Résistance: A Frenchwoman’s Journal of the War (audio)

When World War II began, Agnès Humbert was an art historian at the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris. The war, however, turned her into an underground journalist for the French Resistance. This work, in turn, led to her imprisonment by the Nazis and years of slave labor at a rayon factory in Krefelt, Germany. Through it all, Humbert stuck to her convictions that resistance was absolutely the right thing to do, and after the war, she became an essential player in the effort to ensure that the people of the German town of Wanfried, liberated prisoners and local Germans alike, received a fair share of the available food.

Humbert’s indomitable spirit brings her first-person account of these years to vivid life. Published in 1946, Humbert’s journal/memoir is one of the earliest first-person accounts of these events. I first learned of it through Elaine at Random Jottings, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the book when Barbara Mellor’s English translation, titled Résistance, was first published two years ago. Jenny then read it and shared Elaine’s enthusiasm. I knew I had to add it to my list, and I’m glad I did.

The first part of the book comprises Humbert’s own journal entries from her time working for the Resistance. Although she could no longer keep a journal after her arrest, the book retains the same journal-like style as she recounts her imprisonment. This puts the reader right there with Humbert, watching events unfold. But even as we see her hopes for the future, for a fair trial, for an easy stint in a labor camp, we have the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of the horrors that were sure to come. When writing the account of her trial and imprisonment after the war, Humbert herself would also have had this hindsight, but she maintains her present-tense focus throughout. The book feels immediate, it feels present in a way that sets it apart from the more reflective works written years later. (That doesn’t make it better or worse than those works, just different.)

I’ve not read anything about the French Resistance, so that part of the book was particularly interesting to me. It was exciting to see how the small efforts of a few people could become so important, so essential to keeping up the spirits of the defeated French people—and such a threat to the Nazis. I was also fascinated by the account of the trial. Particularly striking was how, once Humbert’s activities were known, Humbert maintained her defiant attitude and told whatever lies she needed to tell to keep her friends safe. For her, resistance was the natural and obvious course of action. And the judge at her trial seemed, in his heart, to respect her for it.

The longest portion of the book contains Humbert’s memories of her life as a slave laborer. As you might imagine, the working conditions were horrific, and Humbert went through periods of blindness because of the rayon dust, serious skin damage from the viscose liquid used to make the rayon, and near starvation from the meager rations given to the women. Although this was the least interesting part of the book for me, it is an important testimony and every bit as moving as these sorts of accounts generally are. I did find Humbert’s own attitude toward her fellow prisoners troubling at times. There were some points when she expressed disdain for all Germans or Poles or unattractive women. Virtually every woman she liked was depicted as a delicate beauty and usually French. However, I think this is in part a reflection of her horror at being locked up with murderesses and child abusers. I’d be horrified at that, too! And the knee-jerk reaction is also part and parcel of the immediacy of the account. As Humbert continued her life in the prison, these sort of judgments petered out and a sense of camaraderie that encompassed all the other prisoners grew.

The post-War account was perhaps the most interesting section of the book. I’ve always wanted to know more about this period. How did the newly released prisoners survive? How did they find their way home? What about the Germans in the region of the camps? How to sort out the guilty and the innocent? (Or the sort of guilty and the mostly innocent?) Humbert’s account shows how this town picked up the pieces, how the prisoners and townspeople learned to cooperate, and how the remaining Nazis were hunted down. This was important work, and I’m glad to have finally learned more about this time. (If anyone can recommend other books about this period in Germany, I’d be interested.)

I  do have some complaints about the audio production. Joyce Bean’s reading is excellent, but the MP3 edition has some flaws that hindered my appreciation a great deal. For one thing, there were several sudden shifts in volume, usually for a few sentences. I suspect that these were sentences or paragraphs that had to be rerecorded and edited in, but the insertion is not at all seamless. I’ve never noticed this kind of thing in other audiobooks that I’ve listened to. My other problem had to do with the extremely long periods between section breaks. When listening to audiobooks in the car, I do at times have to take my mind away from the book and pay closer attention to the road. Because most audiobooks have section breaks every 3 to 10 minutes, it’s not a big deal to go back and restart a section if I think I’ve missed something. Most sections of  this book had sections were in the 45-minute range, which made back-tracking nearly impossible. I have noticed that MP3 audiobooks sometimes have longer sections than multiple-disc CD versions, but this was ridiculous. Anything longer than 20 minutes is completely impractical, as far as I’m concerned.

