I had secretly taken an earlier flight to elude the media and (I later learned) several dozen readers who, by the standards of literary greetings at airports, constituted a throng. I wasn’t being rude. I was terrified. I couldn’t allow them to see me stagger out after one of those hemmed-in, gut-busting, ear-popping, time-altering twelve-hour flights. You know they would have taken my picture, and I hate that even when rested, and resent photogenic people barking the camera only takes what’s there. That’s often not true. The camera is a professional liar. In fact, it is the mirror that more accurately reflects what is really there. I wasn’t there. I was in my hotel at a location only I knew. From my room I called my French publisher and told him I had entered Paris peacefully and would be resting all afternoon and evening.
I stuck to my regular schedule. I wasn’t going to get flabby and fatigued on the road. I got up at seven a.m. and, without my treadmill, which I don’t use every workout anyway, I ran high-knee action from the entrance to the bathroom and back, decided that constituted one wind sprint, and between a dozen more I shadow boxed and jumped around like a basketball player without a rim, then did some sit-ups and neck exercises, and, breathing hard after fifteen minutes, sweating after thirty, I put in ten more minutes to clean out the pores and try to pump enough adrenalin into my chronically weak system to embolden me to shower and dress and go get what I’d always worked for.
In the dining room, determined not to appear a monolingual cur, I told the waiter, “Buenos días, Señor, quisiera pan y leche, por favor.”
“Good morning, Monsieur. Something else with your bread and milk? Your Spanish is quite good.”
“At least it’s better than my French, which I flunked.”
“Ah, but you will speak very well after your visit to Paris.”
My stomach soothed by the light breakfast, I stepped outside and was pacing the sidewalk in low-cut gym shoes, casual cotton pants, and a snug sports shirt when a car pulled over and the passenger door was opened by a man in a tailored suit who walked toward me and exclaimed, “George Thomas Clark, welcome to Paris.”
“I certainly recognize your voice, Guy. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
We shook hands.
“You are ready for your reading, the interviews, the party? Oui? A very big day for you.”
“Let’s go.” I wanted to frisk him for a cell phone to reserve a flight out that morning. Instead, we got in the back seat and the driver accelerated into traffic.
“Some Parisians are delighted you’re here, some not. It will be fun.”
“Where’s the reading?”
“In a hall Nazi officers used for recreational gatherings.”
The hall was on a beautiful and clean street enlivened by trees and ornate old buildings – like so many Parisian streets – and I told myself, “You can’t run. People are already looking.”
Several were carrying signs.
“What do those say?” I asked Guy.
“They say you’re a loud and arrogant American and to go home.”
“Memories of the war are still strong,”
Walking in I felt a small hall full of people examining me. At first I smiled and nodded but they only stared so I walked straight to the front, stepped onto a platform, adjusted the microphone, and said, “Bon jour, I’m happier than you can imagine to be here. It’s the greatest honor I’ve ever had. And I’m delighted that so many of you speak English well and have come to listen to some passages from my biographical novel, Hitler Here.”
“Why do you so belittle the French during the war?” a man stood and fired.
“Monsieur, I did no such thing, and I’ll be happy to answer all questions after the reading.”
“You answer now.”
“Many people here, unlike you, haven’t read the book. You have read the book, haven’t you?”
“Only until you shit on France.”
“That’s outrageous, but I’m not going to debate anyone until I’ve read a few passages.”
Guy, seated behind me on stage, rose to hand me a copy of my book, and I started with a piece titled “Friends” written from the 1938 point of view of Czechoslovakian President Edvard Benes:
“I had just finished lunch when our friends, the British and French ambassadors, came and kicked me in the stomach. I almost passed out, that is my head went blank, and I stung too much to reply. Then I told them I was too angry to say anything. Their shame was palpable but, alas, so was the urgency of their cowardice.
