SANARY SUR MER - Peep into a Europe that is gone forever

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By WRITING ON THE WALL - ASHOK V. DESAI
  • Published 1.11.05
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The port of Toulon nestles in a corner between C?te d?Azur and the peninsula of St Man-drier. It is not a very attractive city. But just across the peninsula to the west is a charming little port called Sanary sur Mer. Its promenade is like many along France?s east coast ? yachts, hotels, restaurants and curio shops. But behind it looms Mont Faron; the streets of the town meander up towards it. I do not know how it is now; but only a few decades ago one could easily walk out of the town and into a gentle, hilly countryside to the north. A place for quiet relaxation.

That was my impression of Sanary sur Mer till I read Der Spiegel of September 25, and learnt that it had been called the capital of German literature in exile by Ludwig Marcuse. Apparently Jean Cocteau first brought Heinrich, the son of Thomas Mann, here in the early 1930s; they used to smoke opium together. (Cocteau turned to opium for solace when his boyfriend Raymond Radiguet, a 15-year-old novelist, died in 1923.) The Nazis burnt the Reichstag in 1933, the same building that houses the German parliament today. (Its ruin stood in the wasteland that divided East and West Berlin till 1989, and was renovated in the 1990s by Sir Norman Foster, who placed the glass dome inside which one can now walk up to get a great view of Berlin.) Then Thomas Mann decided to leave Germany, and his son persuaded him to move to Sanary sur Mer.

After seizing power in 1933, the Nazis deprived Jews of their occupations ? stopped them from practising their professions and closed down their shops. Finally in 1938, they confiscated the houses and property of Jews, and began to send them to concentration camps. Between those years, the lucky ones escaped.

The first amongst them was Leon Feuchtwanger, who wrote Jud S?ss, a story of an eighteenth-century Jewish financier of a king who, on the king?s death, was put by his successor into an open cage in a public square and left to starve. Feuchtwanger had fought as a German soldier in World War I; the experience made him a socialist ? and hence doubly hated later by the Nazis as a Jew and a leftist. He was on a tour of America when Hitler seized power in Germany; warned by a friend, he did not return to Germany and eventually settled down in Sanary sur Mer, where he wrote two novels, The Oppermann Family and The Pretender, both expos?s of Nazi oppression. When the Nazis took over France in 1939, he was arrested, but with the help of an American friend, escaped across the Pyrenees to the US, together with Thomas Mann?s two sons, Heinrich and Golo. Arthur Koestler and Stefan and Arnold Zweig were also in Sanary sur Mer for some time. Another distinguished exile in Sanary sur Mer was Bertolt Brecht, who sang his radical songs in the seaside bars.

Then in October this year, Antonia, Leon Feuchtwanger?s grandniece, made a nostalgic visit to Sanary sur Mer and wrote about it in New York Times; she brought it back into my consciousness. She had read about it in Sybille Bedford?s memoirs, Quicksands, so that is where her article led me.

I was probably aware of Sybille Bedford at some point; she had published her Mexican travelogue, A Visit to Don Otavio, just before I first went to England, and she later published a number of novels. But having seen postwar British life at close quarters, I had no interest in modern British fiction, and took no notice of her. It was only when I read Quicksands that I learnt how she acquired the mundane British surname, Bedford.

She was born the daughter of Maximilian von Sch?nebeck, a descendant of a noble family of Baden, a small German state ? and grew up in a sort of palace not far from the French border. But then, when she was four, World War I broke out, and her family had to retreat ? to Berlin and then to Schwerin on the Baltic coast. Schwerin was then capital of the German province of Mecklenburg; after World War II, the Allies handed it over to the Poles, who call it something else now. After World War I was over, Sybille was shuttled back to the manor house in Baden. But soon afterwards, her mother started an affair with a famous Dane ? she had quite a taste for affairs ? which forced her to be away for long periods. Her father put Sybille in a convent school, but was unhappy with the meagre results of the education, and withdrew her. So she grew up wild in the cavernous halls of the country house and the orchards around it.

This idyllic existence lasted till Sybille reached her teens. Then suddenly her father died, and she had to go and join her mother. That journey takes quite a few pages in the book, for the mother was changing lovers at the moment and had no fixed address. Sybille was taken from one cheap hotel to another to wait for the mother, who would turn up once in a while and disappear again. Finally she turned up with Alessandro, a much younger lover. Sybille, not knowing quite where she stood, called him father in a restaurant, and all eyes turned towards them. But soon they became good friends. When he in turn started having an affair, she covered up for him. He followed her mother?s pattern, and started disappearing for long pe-riods with his girlfriend. Finally he vanished forever. Rather than accept that he had abandoned her, Sybille?s mother took to morphine and died of it.

Amongst the residents of Sanary sur Mer were Aldous Huxley and his wife. When World War II approached, they took Sybille under their wings, arranged a fake marriage between her and some Englishman called Terry, and got her asylum in England.

That, so to speak, was the end of her youth. She is now 94, so she has a lot of life to relate. But she does so in a systematically spasmodic style, jumping from period to period, event to event, person to person, without any respect for chronology. While doing so she runs from time to time into another problem ? she comes to a sequence that she has built into one of her novels, so then it is taboo for the memoir. So Quicksands tends to be chaotic. But it is riveting chaos: it is a history of a dying, ephemeral set of pretty idle not-so-rich litterateurs and dilettantes of Europe during a time when their world was turned upside down. If it had been written with rigour, this memoir would have been comparable to Il Gattopardo. Without it, it is a peep into a Europe that was there just a few years ago ? during my lifetime ? and is gone forever. But perhaps it is better described as Perspectives of An Outsider, the subtitle Sybille had chosen for it but later chose not to give.