The Man Who Walked Through Walls: Marcel Aymé

The movie poster below is for a 1951 film version of Marcel Aymé’s story “The Man Who Walked Through Walls”, first published in 1943 while German forces occupied France. No doubt a great many people wished they had the ability to pass through walls then.

Poster for the 1953 film version of The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Poster by surrealist Felix Labisse.

Poster for the 1951 film version of The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Poster by surrealist Felix Labisse.

Before the War, Marcel Aymé had written several novels set in rural France. These were disdained by the snobbish Parisian literary establishment as was Aymé’s style, which incorporated Anglicisms and the patois of the Franche-Comte, where he was born in 1902. Even his children’s stories, collected as Stories from the Perching Cat [Les Contes du chat perché], were savaged by these critics. It didn’t help that Aymé often satirized the bourgeoisie and their hypocrisy. He ignored the critics and kept on writing.
Aymé was apolitical. He had tried to escape conscription but, at the age of eighteen, was taken into the army where he served as part of the French occupation of Germany in 1920. Before 1935, Aymé was considered a leftist, but in that year he signed a petition opposing French action against Italy for the invasion of Ethiopia. The petition was essentially a pacifist plea but contained troubling words that called the Ethiopians a “pack of tribes” and suggested that Italy was bringing Western civilization to savages. More to the point, the petition noted that France had a large empire of its own and had no business criticizing other nations until it cleaned up its own house.

Marcel Ayme, 1940s.

Marcel Ayme, 1940s.

The petition was signed by a number of right-wing intellectuals, including many connected with Action française, an extreme right publication that had begun life as an anti-Dreyfus journal. Other signatories included many French fascists including Robert Brasillach (of whom, more later). The petition was denounced by many on the left as a document of “fascist intellectualism”. It should be noted that, at this time, there were pacifists on both the left and the right (yes) and that anti-bourgeois sentiments were common to both. The left tended to be secular and republican with Marxism the core philosophy; the right was Catholic and royalist with a philosophical bent toward fascism.
France had a great many outright fascists who admired Mussolini’s model and there were many more who shared certain principles — nationalism, militarism, anti-semitism — with them. After the collapse of the French army in 1940, many of these became supporters of the Vichy puppet regime. Some openly proclaimed their satisfaction with the German conquest. “A divine surprise,” Charles Maurras called it.
German occupation of France was intended to be a soft affair, one that wouldn’t upset the citizens too much, and for a while, it was. Independent France still existed — on paper — in Vichy, which gave people an excuse to go along with the Germans, since it meant protecting France. The Germans put Francophiles in charge of occupied Paris — some were married to Frenchwomen — and they were quite sensitive to French feelings. French artists in particular had freedoms not known in other parts of occupied Europe.
Some French residents, such as Gertrude Stein, actively took up the cause of Marshall Pétain, “the savior of France” and head of the Vichy regime.  Stein translated a work of Petain’s into English. This book, which included long anti-semitic diatribes, was meant for publication in America. Stein wrote a foreword in which she compared Pétain to George Washington and Benjamin Franklin — in other words, the Nazi collaborator was the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers. Stein took up residence in Vichy territory. Her Paris apartment, full of priceless artwork, was sealed. When the Gestapo decided to open the seal, Picasso warned Bernard Faÿ, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale, who was unofficial Vichy Minister for Culture and Stein’s protector.  Faÿ ordered the Gestapo away. The Pétain book was never distributed in America.
Some others, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, intensified the expression of their thoughts. Céline, who was about as nasty an anti-semite as could be found anywhere, continued a series of anti-Jewish books that he had begun before the War. André Gide, by no means a fascist, defended the first, pre-war, volume as over-the-top black humor. And it may be possible to read Trifles for a Massacre [Bagatelles pour un massacre] that way. But, in 1941 when Céline was still openly calling for the elimination of all Jews, the joke was hard to find:

Beating up Jews (by Jew I mean anyone with a Jew for a grandparent, even one!) won’t help, I’m sure, that’s just going around in circles, it’s a joke, you’re only beating around the bush if you don’t grab them by the strings [tefillins], if you don’t strangle them with them. [via Tony Judt in the NYRB]

"Tefillen" are the straps used to attach phylactery prayer-boxes, as on this Israeli soldier. Cocteau is saying that they should be used to strangle Jews.