“‘You have abandoned us,’ I finally stated. ‘Your promises and commitments are evidently without worth. France is beyond debate obligated by treaty to help us defend ourselves against aggression. Isn’t France prepared to keep its word? Aren’t France and England at least prepared to act in what is obviously their self-interest? Do not believe, gentlemen, that German encroachment will end in the Sudetenland…’
“I contacted the Soviet minister in Prague and requested urgent answers to two questions: ‘Would the Soviet Union honor its obligation to render immediate and effective assistance if France also did so, and would the Soviet Union help, even if France did not?’
“The next day, September twentieth, we received two affirmative replies. There might be hope… (But) we also had to analyze what might happen if the Soviets actually fought the Wehrmacht. My military experts said the Germans were superior. I didn’t doubt that. The cringing democracies would watch with delight while fascists and Bolsheviks destroyed each other. And after Germany won, Czechoslovakia would be forever entombed. I knew we were alone and had to accept Franco-British cession of our soil and their soul.”
“Where is Czechoslovakia now?” a man demanded. “It’s not even a country. It never really was. You expect the French, only twenty years after the Great War, to bleed another generation into the ground. For what? For a non-country. What would you have done, bigmouth?”
“I want to emphasize that what I would have done, and what should have been done, are not the same. I probably would have assessed things as you have, and as Anglo-French leaders did at the time.”
“So why do you criticize us so?” he demanded.
“Monsieur, I’m not criticizing. I’m merely presenting an inside view of the historical record from the points of view of those involved. The Nazis could have been stopped. Hitler knew that. Not even his self-delusion, at that point, would have been enough to prompt him to strike. Here, I’ll read a late-September 1938 piece.
“It’s called ‘Military Parade’ by Adolf Hitler:
“I did not have to wait any longer and was not going to. Waiting was for cowards. Secretly I issued orders for assault units to advance to forward positions athwart Czechoslovakia. I was absolutely prepared, and Germans almost were, and would soon be much more so. One of my motorized divisions was rolling through Berlin for all to see. I stood at the Chancellery window, reviewing mechanized might and men of steel. I knew crowds were going to dash into the streets like I had in 1914, like the whole nation had. Some spectators began to emerge. But only a few. Certainly more would soon appear. They had to. Where were they? What was the matter? I waited quite awhile, then stepped away from the window.
“Maybe now was not the divine instant. Only I would know. I reminded myself of that. Maybe some were worried about one million Czechs mobilized in mountain fortifications. Perhaps some were concerned about French numerical advantages in the West. Others might be aggrieved by perceived British advantages at sea. The timid probably worried what Russia might do. These things should not have been concerns, but, for the spineless, they obviously were…”
“Monsieur,” said a young woman, “since you acknowledge that Czechoslovakia wasn’t really a country, what is your point?”
“Mademoiselle,” she said.
“Sí, Mademoiselle, it’s clear, and not merely from hindsight, that the French outnumbered the Germans five to one, even ten to one in many vital sectors. And if France had upheld its treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia, then the Czechs would have fought, and the Germans would have had to hurl the bulk of their still relatively modest forces at them, and the French would have been able to crush the Germans and penetrate quite deeply into the Reich. That would have crippled Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy and made impossible his future military adventurism.”
“That is just your opinion,” she said.
“No, in fact, that was the opinion of the German General Staff, which had conducted war games and studies that left no doubt as to the Reich’s vulnerability in the West. It’s also essential to note that French resolve at the time would’ve undercut Hitler’s vile domestic policies. We should never forget that just two months after the Anglo-French capitulation, the following occurred all over Germany.”
I next read a piece titled “Night of Broken Glass” by A Rabbi:
“From high my eyes saw them marching with flames shining on wrenched and stupid faces. They would be coming for me, I had feared, but was convinced it could never really happen. Yet outside they stood, cursing before they kicked in my door and shattered around inside, forever applying more fire, and I saw through smoke the waning image of pews as fire climbed my walls and blackened everything, and soon flames smoked the ceiling and enveloped my neck, while throughout Germany shops were sacked and windows broken and people yanked from homes then kicked and beaten before being dragged away, and as fire engulfed my head all was alight, and I saw jagged glass in the street glowing like crystal before my frame collapsed in a charred heap on the ground next to shining glass in flames.”
