"LOOKING FOR HEROES IN POSTWAR FRANCE: Albert Camus, Max Jacob, Simone Weil" by Neal Oxenhnndler

"LOOKING FOR HEROES IN POSTWAR FRANCE: Albert Camus, Max Jacob, Simone Weil"

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A charming and wise, if at times patchy, account of the importance of three French thinkers for postwar culture in general and for one American in particular. Oxenhandler, professor emeritus of French at Dartmouth, cites Wallace Fowlie's books and academic autobiographies like Alice Kaplan's recent French Lessons as models for the composite of memoir, philosophical essay, and literary critique that he offers here. Like Kaplan, Oxenhandler tells of his own youthful fascination with foreign identities while weaving a broader tapestry of 20th-century French history. Soon after serving as a GI in the European theater during WW II, Oxenhandler returned to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. There he and his friends worshipped Albert Camus. The celebrity that Camus had attained as a resistance hero and bestselling author only deepened their sense that his novels and essays presented an ethical challenge of crucial importance, and Oxenhandler describes in moving detail how Camus inspired him to seek moral control over his own life. Oxenhandler's academic work in Paris focused on Max Jacob, an important modernist poet who had just died in the Vichy concentration camp Drancy. As a Jew drawn to Catholic spirituality and as a homosexual, ""Max"" had inhabited several of the identities with which Oxenhandler would struggle. Oxenhandler's final chapters treat Simone Weil, identifying the political philosopher (with whom he shares a birthday) as his ""twin sister,"" uncomfortable with her body and alienated from her Jewish heritage in a way that reminds him of himself. Also like Well, Oxenhandler manifests a surplus of erratic brilliance and a passionate, yet clear-eyed concern with the moral state of postwar culture. Although some descriptions and connections seem underdeveloped, on the whole Oxenhandler's account of himself and of his adopted culture forms a fine addition to its welcome new genre.

Pub Date: Jan. 19th, 1996
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Univ. Press of New England