Jacques Guicharnaud, Paris Years, 1941 – 1946, Part II

This series honors the life and legacy of Jacques Guicharnaud, Professor of French at Yale from 1950 to 1997. Guicharnaud, who bequeathed part of his fortune and all of his papers to the University, left a lasting impact on Yale, the French Department, and French theater in the United States. L’Amuse-Bouche and l’équipe de rédaction are grateful for the support from the Guicharnaud estate today. In tribute, Zoe Egelman ’13 went to the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library and sifted through volumes of notebooks, diaries, and letters in attempt to recreate the mysterious Paris years of the legendary professor.


Guicharnaud did not heed to Forget’s advice. Guicharnaud took the concours in the spring of 1943. He discovered later that summer that he was not one of the three students from Henri-IV to be accepted and thus had to repeat Khâgne the following 1943-1944 school year. Guicharnaud had let his confidence get the best of him and his ambitions get ahead of him: ironically, three days before the concours, Guicharnaud considered his future:

I can see my future, in perspective, of course, and with plenty of optical illusions. I’ll start at ENS this year or next, I’ll work on my exams and competitions, while writing at the same time. Agrégé in four or five years. Professor in the provinces, but soon after in Paris. Within ten years. I’ll write a lot, celebrity. Fame, perhaps. At the end of these ten years, I will be able to quite teaching. I’ll be 35 years old, will have an adorable woman or mistress. People will talk a lot about me. I will still write, but I’ll go into cinema.

The veneer of self-assurance, however, was only so thick. Fears of future failure were always at the back of his mind, nagging him each time he wrote a poem or wrote an in-class essay.

It’s very pretentious to keep a diary… To punish myself for such snobbery, I’m going to address my self, in a few dozen years, when I will have the chance to reread it: If you are leading a full and happy life, if you have a woman or a mistress whom you love and who loves you, if you have achieved fame or happiness, or both, be proud and tell yourself that you were terribly lucky. If you are a FAILURE, know that I, at this moment, I know all the vices that wear you down, your laziness and your cowardice, and that if you get to that point, it’s your own fault, since you did not know how to mend your ways.

It is unclear whether Guicharnaud believed fame was surely in his future, or if he was merely mocking himself, when at age nineteen he left notes for his future biographer. Under the heading, “details for my biography fanatic,” he disclosed various tidbits of information that his future biographer might not be able to find elsewhere: he liked mashed potatoes, walnuts, and rare meat; he enjoyed a pipe on occasion, but was not a tobacco addict; his friends sometimes called him “Big Jacques.”1

Despite academic stress and food rations, Guicharnaud wanted to make the most of his teenage years and was very conscious of how he divided his time between his academic commitments and life’s pleasures: cinema, theater, and women. War and Occupation did not mean that cultural life could not continue. Musicians, dancers and actors needed work. The new Vichy government, which maintained jurisdiction over national cultural institutions, wanted to show that military defeat did not mean cultural defeat. The Germans wanted Parisians to feel like life had returned to normal and that their city was still the artistic and cultural capital of the world.2

Guicharnaud spent his weekends at movie theaters and saw as much as he could on the Paris screen. The German Occupation has gone down in history as a golden age for French cinema. Movie attendance was 40 percent higher in 1943 than in 1938; people were eager to escape daily life and find refuge in the laughter and tears triggered by the images before their eyes.3 He kept up with popular culture and followed the celebrities of the time. He found the 1941 film Le Pavillon Brulé, based on the 1935 Stève Passeur play, to be young and powerful. Its lead actors were Pierre Renoir, son of the painter and older brother of the film director Jean Renoir, as well as Jean Marais, the actor who became Cocteau’s life-long friend and colleague. He saw L’Éternel retour by Jean Cocteau was so blown away by the show and Jean Marais’s performance that he wrote Cocteau a letter sharing his feelings. He even went to see it a second time. The movie, a modern rendition of Tristan and Iseult, was immensely popular at the box office.4 He saw La Loi du Nord, the 1939 adventure film by Jacques Feyder, and Les Visiteurs du Soir, the 1942 by the same director of Les Enfants du Paradis, Marcel Carné, whose technical effects Guicharnaud found spectacular. He adored Jean Renoir’s 1936 film, Le Crime de M. Lange. Sometimes he was hotly disappointed.5 Guicharnaud saw films produced by Continental Films, a studio that the Berlin-based studio Universal Film AG had established in Paris during the Occupation under the aegis of Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany.6 Guicharnaud found Le Val d’enfer, directed by Maurice Tourner in 1943, to be “third-rate.”7