“Tefillen” are the straps used to attach phylactery prayer-boxes, as on this Israeli soldier. Cocteau is saying that they should be used to strangle Jews.

Céline was a friend to Aymé who had championed his work in the past. Both satirized the bourgeosie, both played with language, though Aymé was a humanist who tended to smile at human foibles while Céline seemed to desire the kind of dark destruction that appealed to fascist romantics. But Aymé was loyal to his friends.
Meanwhile, others determined to resist. Albert Camus saw a friend shot by the Germans and came to the conclusion that sometimes one had to make a choice, a decision about which side you were on. And he wrote in his journal about Vichy, “Now the only moral value is courage, which is useful here for judging the puppets and chatterboxes who pretend to speak in the name of the people.”
Jean Texcier wrote his pamphlet “Advice to the Occupied” which gave instructions on dealing with the Germans: “Have no illusions. They are not tourists, they are conquerors…” Don’t deliberately insult these conquerors to their face, give them a light if they ask for it, but do not befriend them, don’t invite them into your home.
There were incidents — violent confrontations — in the countryside from the beginning of the occupation, but these were unorganized. By the end of 1940, a number of groups of resistants had formed across France, some were Communist, some ex-army, some criminals, some adventure-seekers, and some were ordinary folk, unwilling to put up with an occupation that was becoming, outside Paris, more and more bloody. In early 1941, these groups began to cooperate and function as a united Resistance.

Combat office in 1944. Camus at left, Andre Malraux in uniform at right.

Combat office in 1944. Camus at left, Andre Malraux in uniform at right.

The Resistance published its own journal, Combat, which was staffed by many of the leading lights of French literature, in particular Albert Camus, but also Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, Raymond Aron, and others. At the same time, the right-wing Je suis partout [I am everywhere — scary, right?], with Robert Brasillach as editor, displaced Action française as the main organ for Vichy collaborators. Aymé wrote four articles for this journal in 1942. None were political.
The resistants’ war became more and more bloody. German troops were killed in the streets of Paris, resulting in the kind of reprisals already familiar in the countryside. The occupation became more onerous to ordinary citizens: France had to pay the costs of the German occupation and currency values were rigged to favor the deutschmark. Most of France’s gross domestic product flowed back to the Third Reich. Young Frenchmen were drafted into the Labor Corps. And the arrest and transport of Jews began in July of 1942, with more than 70,000 French Jews murdered by the War’s end.

Arno Breker sculpting Cocteau.

Arno Breker sculpting Cocteau.

As things became more serious, the casual disdain for political affairs displayed by certain artists dissolved into fear. Picasso became afraid and begged Jean Cocteau for help. Cocteau was a fascist sympathizer who contacted Arno Breker, “Hitler’s favorite sculptor”, on Picasso’s behalf. According to Breker, he kept Picasso from being shot. Meanwhile, the Resistance had become popular and Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover, begged to be allowed to join. No one trusted him, though, either because of his connection to Cocteau or because he was a blabbermouth, and Marais never found a resistant willing to recruit him.

Jean Marais, Cocteau at rear, 1939.

Jean Marais, Cocteau at rear, 1939.

