Friday, June 06, 2014

`A Book Famine in Paris'

On June 1, 1944, BBC Radio Londres broadcast the opening lines of a poem from Paul Verlaine’s first collection (Poèmes saturniens, 1866), Chanson d’automne: “Les sanglots longs / des violons / de l’automne.” In English: “The long sobs / Of the violins / Of autumn.” The well-known words were a signal alerting the Resistance that the Allies would launch their invasion of Hitler’s Europe within two weeks. Broadcast among the verses were surreal-sounding non seqiturs, meant to confuse the Germans: “Mathurin likes spinach” and “My wife has sharp eyesight.” At 11:15 p.m. on June 5, the BBC broadcast the subsequent lines of the poem: “Blessent mon coeur / d’une langueur / monotone.” (“Wound my heart / With a monotonous / Languor.”) Despite the languidly nostalgic sentiment, the signal confirmed that the invasion would begin within forty-eight hours and the Resistance should launch its campaign of sabotage, focusing on roads, bridges, telephone lines and the French rail system. Overnight, some 1,000 attacks were conducted. 

The following morning, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of Normandy, a coastline heavily fortified by the Nazis. More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded. Among the observers of the largest seaborne invasion in history was A.J. Liebling, the correspondent for The New Yorker who rode on a Navy LCIL (Landing Craft, Infantry, Large). See his story “Cross-Channel Trip,” published July 1, 8, and 15, 1944 in The New Yorker and collected in Mollie and Other War Pieces (1964), which is included in Liebling’s World War II Writings (Library of America, 2008). [See Roger Angell’s “D-Day Addendum.”] Liebling’s eye for the pertinent detail is always superb and, in this setting, tactful. This follows his famous description of the LCIL’s deck “sticky with a mixture of blood and condensed milk”: 

“Halfway out to the transport area, another LCIL hailed us and asked us to take a wounded man aboard. They had got him from some smaller craft, but they had to complete a mission before they could go back to the big ships. We went alongside and took him over the rail. He was wrapped in khaki blankets and strapped into a wire basket litter. After we had sheered away, a man aboard the other LCIL yelled at us to come back so that he could hand over a half-empty bottle of plasma with a long rubber tube attached. `This goes with him,’ he said. We went alongside again and he handed the bottle to one of our fellows. It was trouble for nothing, because the man by then had stopped breathing.” 

In his translation of Verlaine’s Poèmes saturniens, (Princeton University Press, 2011), Karl Kirchwey gives the lines broadcast by the BBC as: 

“The long sobbing
Of autumnal strings,
Wounds my heart
With a languor that
Is monotonous.” 

In a dispatch filed in October 1944, more than two months after the liberation of Paris, and published in The New Yorker on Nov. 4, Liebling reports: 

“The Germans worked systematically to destroy French culture…They withheld stocks of paper from publishers who wanted to reprint the classics or works of non-collaborationist authors, whereas no quantity of paper was too great, no quality too fine, for collaborationist books or Goebbels brochure. As a consequence, there is now a book famine in Paris. An ordinary one-volume edition of Verlaine, published in 1938, is a collectors item.”

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