If not at the cinema, then Guicharnaud could be found at one of Paris’s many theater venues, which also experienced a golden age during this period. Between 1941 and 1943, box office figures grew by 163 percent.8 He saw Jean Giono’s Bout de la route when the widely discussed play was in its 110th performance. He loved it. Unfortunately, Guicharnaud had not seen it sooner, when its lead was the famous Alain Cuny. Cuny was then starring in L’Annonce faite à Marie, by Paul Claudel, so Guicharnaud went to see it.9 Guicharnaud found Cuny handsome and his voice beautiful and powerful. He read theater reviews in L’Oeuvre. At the Comédie Française, Guicharnaud saw the famous Jean-Louis Barrault in La Reine Morte, the most notable of Henry de Montherlaut’s plays. He enjoyed Jean Giraudoux’s Electra, the first of the Giraudoux’s work to employ Louis Jouvet’s staging, but Renee Devillers performance as Electra disappointed him.10 On June 24, 1944, Guicharnaud went to the premier of Albert Camus’s Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding), a dramatic representation of Camus’s idea of The Absurd. For Guicharnaud, it was a failure. He booed from his seat in the audience. For several days afterward, he tried to make sense of the performance but refused to accept its worth: “Apparently the play operates on two levels. The real and the symbolic. I don’t buy the second. Besides, there is a third: the message. Camus did not achieve the synthesis of the first and the third, and the presence of the third is just awkward.” He much preferred Sartre’s Huis-Clos (No Exit), which had opened in May.11

Guicharnaud had his own first try at the stage at the beginning of hypokhâgne. He thought it was “the big joke of the season” when he signed himself up to perform the character of Arnaud, the intellectual, in Julien Luchaire’s 1937 play Altitude 3,200. The character spoke to Guicharnaud, who saw in Arnaud an inhibited intellectual who had too many ideas and did not know how to express them all. For Guicharnaud, Arnaud was the hero of the play and the man who suffered the most.12

The cinema and the theater were an especially welcome diversion from the second year of Khâgne, which Guicharnaud was forced to repeat after his unsuccessful attempt at the concours. A third year of prépas pressure, rigor and constant examination weighed on Guicharnaud, who felt “perpetually irritated” by his studies. He was increasingly convinced that schoolwork was a distraction from what became his primary ambition: writing. From the age of 17, Guicharnaud wrote prolifically. Inspired by the many plays and films he saw, as well as the many books he read both for school and for pleasure, Guicharnaud felt a compulsive need to produce works of his own, always working on multiple projects at any given time: plays, novels, poems, and short stories. He filled notebooks, diaries, and miscellaneous scraps of paper with his minuscule, compact French script. Perhaps he sought to participate in the world of ideas in which he was so deeply immersed. Perhaps he wanted to achieve the fame of those whom he saw on stage or on book covers, of those whom he discussed in the classroom or with Forget. The son of modest, bourgeois civil servants, Guicharnaud desired creativity and sophistication. It is not surprising that Guicharnaud rarely wrote about his parents or family: his bourgeois origins offered his writing career nothing. Moreover, debt was a relentless nuisance. Guicharnaud often had to borrow money from friends, find ways to return these small loans, and sell cigarettes or books to make back some extra francs. He hoped that by writing, he would be able to pull himself out of his middle-class means and rid himself of such petty daily concerns. He dreamed of publishing stories that would earn him maybe 200, maybe even 5,000 francs. Money aside, a published work would be an excellent argument for seducing women. Any woman would have to be particularly malicious to turn down a published, prize-winning writer. 13