In 1943, Marcel Aymé published a book of short pieces titled  The Man Who Walked Through Walls [Le Passer-muraille]. The stories are mostly fantastic and satiric. Aymé’s method is to take a single fantastic situation and then push it to a climax.
“The Man Who Walks Through Walls” is the story of a civil servant named Dutilleul who, at the age of 42, discovers that he can walk through walls. This power does not interest him, in fact it bothers him, so Dutilleul goes to a doctor who prescribes medication that will take away this unwanted talent. Dutilleul takes one tablet, then shuts the rest of the pills away. He continues using doors and ignoring walls until his boss is replaced by someone disagreeable. Eventually, Dutilleul is driven to use his power to bedevil this new boss to the point of madness. After he is driven from the scene, Dutilleul finds himself with a taste for more devilment. He becomes a thief and eventually reveals himself to the police, who, of course, cannot hold him in a cell. Dutilleul relishes his notoriety. He takes a lover whose husband locks her in at night, and his life is going well until, one day, he has a headache and pops a pill he finds in the cupboard. It is one of those that the doctor prescribed for him. He goes to meet his lover and winds up stuck in the wall, unable to move.
But the most interesting story in the collection is “The Ration-Card”[“La Carte”]. It is presented as a diary:

There’s an absurd rumor going around the neighborhood about new austerity
measures. In order to ward off shortages and insure a greater output from the
laboring element of the population, there will supposedly be executions of
non-productive consumers: the elderly, the retired, those of independent means,
the unemployed and other non-essential persons. Deep down, I feel that this
measure would be quite fair.

But the diarist discovers that:

…putting all the non-essential to death is out of the question. The plan will
simply cut back on their time alive. Maleffroi explained to me that they will be
entitled to so many days of existence per month according to their degree of
uselessness.

So people thought to be useless will have less time alive. The narrator is allowed only fifteen days a month of life. He is indignant, but is told that, after all, writers are useless. The narrator goes to pick up his ration card:

I waited three hours in line at the 18th district city hall to get my time
ticket. We were there, lined up in double file, around two thousand unfortunate
souls dedicated to the appetite of the laboring masses. And this was just the
first little batch. About half of the number looked to be elderly. There were
pretty young women whose faces were languid with sadness and who seemed to sigh:
“I don’t want to die yet”. … In the waiting lines, I recognized, not without emotion, and, I must admit, with
secret satisfaction, comrades from Montmartre, writers and artists: Céline, Gen
Paul, Daragnès, Fauchois, Soupault, Tintin, d’Esparbès and others. Céline was in
a dark mood. He said that it was just one more maneuver of the Jews, but I think
that on this particular point, his bad mood led him astray. As a matter of fact,
in the terms of the decree, it allows Jews, without distinction for age, sex, or
activity, one-half day of existence per month. On the whole, the crowd was
irritated and tumultuous. The many officers assigned to security duty treated us
with great disdain, clearly considering us the scum of the earth. Again and
again, as we grew tired of this long wait, they appeased our impatience with
kicks in the ass.

By now the reader must recognize this story as an allegory of current events. The Nazis called those they condemned to death — cripples, the insane, the old, the feeble-minded —  “useless eaters”. As for the artists, well, we have met Céline, the painter Gen Paul was not a fascist, and Soupault was on the run from the Gestapo, arranging a Resistance radio network. So, one must ask, how did this manage to get published in occupied Paris in 1943? Presumably, because the Nazi censors nodded when presented with fantasy. There may be an answer in the French Gestapo files for 1943 but these are sealed for several decades yet.
Anyway, the ration cards and the life they represent begin to turn up on the black market. Some can buy extra days of existence. The narrator adds five days to June, existing to the 35th. Eventually, with the wealthy buying up all existence and extending their days for many months, the authorities concede that the plan has not aided the economy one bit and they discontinue the cards.

People rummaging through scraps at a market in occupied Paris. [photo by André Zucca, who took pictures for the Germans.]

People rummaging through scraps at a market in occupied Paris. [photo by André Zucca, who took pictures for the Germans.]


