Sean Niall’s “Letter from Paris,” PR, Spring 1939, Vol.6, No.3


It’s Spring 1939 and Sean Niall, the brilliant Paris correspondent of Partisan Review begins his ironic and depressing report from Paris with a take-no-prisoners opening:

“The last Paris Letter’s gloomy prognosis of the season has proved only too correct. Indeed, it is so bad that Parisians pretty much accept Virgil Thomson’s melancholy crack that ‘this is just a winter dropped out of everybody’s life; and the sooner we forget it, the better.’ “
{If you want to read about the ‘last letter’s gloomy prognosis, go back in this blog to: Paris Letter: Sian Niall,PR Vol. 6,No. 2, Winter 1939, which is in two parts.}On 30 November, 1938, a General Strike in Paris was defeated, and,  at present, Niall writes, “The literary left roughly reflects the discouragement and disarray of the French workers and peasants.”

Niall brings together the central themes of the moment at hand: what the Left is doing, what the Literary Left literature is writing, and what we should be doing about the Nazism and the mess in Europe. By March, Hitler was in Prague, and the same month, the Spanish Civil War was over with the defeat of the Republicans and the fall of Madrid.

“Artistic Paris, like the rest of France, is oppressed as by the lowering atmospheric depression before a crashing thunderstorm…[and] if there is peace, it is the peace of despair. “

Niall is on the side of the anti-Stalinist Communists and Trotskyists: “Never have the Second and the Third Internationals fallen to such depths of discredit. Their effect has been to turn the French proletariat,not to revolution but to inactivity and despair and the almost jemenfoutisme  (trans. “I could give a F*ck”) of the feeling that, “If you don’t lift your head, nobody will club it.”

Niall turns to the places of hope; to him, it lies in the 4th International (the Trotskyists), the P.S.O.P. (Parti socialiste ouvrier et paysan, PSOP), and the P.O.I, (The Workers’ International Party), both of which had dissolved by the end of 1939. And I think he was right about that – except that the hope never materialised into action or socialism. But then and there, the Trots were the closest to what PR could endorse, and their writing showed how the importance of Modernism could be understood within a revolutionary cultural framework.

SO he takes a number of books which people are reading in Paris and submits them to his literary-political verdicts:



1. First is the newcomer to the field of literature, a man called Jean-Paul Sartre, and his collection of short stories, The Wall (Le Mur) are pretty good, but not great. He is about 34 and is too cautious and too committed to already worked tradition of narrative in literature to produce the astonishment that this moment requires:
“With all their excellent qualities, they somehow disappoint. Certainly – to take an American example—they are far superior to those of, say, Hemingway. But they have the faults of their qualities – a cautiousness, a sense of prose tradition, a tendency to choose the sure-fire effect – that render them, despite their youthful richness, a little literary, a little thin. Sartre, a very young writer, may well go on to greater self-confidence in and self-abandonment to his own art; yet he may equally well….degenerate into a mere “Man of Letters” homme-de-lettres.

Among the other books he has chosen are a few whose topic is more political, but also influenced by, and hoping for a synthesis of Marxism and Psychoanalysis.  I find this interesting because in the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a strong push by left wing writers and political writers to advance the link between these two methodologies through the category of the ‘subject.’ I recall the line in Coward and Ellis’s Language  and Materialism,  where they proclaim that the great project facing the left is the the question of ‘the subject’ in history.

UnknoCoward and Ellis n-1 1977. But Niall is sceptical of a unification of two such disciplines-in-formation.

One of the more surprising discussions, perhaps, to readers of today is about Gaston Bachelard, the phenomenologist of the forces of nature. His The Psychoanalysis of Fire, a haunting and poetic phenomenological mapping of fire’s meanings over the centuries, was, for many of my generation, a gentle way into what became the dominant literary-theoretical persuasion of the late 20th century. He was, as well,  was a central influence on philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Derrida.

