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.