Another story deals with the entry into heaven of an evil man. There are so many dead soldiers waiting to get in that St. Peter just waves in the lot. The wicked person hides in the crowd.
One tale is not fantasy but a bitter description of life in rationed France. People waiting for food talk about their harsh lives. One says simply, “I am a Jew.” He need say nothing more, everyone recognizes that he has the hardest life. Once again, all this went through German censorship.
By now, everyone could see that the tide had turned against the Germans. Some Vichy officials, like François Mitterrand, became surreptitious resistants.
After D-day, some collaborators and sympathizers, Céline for example, fled the country. Others hung around, trusting in the concept that Vichy had saved France to save them. But the “Purification”, l’épuration, spared no one. Pétain and many members of his administration were imprisoned to await trial for treason. In the countryside, justice was more summary. Resistants took over villages and killed many who were suspected of collaboration or who, one way or another, offended them.
When the trials began, one of the first was that of Robert Brasillach. He was found guilty of aiding the enemy and sentenced to death by a judge who had once served Vichy. Marcel Aymé took up the task of saving his live. He asked numerous artists and writers to sign a petition asking for clemency. Some agreed. It is unlikely that Cocteau’s signature was of value in this instance but François Mauriac was a hero of the Resistance. Sartre and Picasso refused to sign, possibly because the Communist party advocated revenge. Albert Camus answered Aymé’s request with a letter. During the War, Camus had called for justice for the collaborators and Vichyites. He said, no one could forgive them except the families of those who had been killed. He wrote to Aymé:

I have always been horrified by the death penalty, and I have judged that as an individual the least I could do was not participate in it, even by abstention….This is a scruple that I suppose would make the friends of Brasillach laugh. And as for him, if his life is spared and if an amnesty frees him as it probably will in one or two years, I would like him to be told the following as concerns my letter: it is not for him that I join my signature with yours, it is not for the writer,  whom I consider to be worth nothing, nor for the individual, for whom I have the strongest contempt.

Mauriac took the petition, with Camus’ signature, personally to De Gaulle. But, in January, 1945, Brasillach was shot. His last words: “Vive la France.” He was the only writer to be executed during the Purification. A number of other Vichyites were sentenced to death, although de Gaulle commuted Pétain’s sentence to life imprisonment. Aymé was widely attacked and accused of collaboration. The Ethiopian petition and the articles in Je suis partout were mentioned, but the real crime was  Aymé’s friendship with fascists like Brasillach and Céline. The charges were not pressed. Still, Aymé was labeled with the quasi-official term “blame without [overt] display” (“blâme sans affichage”), which I take to be something like “thought crime”.
In 1945 many claimed to have been resistants or anti-Vichy, whose resistance was, at best, minimal. Gertrude Stein, for instance, claimed to have aided the Resistance, though evidence for that is difficult to find. She was certainly, at minimum, a Pétainist. Some felt that the best way to proclaim their own resistance to the Germans was to attack anyone else who might be suspected of any kind of collaboration.
Aymé was disgusted with this kind of hypocrisy, which, at that time, might mean a matter of life and death. His politics were personal and extended to those around him. He despised grand organizations and causes. You not betray a friend or, for that matter, any human being for the sake of an ideology.
In 1948 he published Uranus, a novel describing the events in a newly liberated village. Young Communists murder  social democrats and Trotskyites in the street, and sometimes they kill other people for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. In one scene, townspeople who had been prisoners of war return. The Marseillaise is played and the mayor makes a speech while five Communists locate a man in the group that they call a Pétainist. They throw him on the ground and begin to beat him. Everyone stands aside and the mayor continues his welcoming speech as the man is beaten to death. At the novel’s center is an alcoholic tavern-keeper, Leopold, a sympathetic character who winds up being executed.

Gerard Depardieu as Leopold in the 1990 film version of Uranus.

Gerard Depardieu as Leopold in the 1990 film version of Uranus.

