Clouds Over Paris by Felix Hartlaub (tr. Simon Beattie)

When I was casting around for something suitable to read for Lizzy’s German Lit Month, Clouds Over Paris (The Wartime Notebooks of Felix Hartlaub) caught my eye. It’s a series of vignettes and observations penned by the German-born historian and fledgling writer Felix Hartlaub, who was posted to Paris in 1940 as a researcher for the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During his time in the French capital, Hartlaub recorded his impressions of a city under occupation, frequently finding beauty amid the harsh realities of war. As such, Clouds Over Paris offers readers the opportunity to see the city through the eyes of an outsider, a man who felt somewhat uncomfortable about his presence as a German national.

Hartlaub’s style is wonderfully impressionistic (almost stream-of-consciousness in style), and the notebooks are full of evocative imagery, capturing the feel of a city under siege. With an artist’s eye for detail, he writes vividly of soldiers hanging out in cafés and bars, Parisians queuing for food at a butcher’s shop, and anglers fishing in the Seine, their wives desperately waiting to bag any catches. The night-time scenes are particularly atmospheric, with the eerie silence accentuating the sound of soldiers’ movements through the streets.

Blackout. There is an eleven o’clock curfew for Parisians. Only occupying forces are left on the streets, which are deathly quiet. Military boots, solitary or in groups, the odd civilian scooting past, the brim of his hat pulled down low. A breezy night, some big marauding clouds float past at a reasonable height, a burnt-brownish colour. In a patchy bank of cloud, scattered spots of moonlight. Further south, in the rough direction of the Dôme des Invalides, a searchlight shoots up, fixing on a low, ragged cloud, which appears to stop, stretching out paws anew.  The searchlight, cut off from the ground, dies away in a fraction of a second. (p. 59)

Something that comes across very strongly here is the sense of discomfort Hartlaub feels about his presence in the city. Unsurprisingly, he is met with suspicion by the French – as an outsider and an occupier, there is an air of isolation surrounding him as he goes about his day.

The icy ring of alienation and mistrust he has cast about him. He is firmly pinned down within it, his gestures winning no space, his words lacking the air to carry. […]

A couple in the neighbouring séparé, back-to-back with him. Muffled words into each other’s shoulders, the silence of long kisses. The couple leave, eyeing him as they go past, in his empty red mirrored compartment. He returns their gaze: benign, full of admiration, and at the same time veiled, not quite there. (pp. 36–37)

Journeys on the Métro only heighten this sense of unease, especially when Hartlaub is required to show his travel pass, the distinctive colouring of which clearly reveals his nationality. Interestingly though, he is equally uneasy in the company of German soldiers with whom he feels ‘no connection whatsoever’ as his eyes land on their epaulettes.

Alongside the fragments of encounters between soldiers and various ladies of the nights, there are some marvellously evocative descriptions of the buildings in Paris, ranging from views of the city’s streets to a sequence of sketches of a once-glamorous hotel, now a little careworn in the midst of occupation. Night-time trysts are a regular occurrence here, as are minor infringements of the blackout regulations. Nevertheless, the staff go about their usual business as far as possible, from the three lift operators, each with his own distinctive personality, to the room service staff, expertly manoeuvring their trays with precision.

Room service staff scoot across the carpets: a hive of activity, as nearly all the milords and ladies breakfast in bed. The heavy tray clamped at shoulder height, head tucked at an angle. The other hand is for opening doors. The long coat-tails like the wing-cases of giant beetles. One, with thick horn-rimmed spectacles, sweaty red face, a strong smell of wine sometimes trailing behind him, is a farmer’s boy from Picardy. The stiff curved shirt front, clippers for ration cards in his pocket on a silver chain. (pp. 114–115)

Hartlaub writes particularly vividly about the skies over Paris, capturing the various colours, the shapes of clouds and the contrast between light and shade with consummate ease. (The notebook entries cover the period from March to August 1941, with Hartlaub taking the opportunity to record a wide range of impressions, reflecting seasonal changes and variations in weather.) Despite the trials of war, he clearly finds immense beauty in the Paris skyline, especially in spring.