Perhaps a quarter of the audience clapped, a few even roared, but a small man stood to bark, “You blame Auschwitz on us, I kick your ass.”
“Look, I’m not blaming Auschwitz on you, and, by the way, keep talking like that and I’m gonna kick yours.”
Next to him rose a man who, had he been raised in the United States, would have been playing left tackle. “Kick my ass, first,” he said.
“I was speaking rhetorically, of course. And thank you for underscoring my point.
“Let’s move on to the war.”
“Have you ever fought in a war?” asked a soldier in uniform.
“No, I haven’t.”
“Why not? You talk tough.”
“I ask you to remember I’ve conceded I probably would’ve handled things much as the French did. Furthermore, I know I’m temperamentally unqualified for that high calling. That’s why I defer to the soldiers.”
I next presented a September 1939 piece called “Prudence” by General Maurice Gamelin:
“France wanted to relieve Poland, but there were problems. I had thought the Poles could hold out six months. A lot depended on that. Contrary developments provoked great concern about what France should do. We had promised to partially engage the Germans right after any attack on Poland, then launch a full-scale offensive as soon as we could, perhaps in a little more than two weeks after hostilities began.
“We certainly stuck to the first part by attacking Germany in the Saar and claiming about seven miles of enemy territory. But everything bogged down. We were confined to a narrow front of attack since we could not invade through neutral Belgium and Holland, and in Germany the enemy had sown tens of thousands of mines. That was troublesome because we had no mine detectors. Also, most of my artillery was still in storage or en route to the front and would not be ready in time for a great offensive. We, at any rate, were not focused on attacking… And we wondered what would be the use of launching a real offensive to relieve the Poles since they were by now pretty well beyond relief.”
“Did you read General Gamelin’s memoir?” said the soldier.
“No, but I read plenty of books, and there’s a list of references in back of mine.”
“You should present General Gamelin’s side.”
“I did. I presented what he did and didn’t do.”
“I should tell you my great grandfather served on General Gamelin’s staff. My relatives said he always spoke with great respect for the general.”
“He was once a distinguished soldier. But, based on the record, that changed.”
I illustrated that with a May 1940 piece, “Plan D” by General Maurice Gamelin:
“Just as I had insisted, the Germans were again using the Schlieffen Plan from the Great War and attacking to their northwest. My plan, embodied in Plan D, called for a counterattack northeast into Belgium and Holland. These countries, in order to protect their neutrality, had declined to coordinate defenses with us, but that was not insurmountable. They had defensive assets. And now we had great momentum. In we charged to repulse the Germans.”
“It’s unfair for you to blame General Gamelin for not knowing where the Germans’ main thrust would come from.”
“I’m not actually blaming him, though there’s damn little to commend him. In fairness, I acknowledge no one had imagined the Germans could bring their panzers through the supposedly impenetrable Forest of Ardennes in southern Belgium. They shocked the French and cut the country in half, then rushed north to the Channel Ports to seal off Gamelin’s Plan D forces in Dunkirk. By then it was way too late for France.”
“Let’s talk about your failures,” said a slender man.
“Many in this audience probably don’t know what Three Point Press is.”
“Three Point Press is my publisher.”
“I see. And who is the publisher, by name?”
“So you’re a self-published author.”
“In the United States, yes.”
“Why didn’t you go with one of the major publishing houses, or even a minor one?”
“Because sixty-five turkeys declined to represent me.”
“They rejected you.”
That evoked laughter and applause.
“I could perhaps concede that five or ten or even twenty agents could be wrong. But sixty-five? I’m afraid not, Mr. Clark.”
“Matter of fact, I succeeded in the most important way, aesthetically, and my presence here underscores that.”
“I don’t like the book.”
