- Édith Thomas: A Passion for Resistance
Dorothy Kaufmann's excellent study of the novelist, journalist and historian Édith Thomas presents a fascinating portrait of a writer whose career as an engaged "feminist" intellectual spanned the crucial period from the Popular Front through the Occupation and throughout the postwar period. Thomas is primarily remembered—as Kaufmann's subtitle implies—for her role in the Resistance during the Nazi Occupation. She was, as Claude Morgan described her, the linchpin of the Comité National des Écrivains, hosting its clandestine meetings in her apartment at considerable danger to herself. She also contributed pro-Resistance writings to the underground press, and was actively involved in the creation of the Éditions de Minuit. But as Kaufmann demonstrates, Thomas's political engagements both preceded and followed the Dark Years, and lasted up to her death in 1970. During the early 1930s Thomas visited Algeria, where she was horrified by the colonists' inhumane treatment of the native Algerians. Later, as a reporter for Louis Aragon's Ce soir, she denounced the poverty and squalid conditions of the Marais, then a working class district. Later, on assignment in Spain, she praised the courage of the Spanish [End Page 116] Republican fighters in her articles. After being fired by Aragon following her first visit to Spain, she returned as a correspondent for Regards, in whose pages she continued to praise the courage of the increasingly desperate Spanish Republicans.
One of the most interesting aspects of Kaufmann's study is her account of Thomas's complicated and often troubled relations with Communism, the PCF, and the political opportunism and cynicism of the Soviet Union. Like Paul Nizan, Thomas was horrified by the Nazi Soviet pact of August 1939 and believed that it would hasten and not prevent war. During the Occupation her faith in Communism was restored due to the latter's role in the Resistance. By the time of the Liberation, she had joined the Party and was asked to edit a new Communist women's journal, Femmes françaises, an assignment she accepted. Shortly, however, she was disillusioned with the PCF's sexism and dismissive attitude towards women, and resigned the editorship. She remained in the Party, however, visiting Moscow and Leningrad with a women's delegation in 1946. Moreover, despite her reservations about Communism and its Marxist underpinnings, she championed Marxism and used it in part as the basis of her attacks on Sartrean existentialism and Camus's philosophy of the absurd. For her, both reflected a nihilistic subjectivism, and Sartrean existentialism, in her view, was inextricably linked to and tainted by its debt to Heideggerian existentialism and the latter's links to Nazism. Such was the violence of Thomas's attacks that Camus, who had known her since the days of the CNE, broke with her in a eloquent letter Kaufmann cites in full.
Thomas remained in the Communist Party until 1949, when she broke publicly with it following the Soviet Union's condemnation of Tito, Party attacks on Richard Wright, and persecution of dissidents in Eastern Europe. Until the early fifties, she remained an admirer of Yugoslavian Communism and took several trips to the country, where she befriended the writer Milovan Djilas. But Tito's crackdown on intellectual dissidents, including Djilas, shattered her final illusions concerning the Communist experiment. In despair she confided to a friend: "Communism doesn't work anywhere, not even in Yugoslavia" (159).
Kaufmann's outstanding study also examines Thomas's accomplishments as a novelist and her work as a historian while also addressing crucial details of the writer's personal life with tact and discretion. Kaufman notes, for example, that while Thomas considered herself a heterosexual, the most passionate sexual affair of her life was with Dominique Aury, the author of The Story of O and an editor at Gallimard who eventually left Thomas to become Jean Paulhan's mistress. The two women remained friends throughout their lives, however, and Kaufmann acknowledges that it was through Aury that she learned a great deal about her subject and also came...