Ghostly Demarcations: On Ramon Fernandez

Ghostly Demarcations: On Ramon Fernandez

Ghostly Demarcations: On Ramon Fernandez

The novelist Dominique Fernandez struggles to understand his father’s years as a Nazi collaborator.


The latest arrival on the ever expanding shelf of volumes assessing literary reputations during the years of the Nazi occupation of France is a long book with a short title. Ramon is a son’s biography of his father, a collaborator, and it’s hard to imagine a more tangled, unresolved contradiction of a literary career than his. Translated by T.S. Eliot in The Criterion, apostrophized by Wallace Stevens in one of his best-known poems, Ramon Fernandez was an esteemed literary critic who became, from 1936 to 1943, the self-appointed "minister of culture" for a fascist populist movement led by Jacques Doriot, the former communist mayor of Saint Denis. For Fernandez’s son, Dominique, now 80, the untangling of those contradictions has been a life’s work.

Ramon is part of a subgenre of literature by children of collaborators currently in full flower in both memoir and fiction. Among the first, and best, literary portraits of a collaborationist parent was Marie Chaix’s novel Les Lauriers du lac de Constance (The Laurels of Lake Constance), published in 1974, two years after the appearance of Robert Paxton’s Vichy France shattered the myth of global French resistance to the Nazis. Marie Chaix’s father, like Dominique Fernandez’s, was a follower of Jacques Doriot; but Marie Chaix chose to write fiction rather than memoir, which allowed her to explore the points of view of various members of her family. Her book ends with the father’s collapse and the daughter’s forgiveness. In 2000 Dominique Jamet narrated Un petit Parisien from the point of view of his boyhood self, 5 years old in 1941, the son of a socialist father gone bad. Such books are always a high-wire act, maintaining their balance by not tilting toward either règlement de comptes (forms of vengeance) or mere apology. Among the finest literary examples of writers understanding their parents’ failings with empathy, but not charity, is Francine du Plessix Gray’s Them (2005), which never neglects the worst parental sins, all the while establishing mother and stepfather as the larger-than-life characters they certainly were. Both homage and critique, Them is a measured and courageous book, and although neither parent was politically compromised, du Plessix Gray’s biological father, an aristocrat who died fighting for the Resistance, shared the anti-Semitic leanings of his class and generation.

In approaching the story of the fascist Ramon Fernandez, it’s useful to remember that even the writers best known for their moral courage in occupied France faced murky circumstances and difficult choices. Jean Guéhenno, an essayist and the conscience of the pre-war left, published nothing above ground during the occupation, as a matter of principle. He was one of the few. But he remained a lycée professor, a civil servant paid by Vichy France, and didn’t depend on income from writing. Jean-Paul Sartre produced No Exit and The Flies onstage with permission from the German authorities and with German officers in the audience. He was offered a job in a lycée, and it turned out that the person he replaced was a Jew who’d been stripped of his post by Vichy’s anti-Jewish legislation. Marguerite Duras worked as the secretary for a Vichy commission that allocated paper supplies to publishers; she also participated in a Resistance network with François Mitterrand. Albert Camus allowed his Myth of Sisyphus to appear without the chapter on Kafka, who was on the "Otto list" of Jewish authors banned by the Nazis. Camus published the Kafka essay in l’Arbalète, in the unoccupied zone. Irène Némirovsky, struggling to keep her family alive in the dangerous occupied zone, published in Gringoire, a violently anti-Semitic journal produced in the unoccupied zone. Colette published in Gringoire and in Comoedia–two publications identified with the collaboration–at the same time that she was hiding her Jewish husband.

Even describing these actions as neutrally as possible, there’s plenty of room for interpretation. Was publishing in Comoedia–a magazine of the arts–on a par with publishing in Gringoire? Was doling out paper supplies an act of collaboration or resistance? What about approving paper allotments for a book written by an opponent of Nazism? Was it an act of collaboration to refuse paper and effectively prevent an anti-Nazi author, or book, from appearing? What was Sartre’s attitude about the person he replaced at the lycée? How anguished was the young Camus about removing Kafka from his first published book of essays? It takes fine discrimination, in studying these cases, to figure out where to draw the lines and how to parse intentions, actions and consequences.