“That’s your prerogative. And I’m glad you spoke up. I should note that during the twenty years it took to write Hitler Here, I showed the manuscript to many people and learned, very disappointedly, that the narrative structure displeased some. How many? About three of four. In a prose poem two hundred thousand words, I cover more than a century and the story’s told by scores of characters. People aren’t accustomed to that. Fine. Nevertheless, by publishing the book myself, I was at least able to acquire a modest group of supportive readers. That may be all I ever have at home. But a few years ago Hitler Here generated interest at the Frankfurt Book Fair and has recently been published by major houses in India and the Czech Republic.
“I think you’ve heard enough about me. I’ll close my knee-wobbling performance today with a Franco-friendly piece, vintage 1944 – ‘Deprivation’ by A Soldier’s wife:
“‘You’re aware what happens to offenders,’ said the official.
“‘Of course I am. Well, I can imagine. I’ve heard. I don’t really know. That can’t apply to me under these circumstances.’
“‘My husband’s been away three years,’ I said.
“‘He visits you, doesn’t he?’
“‘Not very often.’
“‘He’s defending the Fatherland, like millions of other husbands.’
“‘I understand that. I love him.’
“‘You have to enjoy his visits.’”
“‘I try to. I do everything possible’
“‘Then how do you justify your behavior?’
“‘The visits aren’t enough.’
“‘They have to be.’
“‘I just don’t know him as well’
“‘So you know some stinking French prisoner better than your husband.’
“‘That man forced me.’
“‘You’re saying he raped you?’
“‘He took advantage of me.’
“‘Evidently he did about every night.’
“‘He said he’d beat me if I told.’
“‘We’ll make sure he never does that.’
“‘I promise to avoid foreign men. They’re beasts.’
“‘Really? One of your friends said you told her Frenchmen were better lovers than Germans.’”
“Better than Americans too,” a lady shouted at me.
“No doubt, Madame.”
Guy walked to the front of the platform and shook my hand while my cherished quarter of the audience applauded.
“Thank you very much,” I said.
Several people brought the French edition of my book up to sign, and I don’t think anything has ever thrilled me as much.
“Monsieur, will you also be reading in French?” a lady asked.
“I’m afraid no one would understand my pronunciation. But the comedic possibilities should be considered.”
“Monsieur Clark, I’m Yves Verreaux from Rive Gauche Magazine. I’d like to ask you some questions, and my photographer, Georges, needs a photo.”
“I can’t pose,” I said, smiling tight and unsmilingly.
“What’s your opinion of current Franco-American relations, given the acrimony about the war with Iraq?” Verreaux asked.
“First, it’s always important to say that France and the United States have, for the most part, been allies for more than two hundred years. As democracies, we each have the right to forge independent foreign policies, and to hold very public discussions and debates while doing so. That’s healthy. Our countries have no fundamental problems.”
“Many French,” Verreaux said, “resent the heavy-handedness of the American administration.”
“Many in the United States share that resentment. But at this point, after the fall of Saddam and the tentative start of democracy, it’s more helpful to consider the future of Iraq, whatever that may be, than the troubling ethical issues concerning the decision to attack.”
“I’m Suzanne Moreau from L’Opposition Magazine. How does it feel to be hated as an imperialistic bully?”
“I wasn’t aware I was either hated or considered an imperialistic bully. I’m merely a loud arrogant chicken shit.”
“That you likely are,” she said. “Now answer the question.”
“Any nation with overwhelming power – military, economic, and political – is bound to do things other nations consider improper, even outrageous. France under Napoleon is certainly an example.”
“An example your country evidently hasn’t learned from.”
“Well, the analogy can be taken too far. I’m confident, for example, that the United States isn’t going to invade Russia in winter.”
That one didn’t get a laugh.
“Let’s maintain perspective,” I said. “Napoleon was a conqueror, an adventurer, a
“Apt descriptions of America’s leaders.”
