Jacques Guicharnaud, Paris Years, 1941 – 1946, Preface and Part I

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.


Jacques Guicharnaud made a name for himself as the Benjamin F. Barge Professor of French at Yale University, where he taught from 1950 until 1997. As specialist in French theater, his scholarship focused largely on 17th century and 20th century drama. His most acclaimed works include Modern French Theatre from Giraudoux to Beckett (1961), Molière, une aventure théâtrale (Molière, a Theatrical Affair) (1963), and his translations of Tennessee Williams plays. He married the beautiful June Beckelman, who became his right-hand woman, translating and editing much of his work, as she had received a degree in French from New York University before becoming a buyer for major New York City department stores. Guicharnaud was active in Yale’s Theater Studies program and served twice as Acting Master, first of Jonathan Edwards in 1968 and of Morse in 1972–73. He was a devoted professor who took genuine interest in his students, inviting them to see theater performances, to dine with him at his usual table at The Mory’s Association, and to join him and his wife for a drink at his Bishop Street home, a “salon” of sorts. The very stylish “Jacques and June” were the “it” couple on campus. Jacques showed up to classes in perfectly tailored suits from J. Press; at six feet tall, with a notable Gallic nose, he struck an elegant, impressive silhouette. June would for him outside in their black Cadillac with red leather interior.1 By the time he retired after almost half a century at Yale, he had introduced the university to classic and modern French theater.

Though Guicharnaud spent most of his life in America, his roots were in France, where he was born and lived the first 25 years of his life. When he came to Yale’s French department, he joined a generation of French expatriates like himself. Guicharnaud teamed up with Henri Peyre, Georges May, and Jean Boorsch to form a group unique in the Department’s history that secured it international acclaim. All four Frenchmen came from Paris, more specifically from the Rive Gauche, or the Left Bank, the center of literary, artistic, political, and social engagement in France during the first half of the 20th century. They all studied at the École Normale Supérieure, France’s most elite academic institution, during 1920s, 30s, and 40s. As tenured faculty at Yale, they invited their friends, the most notable writers, critics, and publishers of the century, to speak in America. Guicharnaud was admitted into the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. May and Peyre were eventually both named Chevaliers de la Légion d’Honneur. Boorsch championed the total-immersion method to train Americans in French. All were pioneers of scholarship across Franco-American cultural lines.

Like Peyre, May, and Boorsch, Guicharnaud’s student years in Paris shaped the man he later became. During his classes, Guicharnaud would occasionally share anecdotes of his Paris years; his colleagues and students had heard about his roots in the Left Bank circle.2  Every year he would go back to France and reconnect with prominent editors at top publishing houses, like Gallimard, and with acquaintances, from James Baldwin to Susan Sontag to Jean-Louis Barrault.3  In Paris, as student during the Occupation and as a burgeoning writer after the Liberation, Guicharnaud wrote his first plays and short stories; exchanged ideas with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus; and discovered existentialism and sexuality. However, as Guicharnaud did not leave behind a memoir or autobiography, the complete story remains untold. When Guicharnaud passed away in the spring of 2005, he entrusted Yale with almost everything he had written from the age of 17 to 81. During four years that spanned late adolescence to early adulthood, Guicharnaud kept private diaries where he brooded over his academic pursuits, educational pressure, romantic prospects, frustrated sexuality, friendships, existentialism, and creative writings. These heaps of French-ruled notebook paper, crammed and cluttered with small, compact script, open a window onto Guicharnaud’s experience of life in Paris’s Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des-Prés during the Occupation and in the aftermath of the Liberation. These diaries tell the story of the literary coming-of-age that critically shaped the career of a nascent intellectual and scholar.

Paris Years, Part I: The Daily Grind

The year was 1941. War, bombings, Nazi rule, persecution, mass extermination, and food shortages ravaged continental Europe. Paris was an occupied city under German authority. On June 14, 1940, German army drove into Paris unopposed, ousted the French Third Republic and installed the Third Reich for an indefinite occupation of the northern half of France. As the Germans occupied Paris during summer of 1940, the city lost 60 percent of its population, as people fled to the countryside and to the southern, unoccupied zone. German troops took over ministries and army buildings, with senior officials installing themselves in the city’s finest hotels. Everywhere, the swastika replaced the tricolor, even on the Eiffel Tower.4

Jacques Guicharnaud hardly seemed to notice. He barely found time to write about the war amid his preoccupations with his studies, his writings, and his desire to live a normal teenage life. France fell to Germany just three weeks before Guicharnaud’s sixteenth birthday on July 7, 1940. At the time, Guicharnaud could let himself have only one primary concern: academic success. Guicharnaud was about to enter his final year, terminale, of high school, where he slaved over his books in preparation of the national Baccalaureate exam, known as le bac, in the summer of 1941, which earned him his high school diploma.5

The talented Guicharnaud did not simply want to pass le bac, but he wanted to pass it with honors. After all, Guicharnaud’s goal was simple: to receive the best literary education in all of France, and therefore to be accepted to the most prestigious of France’s academic institutions: the École Normale Supérieure.