In 1942, he wrote for the first time a full act of a play, which he entitled “The Death of King Louis,” and considered them terrifically profound. He wrote four pages of his “big” novel and found them beautiful. He began another novel that he provisionally called The Agony of the Gods. In this work, Guicharnaud sought to imitate Marcel Proust, though he had never read any of Proust’s work. In any event, he thought it was off to a good start. Whenever he was uncertain about the literary value of his poetry, prose poems, or freestyle surrealist musings, Guicharnaud thought they were, at least, “very sincere.” Later that year, he finally finished a novel, Michel was Found. Though this work did not commit to any social or political agenda, he thought it was a good piece of writing, “because it was true.” He thought it was good enough that he created a cover like those on Gallimard editions. If it was not a masterpiece, Guicharnaud thought, it was nothing less than an excellent writing exercise. He wrote two poems and three short stories that he wanted to send to the socialist daily L’Oeuvre, under the pseudonym Guy Dausnach, though it is unclear why Guicharnaud thought he needed a nom de plume. On January 12, 1943, Guicharnaud took stock of his current projects: two stories, one novel, a one-act play, and some poetry. Nothing was publishable, but he was sure it was promise of future success. He just needed a bit more life experience and literature under his belt.14

Guicharnaud had a knack for constructing plots, characters, and themes for potential works, without ever realizing the full product. Almost every day he conceived of a new play, a new character, a new existentialist intrigue. Each of these days passed, leaving Guicharnaud with nothing more than a rough idea in his mind. Such was the case when, in 1943, Guicharnaud took up Faites vos lits (Make your beds). He was obsessed with the story he contrived:

The first chapter is a phenomenological study of initiation. At the end of the chapter, Claire will die, crying, ‘Make your beds.’ The novel will be centered on the trial. Claire after her death. She was ordinary, honest, a good girl. This ultima verba will give her the profile of a bad girl, screeching and unsavory. There is Jerome, the bureaucrat, accused at one moment of murder, driven by nerves. For him Claire will not be too despicable, though in reality she will be. There will be other characters, for whom Claire will become an evil girl. At the end, one of them will die. They will find him on the sofa, near the window. They would have thought that everything was fine. Yet he would no longer be alive. But his room was tidy, each object in its place; the books were aligned on the shelves, THE BED WAS MADE. His life was always orderly and nice. Faites vos lits is a double meaning: the words proclaimed by Claire at the moment of her death, in a burst of impatience: she, the hotel maid, would say that to her clients! But it’s also a warning: that the bed is always made for death. Death is unpredictable, but we are responsible for the meaning that we can give to our lives. How are we responsible? Faites vos lits puts forward the problem, but does not resolve it. We also have to make sure at each moment that the past is filled with beauty. The only problem is that the subject is a bit meager for a novel.

Guicharnaud continued to build the plot in his head. Several weeks later:

Over the course of the novel, the reader will not know what I wanted to do. It will tend sometimes toward a detective novel, sometimes toward a populist novel, a psychological novel, etc… Only the last page will reveal the true nature of the book, will color it, just as ‘Make your beds’ gives the heroine’s life all its meaning.

A year after he first conceived of the project, though he had frequently thought about the book, he had written only the outline. He forced himself to write three pages but was overcome with anguish. He decided that he was more talented at the short story than the novel. Never again would Guicharnaud attempt the novel.15

It was an unfortunate day when Guicharnaud discovered that writing would never be as satisfying as sex.

I have just understood what makes a poem. When we have the desire to make love, three solutions: go find a woman (or a man), masturbate, or write. The first solution is clearly the best. The second is a last resort. The third is transcendent. It’s an amazing relief. This afternoon, I was obsessed with sex. I wrote a short poem. I was only temporarily satisfied.

When Guicharnaud was not at school, or reading books for pleasure, he generally had four things on his mind: Joyce, Linette, Simone, and Clementine. They were his four flirtations of the day. Joyce was English, and Linette would accompany him to movies. Simone was petite but not very pretty, and even a bit strange. She got on his nerves. Christiane was blond, attractive, and rather melancholic. She seemed to be always be living in a sort of disappointing dream. Guicharnaud did not find her particularly intelligent. In any case, he was frustrated that he had found neither love, nor sex. It deeply bothered him that, at 18 years old, he was still a virgin. He wanted to know what it was like to sleep with a girl and he thought about it all the time. He was not yet sure he believed in love. What did it mean to love someone? It scared him a little. “As soon as one falls in love,” he wrote, “one becomes precious. It’s true: once love becomes something more than an instinctive, carnal desire, it’s all just affectation. No real love will say ‘I love you’ without adding, before or after, a hint of affability.”16