Uranus is the third novel in a trilogy that depicts life in a French Village from the late 1930s to 1944. Neither of the first two, published in 1941 and 1942, has the harsh bitterness expressed in Uranus. (Although the first, Travelingue, contains sharp satire of leftists during the Popular Front.) Tony Judt calls Uranus hard-bitten and cynical, and puts it in company with the writing of others at the time who said much the same sort of thing.
Even a non-cynical person could not fail to find something corrupt in the offer of the Legion of Honor to Aymé in 1949. He turned it down, warning against “the extreme lightness with which [this honor] was thrown at the head of a bad Frenchman like me…”
In that same year, Aymé took up the cause of another writer, Maurice Bardèche, a scholar of 19th Century literature and Brasillach’s brother-in-law, who was accused of excusing war crimes. Bardèche was definitely a fascist sympathizer before the War and after it, but was not an active collaborator. He was sentenced to a year in prison, something that made him more defiant, and he became a Holocaust denier and Nazi apologist.
In 1950, Céline was convicted in absentia of “acts harming the national defense”, a much less damaging charge than treason. He was sentenced to a year in prison, which he served in Denmark, where he was living. In 1951, his lawyer negotiated an amnesty for Céline, and he returned to France. During this period, Aymé wrote pleas and letters and circulated petitions  to aid his friend.

Celine, at left, with Ayme in 1955.

Céline, at left, with Aymé in 1955.

As Camus had foreseen, the harsh treatment of collaborators had diminished to the point where pardons became the norm. But who could have predicted, in 1945, that eight years later it would become a crime to label anyone a collaborator? By the end of 1951, more than 50,000 French citizens had been charged with various offenses under the Purification Acts. After that, the French government came to think that there was more harm than good to be found in continuing the program, so the official position was completely reversed. Anyway, France had more immediate problems: inability to form stable governments, a stuttering economy, relations with the U.S., the Cold War, and the collapse of the French empire, first in Indo-China, then in Algeria. Men and women who had been united in Resistance found themselves split on these new questions.
It is very wrong for anyone, who has never had to face something like occupation by invaders, to make easy judgements on the actions of those who underwent this experience. Still, it is necessary to examine such historical events for whatever lessons and moral instruction may be taken from them. One may believe, with Camus, that sometimes a person must take sides, with all the moral complications that may ensue from acts of resistance and rebellion. Artists are not immune to criticism because they are artists, they still have a duty to act. But Camus himself came under fire for his position, or lack of it, on Algeria. Algerian-born, he decried the use of indiscriminate violence to spur revolution. He said that, if a bus were bombed and his mother killed, then he would be on his mother’s side, not the bombers’. This runs close to Aymé’s personal politics.
Texceira’s instructions on how to deal with occupation forces boiled down to: don’t befriend them but don’t antagonize them for no reason except to make yourself look good. In fact, that (IMO) is the program followed by most of those in occupied France. This approach does not rule out resistance or armed rebellion, but it does try to apply some common sense to the situation faced by ordinary people.

The Ayme memorial by Jean Marais in Montmarte. [photo: Andre Derain via philibert.sportblog.fr]

The Ayme memorial by Jean Marais in Montmarte. [photo: Andre Derain via philibert.sportblog.fr]


Aymé died in Paris in 1967, at the age of 65. In 1989, a memorial was commissioned near his home that was sculpted by resistant-wannabe, Jean Marais. It depicts the final bit of “The Man Who Passed Through Walls” when the hero, depicted here as Aymé himself,  finds himself unable to pass through to one side or the other but is immured in the wall itself.

Notes:

The only English translation of the collection, The Man Who Walked Through Walls, is this one.
Two of the stories (and one from another collection) with the original French versions, are available on-line here.
The 1951 film version of Passer-muraille is a slapstick comedy with little relation to Aymé’s story. You can watch the entire movie here.
Les contes du chat perché is not available in English. The stories concern two girls spending time at a farm. They speak to animals and have adventures. Some of the stories have been adapted into stage plays, animated movies, and comic books.
Uranus is unavailable in English. The 1990 film is good but also has no current DVD version with subtitles. A subtitled version sometimes plays on television, though. Watch for it.

An excellent account of artists in occupied Paris is Alan Riding’s And the Show Went on: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris

This article by Tony Judt surveys several books about France from the thirties to the fifties.
Gertrude Stein’s Vichy role is summarized here.
Céline’s anti-semitic work is reviewed here.

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