33 Days

Léon Werth; Austin Denis John­ston, trans.

  • Review
By – August 21, 2015

The thir­ty-three days in Léon Werth’s title refers to the length of time Werth and his wife spent as part of the mass exo­dus of Jews from Nazi-occu­pied Paris, caught in traf­fic in the French coun­try­side, bored, lone­ly, ter­ri­fied, and annoyed. Writ­ten dur­ing and direct­ly after the events described and orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to be pub­lished in New York before the war end­ed, this well-pro­duced vol­ume from Melville House is the memoir’s first pub­li­ca­tion in Eng­lish trans­la­tion. Its intro­duc­tion, by Werth’s close friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, has nev­er before been print­ed in any language.

Even more cap­ti­vat­ing than the recov­ery of the book, how­ev­er, is the text itself. Werth’s genius is in his abil­i­ty to con­vey the unlike­ly banal­i­ty of war. In lyri­cal yet bru­tal­ly descrip­tive pas­sages, his expe­ri­ence comes across as no stranger than any con­tem­po­rary bumper-to-bumper traf­fic jam, and yet feels touched by a fun­da­men­tal human mis­ery. This short mem­oir is dense with images that seem designed to stay in one’s mind for­ev­er, as they must have stayed in Werth’s. Sur­vey­ing the end­less line of cars and wag­ons, he writes, Two immo­bile hors­es gaze out at the road, med­i­tat­ing rather, tak­ing in the end­less line of traf­fic that no longer sur­pris­es but still hyp­no­tizes them. One of the two, upright on its four hooves, its har­ness tied to a tree, is dead.”

Werth sets the com­mon­place beside the hor­rif­ic — or, per­haps, sim­ply reveals how, for him, the hor­rif­ic is set beside the com­mon­place. When a Ger­man sol­dier walks up to his car door, he writes, I have the urge to kill this man, or to talk to him about the weath­er or his health.” This recov­ered text serves as an impor­tant, per­haps essen­tial, reminder to those of us who would roman­ti­cize or sim­pli­fy this or any war.

The loss of the small cus­toms out of which the social fab­ric is woven is one of the casu­al­ties of war, too. The brav­ery in Werth’s text is not in a recount­ing of bat­tles or vic­tors or life and death, but of minor annoy­ances, of pas­sive-aggres­sive inter­ac­tions between French peas­ants and Ger­man sol­diers. I know I’m not recount­ing a big event. But there are no small events. A per­son and his nation are whol­ly with­in the small­est act,” Werth writes of a near­ly explo­sive inci­dent in which a house­wife catch­es a Ger­man sol­dier steal­ing a sin­gle egg from her barn.

Although this book has been billed as the sto­ry of Werth and his wife flee­ing in pur­suit of their son, the issue of their son and his fate is intro­duced and resolved in one anti­cli­mac­tic para­graph in the mid­dle of the book. The real sus­pense here is in the ten­sion between the absolute­ly triv­ial and the absolute­ly ter­ri­ble — a ten­sion pow­er­ful enough to sus­tain the entire­ty of this impor­tant memoir.

Lucy Bie­der­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty in Tif­fin, Ohio. Her first book, The Wal­mart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

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