So my advice to you is to read this book, don’t listen to the MP3 if you can help it. The book itself is an important story, told well, by an extraordinary woman.

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12 Responses to Résistance: A Frenchwoman’s Journal of the War (audio)

  1. litlove says:

    Interesting – from what I’ve read (which has been more of the historical side of things), the Resistance movement was a bit of a mess. Not that it didn’t do good work, but it was split into factions, some of which fought each other, and it could work very very vindictively, particularly once the war was over and the hunt for collaborators and those who denounced Jewish neighbours was on. The Resistance ended up killing as many French natives as enemies, but with hindsight it looked like so much the thing to have done during the war that everyone started claiming a link to it – not at all the case, clearly, for Humbert here. I can’t recall now the titles of books I’ve read, but I do remember that both Anthony Beevor and Tony Judt impressed me with their writings about French history, so maybe they were the sources.

    • Teresa says:

      That is interesting, and I can certainly imagine how disorganized it must have been. I got the impression that Humbert’s group was sort of figuring things out as they went along. And if others were doing the same, I’m not surprised that some engaged in the kind of behavior you describe.

  2. I honestly haven’t read that many first-hand accounts of the French resistance movement (having this image of it as a bit of a shambles, frankly) but I’m fascinated to learn more about what life was like in a work camp during the war. There seem to be very few memoirs focusing on that particular experience and one published so soon after the war would be of particular interest.

    • Teresa says:

      True, it does seem that much of the literature comes out of concentration camps rather than work camps, but there were enough similarities that I found the opening and closing more interesting–I had read nothing at all about those kinds of experiences. But her account of the factory work is definitely worthwhile reading.

  3. Jenny says:

    Litlove is quite right (of course) that the Resistance was split into factions and was vindictive afterwards (even towards itself, claiming that people hadn’t worked hard enough.) One thing that interested me about this memoir is that this doesn’t show up. Humbert wasn’t part of a faction: wasn’t a Communist or a Catholic or any of the other intense rivalries. So many of the memoirs I’ve read are by people who have a strong faith in something, whether that’s Christian faith or faith in the Communist ideal. Humbert just seemed to have faith that she was doing the right thing. Amazing that she could be so courageous with just the courage of her own convictions.

    Really glad you liked this one!

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a great observation that Humbert isn’t driven by any ideology other than doing what is right. And the fact that her sense of justice and doing right extends to German citizens after the war is remarkable.

  4. Emily says:

    This sounds fascinating. I’m making my way through Suite Française right now, and am a bit surprised at the degree to which it DOESN’T have that feeling of immediacy, even though it was written during the events described (not a criticism of the novel, just a surprising observation). I’d be interested to check out Humbert’s perspective; thanks for the review.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ll confess to being among the few who didn’t like Suite Française much. I listened to the audiobook of it pre-blog, and so I’ve never taken the trouble to examine why I wasn’t satisfied with it, but I think you’ve nailed it in mentioning the lack of immediacy. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but I think it was a barrier for me.

  5. Aarti says:

    I have the hardcover o this book! I started reading it, but somehow it wasn’t really doing much for me, even though I enjoyed the subject matter. I think I kept confusing the main people involved… I am not sure what the difficulty was, but I should clearly try it again!

    • Teresa says:

      I couldn’t keep all the people in the Resistance straight, but I chalked that up to audio and the impossibility of referring back to previous pages. (Plus the fact that I’m hopeless with names.) As it turns out, though, knowing who most of the individuals besides Humbert are isn’t key to following the arc of her story.

  6. She says:

    If you liked this book, you might like Auschwitz and After by Charlotte Delbo. It too is about a french woman who was punished, albeit in a bit of a different way, for helping out the resistance. It’s actually pretty interesting as her storytelling style is quite different and nonlinear. I read it about three years ago and remember really liking it!

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