Ramon Fernandez’s political sins, far more straightforward at first glance, have nonetheless produced in his son a strange return to the kind of impassioned search for judgment that characterized the immediate postwar era, when special French courts tried and convicted collaborators according to Article 75, a provision of the 1939 penal code that specified the death penalty for "any Frenchman who, in wartime, undertook intelligence with a foreign power or its agents, with a view towards favoring the enterprises of this power against France." With a view: choices were assumed to be matters of intention, consciously taken. And with this question of intention comes Dominique Fernandez’s interpretive dilemma.

Ramon Fernandez died of a pulmonary embolism in August 1944, twenty days before the liberation of Paris and three months before De Gaulle’s purge courts tried its first wave of journalists and propagandists. Death spared Ramon his day in court. For his son, Dominique, a literary critic, editor, novelist and member of the Académie française, the file has remained open. When he was elected to the Académie in December 2007, Dominique made the unprecedented rhetorical gesture, at the outset of his inaugural speech, of inviting his father to sit under the august dome of the Institut de France with him and the other immortals: "I ask you to welcome with me the shadow of someone who has more reason to be here than I, and to whom I owe my existence: Ramon Fernandez, my father."

This ceremonial welcome was not the end of Dominique’s struggle, for it preceded the publication of Ramon by two years. Exacerbating his fascination with the paternal figure was the fact that Dominique was raised by a mother who disapproved of any filial sign of affection for a father–her former abusive husband–who seemed only dimly aware of his son’s presence. In other words, the shade of the father summoned by Dominique at the Académie française has always been a shadow for him, even when alive, and has drawn his power from the shadows. Only now, in book form, Dominique Fernandez has taken it as his filial responsibility to do what a French examining magistrate (juge d’instruction) would do–examine the case (instruire le cas) and, in the absence of a sitting court, close it, in much the way that you might close a tomb after a viewing, at the moment of burial. The gamble is real, and important: in making his father come alive as a subject of history, he hopes finally to put him to rest.

Ramon Fernandez was born in 1894; his father was a Mexican diplomat, his mother a society journalist. As a young man about town, Ramon was a fop and ladies’ man with an unpublished gay novel in his drawers; his literary circle included Marcel Proust, who held him in great esteem, and the founding members of the Nouvelle Revue Française, André Gide and Jean Schlumberger, who encouraged his critical vocation. He was friends with François Mauriac and Roger Martin du Gard, and acquainted with everyone who mattered in French literature.

In the United States, anyone who has read Wallace Stevens’s "The Idea of Order at Key West," published in 1934, has caught a glimpse of Ramon:

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

For Stevens, Fernandez was the Frenchman with a Spanish name, but also the critic who wrote about his Marxist sympathies in the Nouvelle Revue Française. His name, with its perfect scansion, was also a marker of politics writ large, and of the battles Stevens was waging around the notion of ambiguity and the relationship of poetry to history and politics. Stevens couldn’t have known how prophetic a phrase he had wrought for Fernandez in "the maker’s rage to order."

In politics, like many intellectuals of his generation, Fernandez was drawn first to socialism, then to communism. And then, in 1937, he cast his lot with the rowdy charismatic figure of Jacques Doriot and his Parti populaire français (PPF), which was, as Robert Paxton explains in The Anatomy of Fascism, a "narrowly localized" party of several thousand members, whose platform revolved around the cult of the leader and bitter anticommunism. (Doriot had been expelled from the Communist Party for lack of discipline.) The PPF suffered from the dilemma of most nationalist fascist movements in France: how can you be nationalist if you’re aping Hitlerian ideology and style? After the fall of France, the PPF veered into unconditional support for Germany as well as unabashed anti-Semitism (it received money, along the way, from both the Italian fascists and the Nazis). Ramon Fernandez supported the PPF with articles and speeches praising Doriot in nauseatingly sentimental terms, which his son can only quote in disbelief–asking, again and again, if his father could really have been serious.