Gaston Bachelard. 440px-Gaston_Bachelard_1965

But Niall reduces him to the size of a pretentious bug: calling him a “pretentious literary gent.”“ Bachelard, who apparently fancies himself as a rebel, often distinguishes himself carefully in this book from “classic psychoanalysis,” but the real distinction is that he has introduced psychoanalysis into belles-lettres. This fancy little volume strikes one as the Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler of psychiatry, and, if translated, should most correctly be published with prodigious margins on hand-chewed paper by some Nonesuch Press for the delectation of psychoanalytic bibliophiles.”

SO we could say that Niall gets it wrong often, but with brio and lashings of bile. If you want to read more of this piece, go to

then find Partisan Review, 1939, Vol.6. No. 3.

As for me, I agree… 1939 has been one hell of a year for us.

Rimbaud’s “The Hands of Jean-Marie,”translated by Lionel Abel


“Women arrested as Arsonists/’pétroleuses’ in massacres of  the Paris Commune

‘Sartre says Abel is the most intelligent man in New York City. Kenneth Rexroth, the poet-critic, says Abel is the most intelligent man in New York City. Abel himself will not say that he is the most intelligent man in New York City. But he will say that Sartre and Rexroth are both magnificent judges of intellect’. Dick Schaap, The New York Herald Tribune,

Those of you who have been  reading this blog for two years or more may recognise the quotation from Dick Schaap from a post on Abel and the Italian novelist, Silone. {Lionel Abel on Silone, October 15, 2016} Its the sort of thing people circulate about whiz-kids within the conventions of a coterie of like-minded  intellectuals. And of course, the quotation is scratchy around its edges… but now that I am back in London, after 10 days in New York and then a week of the flu, its a pleasure to be reminded of the bon-mots of the later 1930s.

We are still in 1939, still waiting, as it were, for the Second World War to begin, and our next item in the Spring issue is a translation of Rimbaud’s poem “Les Mains de Jean-Marie,”  Rimbaud’s poem of solidarity with the Paris Commune of 1871, when from March 18 -May 28, 1871, Paris’s workers established a proto-socialist city within Paris. After the siege of Paris that ended the Franco-Prussian War, and before the French regular army massacred over 25,000 Parisians in the streets around the Commune, the ideas and debates about how to live were as alive as they had been in the Revolution of 1789, and women figured prominently in the legends of the Paris Commune, as the myth of female arsonists at the end of the Commune were circulated and many were arrested.

Lionel Abel translated a volume of Rimbaud’s poems Some Poems by Rimbaud, Exiles Press, 1939. And the same year, Delmore Schwartz translated A Season In Hell.  With the March of Hitler, the Moscow Trials, and the debates around Communism and Fascism, it is not surprising that the Paris Commune would be a common reference point for anti-Fascists and anti-Stalinists.

Wallace Fowlie has written of “The Hands of Jeanne-Marie,”:
“Of all the Rimbaud poems directly inspired by the Commune, Les Mains de Jeanne-Marie is perhaps the most successful and the most moving. In it Rimbaud describes the struggle of the communards with the Versaillais, and recalls the action of women from the working class who literally fought in the streets during the terrible week of May 21-28, when they
helped defend the barracks on the Place Blanche, the Place Pigalle and the Batignolles. The poet contrasts the beautiful delicate hands of women in love, as celebrated by various parnassian poets (cf. Etudes de mains by Theophile Gautier) with the rough hands of women who fought in the streets of Paris. Rimbaud is intent upon exalting revolutionary violence and he does it by pointing out this contrast between the white hands of
noble ladies and the dark hands of the typical communarde women.
The last three stanzas of Les Mains de Jeanne-Marie contain very precise allusions to the Commune and especially to the repression that followed the “bloody” week of May 21-28. The hands of the communards are apostrophized as being sacred: o Mains sacres. The “chain” named in the next-to-last stanza is undoubtedly a reference to the long line of communard prisoners who were sent to Versailles, and who numbered from one hundred and fifty to two hundred each day. They were bound hand to hand, in ranks of four. On the way they were insulted and derided by the crowds watching them.”

Here follows Abel’s translation:

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