Witches Sabbath | Review

Witches Sabbath
By Maurice Sachs
Translated from the French by Richard Howard
2020, Spurl Editions, 276 pp.

Maurice Sachs was born in Paris in 1906, when the Belle Époque was giving way to modernity, and grew up nourished by that golden age of French culture in a way that seems unimaginable today. His grandfather was a friend and associate of Anatole France, his grandmother married Jacques Bizet, the son of the composer of Carmen, a close friend of Proust’s who would commit suicide a couple weeks before the great writer’s early death.

It wasn’t just the guests at his grandmother’s famous salon that enriched Sachs but the world they made present to the intellectually prodigious teenager. He writes of a time his grandmother brings him to a party at her friend’s house where, “you could still feel the wind of the Commune blowing over the Second Empire furniture,” describing an enchantment very different from what most of us felt among our own grandparents’ friends:

“An extraordinary world wakened for the night, a universe in which I took no direct part, but which I watched in amazement, for all the eyes had seen Verlaine and Rimbaud, this hand had shaken those of Oscar Wilde, Van Gogh and Gauguin, these lips had spoken to Renoir, those ears had heard Bergson.”

Soon after, Sachs would go on to befriend some of the giants of modern art and culture: Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, Max Jacob, and get to know countless others — Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, the philosopher Jacques Maritain — and yet like a living symbol of the tortured, brilliant 20th century, with everything seemingly laid out before him, it was as if his life was cursed.

20th century man

Some of this darkness is Sachs’s own, some comes from his family, and some of it dovetails well with the darkness that would settle on the world around him as it went from an artistic rebirth at the dawn of the century into a catastrophic war, to the chaotic, frenzied creative postwar era, then to economic collapse at the end of the 1920s, the social upheaval of the 1930s and what would eventually be the endgame of World War II and the Holocaust.

Sachs describes himself and his starting point in this book, written in 1939: “An accursed child of the accursed daughter of the accursed branch of a family over whom hung the double malediction of divorce and ruin, I thirsted for new curses.”

He would find them.

Though the book is a virtual encyclopedia of late 19th and early 20th century French culture, he didn’t write the book to drop names, though the names it is full of are fascinating and illustrious. Nor is it an exercise in nostalgia, nor even of remorse, though there are justifiable bursts of the latter. His purpose was much more profound because it was essentially his life’s purpose – to reinvent himself, and not in a simple, superficial way, the way you can become someone new by changing your name, converting to a new religion, making an impulsive marriage, or starting a new life across the ocean.

In fact, he did each of these things, and mercilessly recounts both the comedy and tragedy of all his false steps as well as all the truth they contained because he seemed to have learned a lot along the way. Writing this book for him was like an exorcism – he wanted to put all these famous names and what they represented behind him as well – because the real demon he was exorcising in the end was himself.

“May this book ultimately free me of my first self so that when I have completed it I can exclaim: Here is a life over and done with!”

By the time Witches Sabbath was published in 1946 his life was over and done with, but not in the sense he had been hoping for. A few years after the book was written Sachs reputedly traveled through even more perilous moral terrain than any he had previously gone down. He was living in Nazi Germany and had allegedly resorted to working as an informant for the Gestapo. Regardless, he ended up being swallowed up in the morass and was interred in a concentration camp. When the camp was evacuated in 1945 and the prisoners brought on a forced march, he reached a point where he was too starved and exhausted to continue and he collapsed, so a guard shot and killed him.

Day of judgement

The stories, characters and settings in Witches Sabbath are so striking that it is easy to overlook another remarkable feature of the book – Sachs’s literary and artistic judgements – which, eighty years later, are not only brilliantly expressed but seem nearly flawless.

In the 1930s Andre Gide was a giant not only of French, but world literature. Sachs, though, reflects on whether this reputation will last: “Gide has so enormously, so totally answered the needs of a specific period that there is some basis for wondering if his work will find a similar response in another.” The fact that Gide has faded from a canonical figure to a ghost on the literary landscape confirms these suspicions.

The same can’t be said for the friend of Sachs’s grandmother, Marcel Proust, whose future canonization Sachs predicts. He describes A la recherche du temps perdu as, “a work which exercised on the young of 1925 a direct and sensorial magic and which will exercise it again (today it is at that difficult point through which every great work must pass, that point where its quality is no longer tangibly felt, where its aspect of freshness and intimacy are no longer close enough in time to for us to feel that they are our own, and not yet far enough away for us to make the journey to rediscover them in the faraway countries whose names are read in capital letters; for Marcel Proust has begun that long trajectory of posterity whose curve first takes you away from the country of your birth and then restores you, naked, to the shores from which you set out)…”

The most withering assessment he makes is that of Jean Cocteau, both as a person, influence and an artist. The unconcealed personal bitterness Sachs shows toward Cocteau might make any critical judgement he presents seem suspect yet again Cocteau’s fading place in cultural history is a testament that Sachs saw his former mentor all too clearly. The avant-garde hated him “as a man who had invented nothing, who has profited by everything, and who has appropriated by sleight of hand the poetic props of a theater he did not create.” Sachs predicts that it will be said of Cocteau, as of Wilde, that he put his genius into his life because his works will gradually be forgotten.

Yet he ends his indictment of this “terrifying illusionist who knew how to whisk away hearts and return only a rabbit” by stating his lack of regret for his place in his development: “I never pass the Rue d’Anjou without a little twinge in my heart, and I would never have wanted not to know him.”

Postscript

In 1942, Sachs sent three additional pages to his publishers to be added to his manuscript. That would be the last communication they received from him. In them he attests to his failure to escape from himself, mentions his “cowardly war” and “wretched compromises” and that one day he might tell their story. He also questions this book, this “odd testament”, as he calls it, wishing he had perhaps written something else, about someone else.

However much of a torment it must have been for him to have written and lived this book it is a dazzling and enlightening read, ranging from the heights of high culture to the world of petty crime and Parisian brothels, laced with wit and humor and extraordinary writing.

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Categories: Book Reviews

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