The reflection of the Seine carries the pale brightness of the western sky away to the left, to the east. Approaching frost spices the air, yet the weeping willow which leans out over the river from the Square Notre-Dame is already covered with green. The thick, broad crowns of the chestnut trees, which, neither discoloured nor deformed, have managed to retain all that frost and moisture and hold up the snowy sky, are now seized with white foam, pale bursting stars. (p. 43)

Sadly, Hartlaub died in 1945, disappearing from Berlin just days before the war ended. As such, he never had the opportunity to see his work in print. In fact, it’s not entirely clear whether he thought of these fragments as notes for a future novel or a private record of his time in Paris. Many of the passages break off suddenly, and there are a number of omissions that give some of the vignettes an unfinished feel. Nevertheless, the book offers a fascinating insight into an occupied city glimpsed from the perspective of an outsider who felt uncomfortable about certain aspects of the war.

Clouds Over Paris was translated by Simon Beattie and published by Pushkin Press in 2022 – making the book available in English for the first time. My thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

27 thoughts on “Clouds Over Paris by Felix Hartlaub (tr. Simon Beattie)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very much such so. It must have been so hard to deal with suspicion and hostility from the French while not being able to identify with your own countrymen. Maybe that’s why he found solace in the Paris skyline – a sense of purity and beauty all of its own

      Reply
  1. jenniferbeworr

    Wonderful as ever Jacqui and I particularly dug the ‘steam’ of conscious approach! Seriously, you’re so good at this. x

    Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui, and I totally agree with your thoughts on the book. The writing is so lyrical that I do agree it needs slow reading to appreciate it, but he conjures the city and its skies and skylines so wonderfully. And that feeling of being an outsider, fitting in with neither occupier or occupied – love it, however unfinished it was on his death!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, 100% on all of this. I really had to pace myself appropriately to fully appreciate the beauty of each description, otherwise some entries could have been easily overlooked. I guess it’s a little like wandering through an art gallery or a major exhibition – after a while you start to become a bit blasé about another room full of beautiful paintings, and your appreciation of each individual work starts to diminish! Hence the need to slow down and space everything out to get the most of the book.

      I especially loved Hartlaub’s descriptions of the skylines and various buildings. They must have been a kind of ‘escape’ for him, a form of solace given his outsider status relative to the French and the German soldiers.

      Reply
  3. james b chester

    This reminds me of George Orwell’s writing on his own time in India where he served the occupiers (British). His essay “Shooting an Elephant” is very good at showing how he felt about his own position as an outsider, and about the presence of the British in India. You might want to look at The War: A Memoir by French writer Marguerite Duras for the French perspective. I found it very eye-opening. She worked for the French resistance during the occupation.

    I wonder what Hartlaub would have come up with had he been able to turn these notes into something more formally thought out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thank you for those suggestions. I definitely want to read more Duras in the future, especially as she’s so highly regarded, so I’ll definitely look up the memoir you’ve recommended. And yes, it’s very poignant to reflect on what happened to Hartlaub at the end of the war – and to imagine how these writings might have informed a more complete memoir of his time in Paris (or a novel inspired by his experiences). A significant loss to the literary world, I think.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I don’t think I’ve come across anything quite like this before. We’re used to hearing lots of stories of the occupation from the French perspective and their work in the resistance etc, but Hartlaub’s notebooks do seem to offer something fresh and potentially unique. I’m really glad I read it.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    This sounds incredibly powerful. The writing sounds beautiful, really recreating the city and the times in which the author was living. Wartime diaries, journals and eyewitness accounts are so poignant and so important. For one thing they help us remember the terrible errors of the past.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I completely agree. These stories need to be shared to enable us to understand the human cost of war – not just on the battlefield but on the home front too. It’s a fascinating insight into the occupation from a particular perspective, evocatively told.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very. I suspect that’s why Hartlaub focused on the Paris skyline so much, almost as a kind of solace or escape from the sense of alienation he must have felt.

      Reply
  5. Julé Cunningham

    I remember Kaggsy writing about this book and being struck by the quotes and the situation Hartlaub was in. He really did have the eye of an artist and soul of a poet, that bit, ‘…his words lacking the air to carry…’, so revealing. It sounds as though it’s a book that would haunt a reader just a little after turning the last page.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The quotes are beautiful, aren’t they? So evocative and atmospheric. He clearly had a talent for writing, which makes his early death feel all the more tragic – a real loss to the literary world and humanity in general.

      Reply
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  7. madamebibilophile

    I remember Kaggsy’s review of this and thinking it sounded fascinating. That liminal space Hartlaub finds himself in is so tense. Lovely review Jacqui – I really like the quotes you pulled.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I can’t begin to imagine how hard it must have been for him…

      The quotes are beautiful, aren’t they? I was spoilt for choice when it came to selecting passages for this post, just so many stunning descriptions of the skyline to choose from.

      Reply
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