The question Dominique must contend with is this: how did his father veer from Proust to Doriot? He posits a kind of political schizophrenia. The same person capable of helping a young man escape his work service in Germany, and of enabling a Jewish acquaintance to find relative safety in the unoccupied zone, cheered as Doriot applauded the efforts of Hitler’s army on the Russian front. But perhaps there is more ideological coherence than Dominique is willing to acknowledge. To stay with the Proustian theme that runs through the book, he casts his father as a kind of virile and homosocial Baron de Charlus figure, with Doriot as his father’s Jupien–his working-class lover. For Dominique, his father’s fascism and collaboration boils down to a series of reinforcing circumstances: repressed homosexuality, alcoholism, shame over not having fought in World War I and even the fact that his father’s first wife (Dominique’s mother), whom the son is too quick to dismiss as an asexual bluestocking and killjoy, wouldn’t let him dance the tango. Ramon wants a strong leader and finds one in the buffoonish Doriot. From time to time his son asks why, if he had been looking for a leader, couldn’t he have turned to Charles de Gaulle? But the general’s white-gloved authoritarian patriotism and Doriot’s sweaty, incendiary populism are not at all the same thing and would not have carried the same charge.

In an attempt to close the books on his father, Dominique parses his words and actions from every angle. Active collaboration meant writing odes to Doriot’s party and visiting Germany with other pro-Nazi intellectuals. Passive collaboration is his membership on the board of the committee that decided paper allotment for works of literature. This commitment is difficult to judge: the committee granted paper for the publication of books by Resistance figures Saint-Exupéry and Mauriac; its support ensured the publication of the first novels of Simone de Beauvoir (L’Invitée) and Marguerite Duras (Les Impudents), as well as Lucien Rebatet’s abject Les Décombres, a vicious attack on the Third Republic, which came out in a huge print run.

Finally, even a comparison with a masterpiece like du Plessix Gray’s Them proves inadequate because Fernandez must contend not only with his parents’ personal failings but also the horrors of history, which prevent him from ever finding his equilibrium. One thing that makes Ramon so captivating is Dominique’s constant, exhausting grasping at judgment. Dominique defends his father, then attacks him, in the same paragraph. In his father’s defense, he quotes Roger Stéphane, best known for liberating the Paris Hôtel de Ville in August 1944. In 1941, on the verge of joining the Resistance, Stéphane, who was Jewish, wrote in his diary:

Nothing is more difficult than taking a position. And this difficulty is increased by the absence of facts. Moreover, it is usually possible to nuance an opinion. Now it’s impossible. You’re either for the British and for De Gaulle, or for the Germans and for Hitler.

What Stéphane said next is shocking to read today:

I am not sure that the cause of the British is just. I am not sure that the British interests aren’t more reactionary than the Nazi interests…. I am not sure that one must, a priori, forbid Germany to attempt to organize Europe, a grandiose enterprise at which both France and England failed after 1918. One must ask these questions, which in themselves contain no elements for a response.

If a hero of the Liberation could entertain these doubts, Dominique asks, wasn’t it possible, in those early years, for even the best-intentioned person to get it wrong?

When Dominique returns to the bar for the prosecution, he cites passage after passage in which Ramon expresses his admiration for Goebbels, Hitler and Doriot, who became brutally anti-Semitic in 1941. He quotes from Ramon’s speeches in the company of Robert Brasillach, the editor of the fascist newspaper Je suis partout, who, along with Ramon, was the guest of Goebbels on a 1941 junket to Nazi Germany. In April 1942, several months before the French police rounded up 13,000 Jews at Vél d’Hiv sports stadium in Paris, Ramon stood on a PPF podium next to Georges Montandon, the official anthropological theorist of French anti-Semitism, under a banner that read, Racism and the Jews. His son can find no trace in his father’s papers of the speech he gave that day.