There was Louisette, whom he dated for several months. He was more or less indifferent and quickly grew tired of her. How pleased he was when one day, in the great hall of the Saint Lazare train station, she, humiliated and disappointed, she told him, tears streaming down her cheeks, “Go away, now! Go away!” She had grown less attractive in his eyes. He found her somewhat idiotic, a little shameless, and sometimes rude. Poor Louisette. She had met another young man, but he abandoned her right on New Year’s Eve. Albert during the spring, Guicharnaud during the fall, this other young guy in December. Who would be next? She told him, “I am not one to hop from one guy to the next.” He felt sorry for her.17

He slept with Joyce, a British girl, and could not stop thinking about her. She had given him a photograph on which she wrote, “Forget me not!” Unable to take his mind off her, Guicharnaud resented her for it. It pained him. He had really thought it would go somewhere. He thought she had given him signs that she loved him, but he had been foolish and too awkward. He wrote her poems.18

Guicharnaud met girls at dances and at surprise parties, a young Parisian phenomenon. Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Jelly Roll Morton were all the rage, but only in secret, as they were banned under Nazi rule.19 Guicharnaud and his friends attended parties at their homes or at various underground establishments in the Latin Quarter where they danced swing, in addition to tango, waltz, and rhumba. However, Guicharnaud could not help but feel awkward in social settings. He never considered himself as stylish or good looking as his friends, who had more romantic success and sexual experience. 20

In April 1943, Guicharnaud met Tamara. She would be his Russian princess. Had he fallen in love with her? She was so beautiful, with her wavy black hair, striking smile, that “nonchalant grace of easterners,” and clear white skin. The thought of Tamara reduced school and the concours to utter insignificance. He practiced how to say, “Я думаю о тебе всë время,” Russian for “I think about you all the time.” He called her “Tamaroutchka” when he thought about her late at night. He spent several weeks thinking about letters he wanted to write her, though he knew practically nothing about her. He wanted to ask to see her, but he was too shy, so he devised a plan: first, he would ask a friend for her address; second; he would write her to fix a time and a place for their date; third, he would take her on a date. He thought about taking her to the Luxembourg Gardens. He did not know where he would take her. The second two steps became rather stressful. Whenever their paths crossed at a party, Guicharnaud was excruciatingly shy. Tamara had no way of knowing about Guicharnaud’s interest.21 He thought his moment had come at the surprise party for their mutual friend, Jacqueline, when the guests decided to play the “dance around the mat.” The game consisted of the guests standing in a circle, with one female guest holding a small mat in the center. She would choose the boy in the circle whom she found most attractive and without saying anything would put the mat in front of him. The two would kneel, the lights would go off, and they would kiss. The girl would then enter the circle and the boy, now in the middle, would continue the game. Jeanne chose Guicharnaud, who chose Tamara. He and Tamara kneeled. The lights went off. He kissed her on the check and then found her lips. The kiss was awkward and too fast. Guicharnaud was overcome with emotion. In the circle, Tamara placed herself near him. Every time the lights went off, he continued to kiss her on the cheek and on the mouth. Guicharnaud was completely spellbound, and the whole evening seemed magical until Tamara left the party with another man, Oleg Koutkov. He spent many months thinking about her, but nothing ever materialized.22 


  1. Guicharnaud, “Notebooks.”
  2. Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris. P. 50-51.
  3. Ibid., 187.
  4. The movie was such a success that it was presented in a gala performance in Vichy, which Maréchal Pétain attended himself. Though even Cocteau’s enemies were quick to recognize the film’s many qualities, some saw the two striking blonds, Jean Marais and Madeleine Sologne, in the lead roles as representative of the triumph of Aryanism. Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, p. 197.
  5. Guicharnaud, “Notebooks.”
  6. Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris. P. 188.
  7. Guicharnaud, “Notebooks.”
  8. Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris. P. 207.
  9. L’Annonce faite à Marie was eventually made into a movie in 1991, Alain Cuny’s only film.
  10. Guicharnaud, “Notebooks.”
  11. Notebooks,” in Jacques Guicharnaud papers (General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University., 1944-1945).
  12. “Notebooks.”
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid. 
  16. Ibid. 
  17. Ibid. 
  18. Ibid, 
  19. Guicharnaud and Neilson, “Those Years: Existentialism 1943-1945.” P. 127. 
  20. Guicharnaud, “Notebooks.”
  21. Ibid. 
  22. Ibid.