Paris, 23 March 1940
Dear Monsieur Horkheimer,
It is over a year since I sent you my last résumé of French literature. Unfortunately it is not in literary novelties that the past season has proved most fertile. The noxious seed that has sprouted here obscures the blossoming plant of belles-lettres with a sinister foliage. But I shall attempt in any case to make you a florilegium of it. And since the presentation that I offered you before did not displease, I would like to apologize in advance for the ways in which the form of the following remarks may differ.
I shall start with Paris by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz—the last portrait of the city to appear before the War.footnote1 This is far from being a success. But the reader will find here certain interesting features, in that they reveal the distance that the portraitist takes from his subject: the city. A distance on three counts. Firstly, Ramuz has hitherto concentrated on tales of peasant life (of which Derborence is the most memorable). In addition he is not French but Vaudois, so not just rural but foreign. Finally, his book was written when the threat of war had begun to loom over the city, seeming to lend it a sort of fragility that would prompt a retreat on the part of the portraitist. The book came to prominence through its serialization in the Nouvelle Revue Française. The author still holds the stage, as he seems to be becoming the nrf’s accredited chronicler of the War. The March issue opens with his ‘Pages from a Neutral’, presented as the start of a long series of reflections.
Ramuz’s language bears traces of the hold that Péguy must have exercised over him. It offers the same cascade of repetitions, the same series of minimal variations on a given phrase. But what in Péguy recalls the movement of a man driving in a nail by successive hammer strokes, rather suggests, with Ramuz, the gait of an individual interminably repeating his steps—like those neurotics who, when they leave the house, are obsessed by the idea of having left a tap running or forgotten to turn off the gas. A recent critic has rightly emphasized the tenacious anxiety of Ramuz. In other words, one will not be expecting certainty, trenchancy or established conviction from this author. The drawbacks of such an approach are obvious; but it is not without certain advantages. Ramuz is a relatively unbiased spirit. He proved this five years ago with his book What is Man, an interesting attempt to get to the heart of the famous Russian experience, which displays the same hesitations that are so striking in ‘Pages from a Neutral’ and in Paris: Notes by a Vaudois.
As to the latter: the first chapters, which tell how the ‘little Vaudois’ established himself in Paris around the beginning of the century, may be simply signalled in passing. Ramuz describes with great acuity the developing consciousness of the young provincial whose Parisian isolation makes him aware of his essential solitude and difference. Moving on to the theoretical notes in the second part of the book, a few samplings will suffice to bring out the characteristics noted above. Ramuz writes:
To me it seems false . . . to condemn the civilization of the great cities in the name of nature, or the other way round, since both of them exist, both are givens, both are a necessity . . . Far from preaching a ‘return to the land’, as so many do, I think it is the city (whether one deplores it or not) that will end up invading the countryside for good; by which I mean the ways of the city, the machine and the ways of the machine, for the city was the first to industrialize, but industry only represents man’s grip upon the forces of nature, and there is no reason why this control should not gradually be extended to the entire universe (pp. 126–7).