Finally, Dominique locates, at the end of his father’s life, visible signs of regret–more evidence for the defense. By 1943, when the Allies had invaded North Africa and the defeat of Hitler seemed imminent, Ramon took off the ridiculous beret and uniform he had worn as a cheerleader for the PPF and returned to literary criticism. (It was around this time that Brasillach left Je suis partout.) Dominique counts two actions taken by his father at the end of his life as acts of resistance: first, several tributes to the Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson, one of the Nazis’ foremost intellectual targets; and second, his last and one of his best books, a study of a novelist who was half Jewish, homosexual and decadent by every Nazi criterion–Marcel Proust. Ramon was also, according to family members, scandalized by the obligatory yellow Jewish stars, and insisted on taking the metro car reserved for Jews. But the anecdote about the yellow star is just that–anecdotal–and it’s difficult to measure a family story against a literary reading, and a literary reading against an archive. For the historian, they’re not equal. For the son, they coexist, footnotes of the heart.

It’s often hard to know not only what counts as evidence but what to make of it. A recent article by Jean-Thomas Nordmann in the conservative French journal Commentaire, grappling with Ramon’s extraordinary literary talent, points out that the kind of political/intellectual schizophrenia Dominique describes in his father is not so unusual. He insists that we can and should read Ramon’s book on Proust without minding his public support for the racial theorist Montandon, which was strictly contemporaneous. If anything, Nordmann argues, Dominique’s dogged juxtaposition of Ramon’s literary and political personas makes him underestimate the value of his father’s literary contributions. Nordmann is adding his voice to a conversation that goes back to the postwar purge, when the critic and publisher Jean Paulhan, disgusted by the purge courts, said that writers should have the right to make mistakes. Plenty of critics make the same argument about Céline, claiming that his delirious anti-Semitic pamphlets were errors–errors of judgment, errors of ethics–that need to be bracketed off from a true appreciation of his fiction.

But if errors didn’t matter, Dominique Fernandez would not have had a book to write. Nor would he have been pressed to write one. History would not weigh on the present, or even give the impetus for new works of literature. For where he is utterly stumped as the examining magistrate of his father’s case–by lack of evidence and especially by lack of motive–Dominique draws on his skills as a novelist to reimagine his father’s world. And for the novelist, there is not an argument as much as there are scenes.

One recurring scene in particular offers a vision of literary life under the Nazi occupation that strikes deep at stock ideas of collaboration and resistance. The scene is of an apartment building on the rue Saint-Benoît in Paris. Marguerite Duras, the future star of the new novel, active in the Resistance, lives in an apartment she got thanks to Betty and Ramon Fernandez. Ramon, her friend and colleague on the paper commission, who lives directly above her, is on a path to alcoholic self-destruction, condemning himself to death before the state can. Sartre once said that a busy American in Paris could meet every French writer who counted within a single day. There is a dense psychogeography of literary life in this most literary of cities, and a symbol on every corner. Down the street from the rue Saint-Benoît is the Café de Flore, preferred by the Resistance. Across from the Flore is the Brasserie Lipp, Fernandez’s headquarters and the favored spot for young fascists and collaborators. Sometimes friendship trumped politics, the population of the cafes mixed and agreements and alliances were made. Fernandez knew exactly when Duras joined the Resistance with her lover Dionys Mascolo–the two had met on the Vichy paper-allocation board, when Mascolo came to lobby for his publisher, Gallimard. Duras understood that Fernandez and his wife would never denounce her friends for Resistance activity. And it is a single throwaway line from Duras’s novel The Lover–a remark she makes out of the blue–that will serve as the cornerstone of Dominique Fernandez’s entire study. Her fault as a communist, and Fernandez’s fault as a fascist, Duras claimed, boiled down to one mistake: believing in the political solution to the personal problem.

So we are left, after reading Dominique Fernandez’s Ramon, neither condemning the novelist’s father completely nor exculpating him but rather believing in the personal explanation for the political problem–which is a kind of exculpation, and a simplification, since the personal and the political are sure to combine in unexpected and uneven ways. So much time has passed since the events of 1940-45, it seems, that the old fervor and sense of responsibility has given way to an almost dreamlike–or even detached–sense of individual fragility, more appropriate for literature than for court. As for the novelist, Dominique, we’re left with sympathy for his long struggle and with the hope that the examining magistrate, who has worked so hard and examined every file, can now be dismissed.

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