“Not really. Whether or not the United States is successful in establishing an enduring democracy in the Middle East, that really is the paramount goal.”
“You’re sure it isn’t to make the region safe for Halliburton?”
“That’s a nice sound bite, and one I’ve occasionally used in conversation. But this whole enterprise, ah, intervention, really is about establishing stability in the region. I didn’t support the intervention. I strongly opposed it from the seat of my pants. But I sense a historical opportunity, not unlike the 1938 Anglo-French opportunity to protect a democratic nation in a previously undemocratic area.”
“Altruism is hardly the motivation,” Moreau said.
“That’s right. Nations have vital interests, and the most vital interest of the democracies today is to help establish governments that as much as possible represent the aspirations of their people.”
“Phrase it as you like,” Moreau said, “it’s still imperialism.”
“No, that’s simplistic. It’s really much more like the occupation of Japan and Germany after World War II.”
“Those nations had been aggressors. Iraq hadn’t been,” she said.
“At least not against the United States, but against so many others in the region – Iran, Kuwait, and of course the Kurds and the Iraqi people.”
“The people in that region must resolve these matters.”
“France and others certainly had decisive help from faraway during World War II.”
“That’s not a valid comparison.”
“Yes it is. By the way, is it Madame or Mademoiselle?”
“Mademoiselle Moreau, it’s a rough and imperfect world. And when a nation – Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Iraq of Saddam are good examples – repeatedly creates instability in the region… Instability, that’s inadequate. When a nation is constantly slaughtering its neighbors as well as its own citizens, someone must step in.”
“Like the U.S. in Vietnam?”
“No, nor like the French in Vietnam. The Vietnamese were involved in civil war. It was never about dominos or monolithic communism. It was misperceived as such by arrogant and paranoid countries such as yours and mine.”
“The United States is still arrogant and paranoid.”
“I hope history will render a different verdict.”
“Tom, we must go to the party,” said Guy.
“Mademoiselle, would you like to attend?”
“But of course.”
“Very well, Guy, shall we?”
I tried to act as if I weren’t on the verge of hyperventilating but don’t know if I fooled Guy. In the back seat of his car, he looked bemusedly at me. But now there was a new challenge: I was going to be, if not the honored guest, then certainly the most examined.
“Monsieur Clark, I’m Dominique, welcome to my house.”
What a modest woman, referring to her mansion that way.
“Would you like champagne?”
“No, thanks. Do you have water?”
“You’re joking, of course.”
“Haven’t you heard?” said Suzanne Moreau, stepping from the shadow of a heroic bronze face that looked like a Rodin.
“Noo, I don’t think so.”
“Monsiuer Clark is an alcoholic, Dominique.”
“Yes,” I said.
“He looks like an alcoholic, don’t you think?”
“Noo, not really.”
“We French are daily very moderate drinkers,” said Suzanne. “I don’t trust a man who doesn’t drink.”
“Do you trust a man who has thirty drinks?”
“Monsieur Clark, surely you exaggerate, but don’t worry. I’ll get you some water,” said Dominique.
“My sister would’ve been appalled if I’d come here with you.”
“That’s all right. I prefer her anyway.”
“She’s married and that’s her husband.”
“What does he do? Jesus, is that a Monet?”
“Yes, and there’s a Renoir. But in the next room, as you’ll see, her Van Gogh is quite minor.”
“A man who dresses as well as you, Monsieur Clark, no doubt has a brilliant art collection.”
“It’s pretty good. Contemporary art. I got every work for a thousand bucks or less, many for a lot less.”
“A thousand dollars won’t get a frame cleaned in this collection.”
“It’s most impressive, indeed. Would you like to serve as my translator during this festive event?”
“I suppose I could do that, as long as you understand my sole interest would be in collecting material for a longer article about you.”
“Would this be a positive article?”
“I’m not obliged to comment on that.”
“I’d sure like to know.”
“What do you think?” she said, and hooked her arm in mine and pulled me toward an obstacle course.