wooed her there and by love letters he sent her when she returned to her home in St. Louis. They married in September, 1921. Hemingway had made up his mind to go to Europe to pursue a writing life, intending to settle in Rome. Sherwood Anderson urged him to go to Paris instead, and gave him letters of introduction to Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Sylvia Beach.

The novelty of the bohemian life they found in Paris was entrancing to both Ernest and Hadley.The young wife adjusts slowly to the cafe life, the drinking and the trips that Ernest makes throughout Europe on assignments for the Toronto Star. When he is sent to cover a conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, Hadley is sick in bed, and Ernest goes ahead. When she follows, a few nights later, she commits the sin of which Ernest will never really forgive her. She puts all his manuscripts in a valise and sets out for the train. Somehow, she loses the valise, either to a thief or to absent-mindedness. The reader shares her dismay when she discovers this, and the pain when she has to tell Ernest what has happened. He rushes back to Paris thinking Hadley could not possibly have done as she had said. The manuscripts are nowhere to be found.

When she became pregnant, Ernest decides the baby should be born in North America. The couple return to Toronto, but Ernest is soon distraught at the petty politics of the Star and the dullness of life in this proper Protestant city. “Toronto’s dead,” Paula McLain has Ernest telling Hadley. “We can’t stay here.”

The Paris Wife is a chronicle of adventure, love, and despair, an absorbing and illuminating story of two lives descending into an inevitable pit of defeat. One cannot read it without experiencing the taste and hearing the sounds of Paris life. Hemingway’s own memory of his Paris life, as in A Moveable Feast, is reflected unerringly in this novel, as incident on incident piles up, adding stress to the marriage.

One watches, fascinated, as Pauline Pfeiffer, who will become Ernest’s second wife, enters their lives. She is not merely tolerated but welcomed by Hadley, even after she realizes Hemingway has been sleeping with her. But it is the scenes in Spain, where Hemingway has gone to write his masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises, that McLain depicts to most painfully register the dismay Hadley feels over what is happening.

The book is at its strongest in its final chapters, where Hadley realizes she can no longer be a dull but loyal wife, and that he will soon leave her, ready to begin not just another marriage but another epic work of literature. Scott Fitzgerald, who with Zelda is seldom absent from this book, is said to have concluded that Ernest needed a new wife for every big new book.

The Paris Wife is about a great writer, his moral lapses, his intensity and his determination to “write well and true,” as well as about the woman who shared the early years of his success. But most of all, it is about an age, one that perhaps never really existed beyond the pages of the books that Hemingway and his contemporaries would write, but one that continues to fascinate, and will have everlasting appeal.

I will be in Paris for this year’s Liberation Day ceremony. A martini at the Ritz, and a salute to The Paris Wife will be in order.