Clouds over Paris: The Wartime Notebooks of Felix Hartlaub

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Translated by Simon Beattie

Review by Karen Langley

Felix Hartlaub is a name relatively unknown in the English-speaking world: the son of an art historian/museum director who fell foul of the Nazis, Hartlaub studied history and was called up at the start of World War 2. In late 1940, he was sent to Paris to do archival research for the German Foreign Office, and whilst posted there began recording his impressions of the occupied city in his spare time. The results appear here in English for the first time as Clouds over Paris, translated by Simon Beattie, and it’s a striking and memorable read.

The notebooks cover the period from around the beginning of March to the end of August, 1941. Hartlaub opens his journal with a gorgeous description of the clouds and sky over Paris, and certainly the title of this volume is well chosen as the author often seems fixated on the panorama above the city. He returns to it again and again, describing the clouds in vivid, impressionistic detail, as well as the skyline and rooftops of Paris.

The roofs everywhere broken up, held back, turned into garrets, opened up by skylights, oeils-de-boeuf, an inhabited, occupied space, a metropolis, a world of its own behind the screen of those great bare chimney walls.

Hartlaub’s fragmentary and beautifully evocative prose captures the strange city as he saw it, as an outsider, and he has a strong sense of landscape. However, parts of his notebooks record encounters between the German occupiers and the French residents, and these are fascinating too. There are, as you would expect, squaddies and prostitutes having regular alliances. But there are also the French people trying to get on with some kind of ordinary life in these difficult circumstances, and Hartlaub watches and records. Often the narrative slips into the third person, with an unnamed ‘he’ experiencing life in the wartime city and of course it’s impossible not to conflate author and character here.

A sultry summer afternoon, no wind whatsoever. Elongated, disembodied clouds, like bright white smears of mucus, stretching, spinning out, indiscernibly. The blue of the sky in between seems dull, robbed of its sheen, like faded satin. The branch of the river seems stationary, the marbled pattern of spilt petroleum, which completely covers it, motionless.

In his fascinating introduction to the book, Rudiger Gorner mentions that Hartlaub’s writing has been criticised for coldness or lack of emotion, but I personally think those quibbles miss the point. Hartlaub is an observer; an outsider recording what he sees of both sides in the city. Christopher Isherwood’s phrase “I am a camera” comes to mind, as by standing back and simply looking, Hartlaub is able to perceive the effects of the occupation on both Germans and French. There are powerful passages where he travels on the metro, observing his fellow Germans and recognising the latent hostility of the French. He passes no judgement – that is not his role.

I mentioned above that Hartlaub’s writing is beautiful, and the book is full of stunning descriptions of France as the seasons change. It culminates with a wonderful section where the narrator climbs to the top of Montmartre, standing with the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur at his back and looking down on the vast vista of the city. It’s almost too much for him, and the reader is reminded that he was a man away from his homeland, probably very much against his own wishes; and that there are two sides to every conflict, with right and wrong on each.

Then he finally emerged onto the terrace outside the great white church, and the city lay spread out before him, cast wide, rolling out the very edges of the world. Like a huge flat stone cake, floating in a milky cloud. One had to see it, of course. But once was enough: he felt quite queasy. From behind, that mountain of white marble weighing heavy on your shoulders; ahead, that impossible, inhuman sea of roofs wrenching at your guts.

Felix Hartlaub tragically died at the age of 31, disappearing in Berlin in 1945 as the war ended. He left behind him a collection of personal writings, composed during the conflict, from which this volume is drawn. His writings are supplemented here by a small selection of sketches taken from his notebooks, and these add to the pictures painted so evocatively by his words. It’s clear from what survived that he had the makings of quite a novelist, and it’s such a pity he wasn’t able to go on to write more. But at least we have these notebooks to transport us back to the past, and remind us that life goes on, whatever the circumstances. Clouds over Paris is a powerful and memorable read, and kudos to Pushkin Press for bringing it to us in translation.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and finds the roofscapes of Paris quite fascinating.

Felix Hartlaub, Clouds over Paris (Pushkin Press, 2022). 978-1782278443. 160pp, hardback.

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