Short takes

By Barbara Fisher
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2010

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Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris

By Alan Riding
Knopf, 416 pp., $28.95

This fascinating study recounts the careers of a huge number of artists during the German occupation of Paris. Most interesting are the complicated stories of artists who were neither heroes nor traitors, who made decisions about how to live and work during the occupation. Collaboration or resistance were not the only two options. Most surprising is the speed with which Parisian artistic life resumed after the fall of Paris. In only weeks after the occupation began, theaters, operas, and music halls were reopened, movies continued filming, artists resumed painting, composers composing, writers writing.

Many artists fled to the south and remained there for the duration, while many more returned to Paris, having made their own compromises, adjustments, or resolutions. Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Danielle Darrieux performed at home and traveled to entertain French prisoners in Germany. Dufy, Rouault, Bonnard, and Matisse continued to paint in the south, while Picasso remained in Paris. Vlaminck, Derain, and Van Dongen traveled to Germany as guests of the Nazis. While Jews were expelled from the film industry, the theater remained intact. French classics by Corneille and Moliere were performed as well as work by Sartre, Camus, and Anouilh. Publishers, authorized by Germany, printed new work by Fascist writers but also by anti-Fascists Aragon, Eluard, Colette, De Beauvoir, and Duras.

This compelling and complex book includes lively chapters on Varian Fry, an unlikely American hero who helped hundreds escape to America and Switzerland; Gerhard Heller, a cultured and sensitive German who protected many artists; and Florence Gould, a wealthy American who entertained the French and German elite with black market champagne.

By Julia Franck
Translated, from the German, by Anthea Bell
Grove, 416 pp., $24.95

This expansive novel moves from just after World War I until the end of World War II. Two devoted sisters grow up in a small German town. Their mother, who comes from a Jewish family and is referred to by the locals as “the foreign woman,’’ is a recluse. Their father returns from WWI maimed and dies of his wounds. To escape the dreariness of small-town life, the sisters move to Berlin to stay with a wealthy aunt and to continue their studies.

Naïve when they arrive, they quickly learn how to enjoy the erotic pleasures of Berlin. Martha, nine years older than Helene, learns with greater speed and ease than her sister. But Helene receives an education in love with the help of Carl, a sensitive philosophy student. When she loses Carl, she is overwhelmed by grief. Willing to entertain almost any alternative to despair, she marries Wilhelm, a respectable, brutal businessman, who helpfully provides her with Aryan papers. Wilhelm gives her a new identity and a son. Helene, who has always thought of herself as an outsider, abandons the child at a railway station right after the war.

The novel begins and ends with this forlorn boy. The long sweep of this novel explores his loss, sorrow, and how his sadness hardens into angry acceptance.

By Anne Trubek
University of Pennsylvania,
168 pp., $24.95

At the start of this amusing and paradoxical book, Anne Trubek confesses, “For me writers’ houses are by definition melancholy. . . . And they aim to do the impossible: to make physical — to make real — acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand.’’ Despite her awareness of her own folly, she visits many writers’ houses.

She is depressed by the set kitchen table at the bare Walt Whitman house in Camden, N.J. At the Mark Twain house in Hannibal, Mo., she is distressed by the willful confusion between the fictional and the actual — signs marking “the real fence painted by Tom Sawyer.’’ Hemingway’s houses in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Key West, Fla., each disappoint in its own way. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s hat hanging on a peg in Concord gives her a chill, and the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton, Ohio, lovingly preserved by the poet’s mother, genuinely moves her.

In the end, Trubek confesses, “I believe, still, that a house is often not the best way to honor the life and work of a writer.’’ The houses never get it right. They fail to fuse the author, text, and reader together in any satisfying way. Instead they offer unreliable stories, false relics, and schlocky sentimentality.

Barbara Fisher, a freelance writer, can be reached at bfishershorttakes@