Normale, or Normale sup’, or ENS, or Ulm, after its street in Paris’s Latin Quarter, has enjoyed a special status among institutions of higher education in France since its founding during the French Revolution. The school’s status and its atmosphere, like that of an American college fraternity house in its camaraderie, gave rise to an intellectual elite, as graduates of ENS constituted an intellectual race apart in French society. Many went on to successful teaching careers or distinguished themselves in journalism, fiction, or poetry. They often ended their careers as members of the Académie Française, France’s pre-eminent scholarly body. Catholic essayist Charles Péguy, founder of the Unanism literary movement Jules Romains, and playwright Jean Giraudoux are among the diverse literary luminaries to have graduated from ENS. Other graduates went on to become government officials and even heads of government, like socialist leaders Jean Juarès and Léon Blum, or like President of the Republic Georges Pompidou.6 As Guicharnaud later wrote, France was “a nation which has never really freed itself from the conviction that any genuine success in an intellectual one.”7

Guicharnaud’s parents were both low-ranking fonctionnnaires, or civil servants, firmly entrenched in the French, bourgeois, republican tradition.8  His family did not offer him the necessary political or social connections necessary to launch the literary career to which Guicharnaud aspired. Studying at ENS was as good a way to enter society and to make connections as growing up in a chic Parisian neighborhood. Students lived in small monks’ cells called turnes and attended courses at the nearby Sorbonne for their university degrees. It was in the turnes and in the large courtyard, cloistered off the rue d’Ulm, that influential, lasting friendships had their origins. As a normalien during the 1920s, Jean-Paul Sartre formed relationships with philosopher and political scientist Raymond Aron, with writer Paul Nizan, with phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who eventually edited Sartre’s magazine Les Temps Modernes, and with feminist and existentialist Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s life-long pseudo-partner. The dramatist and literary critic Thierry Maulnier, who was in the same ENS class as the notorious fascist Robert Brasillach, once wrote that the school “was a secret society, with a coded language, recognition signals, and that solidarity among members which seems stronger than religious or political differences…”9

Though Guicharnaud’s goal was clear, the path to get there, however, was difficult.  Entrance to ENS required a selection process as rigorous as the school was prestigious. In order to gain acceptance to ENS, like all other elite Grandes Ecoles in the sciences and in business, the higher education establishments outside the public university system, students had to pass competitive entrance exams, called the concours. To prepare for the concours, Guicharnaud, upon receiving his high school diploma, enrolled in classes préparatoires, the preparatory classes infamously known as prépas, the most grueling, rigorous years of schooling in the French education system.

In the fall of 1941, seventeen-year-old Guicharnaud found himself at the doors of Lycée Henri-IV.10 Henri-IV, one of the two most prestigious secondary schools in France, is located in the heart of the Latin Quarter, on the left bank of the Seine. The imposing edifice is the former royal Abbey of St. Geneviève, a gothic monastery built during the 12th century that was disestablished during the Revolution, having been a cradle of the University of Paris for over five hundred years.11

The school sits just behind the Panthéon. A Paris landmark, tourist attraction, and architectural feat of neoclassicism, with its massive portico of Corinthian columns and its 270-foot-high dome, the Panthéon was initially built in the mid-18th century as a church for St Geneviève but ultimately became a mausoleum containing the remains of distinguished French citizens. It was the site of Leon Foucault’s famous Pendulum experiment and once housed Auguste Rodin’s most celebrated sculpture, The Thinker.12

Henri-IV not only drew some of the brightest professors and students in France, but could also claim a location in Paris that represented the apotheosis of French cultural and intellectual achievements. At Henri IV, Guicharnaud was to become a Latinist, a Hellenist, and a philosopher; he would know all of French literature from the Oaths of Strasbourg in the 9th century to Paul Eluard; he was to learn all of modern world history.

For Guicharnaud, prépas was not about attaining the average. He had to be the best. He prided himself during the semesters when he was “cacique,” normalien jargon for “first in the class.” Determined to work as hard as it took to secure a rare spot at ENS, Guicharnaud needed two years of prépas, the first year called “Hypokhâgne” and the second called “Khâgne.” Sometimes students repeated the second year, sometimes even twice. For Guicharnaud, prépas was everything. Though the concours was a whole two years away, from the day Hypokhâgne began in late October 1941, the pressure to succeed was relentless. The syllabus comprised all humanities subjects, including Philosophy, Literature, History, Geography, Foreign languages, and ancient languages (i.e., Latin and ancient Greek). At school, he did everything from writing phenomenological essays on the nature of malice, to reading Stendhal, Kafka, and Steinbeck.13

At prépas, Guicharnaud became an intellectual in the purest sense of the term, and it is no wonder that the war hardly took up his attention. Guicharnaud later reflected on the myopic commitment to the classroom in the heart of the Latin Quarter, scarcely touched by the harsh reality of current events:

We were between fourteen and eighteen years old when war descended upon us. The clearest indication of the effectiveness of French secondary schooling is the irresistible fascination it exerts on so many of the young. How hard it is to abandon Homer, Plato and Racine just as one begins, at the time of the baccalauréat, to understand them a little. Literature and philosophy, presented as an eclectic, smiling and somewhat irresponsible humanism, are the two wings of a golden door. Centuries of culture labored over it lovingly, in order that the stripling bourgeoisie, future guardian of Values, might be enticed into the garden of Epicure. Or even into the garden of tortures, the delicious tortures of the intellect… This teaching is the very summa of our culture, and not one of us would wish to repudiate it. Organized almost entirely under the Third Republic it has, for the most part, courageously chosen to set Truth above any civic propaganda. But its interpretation of culture is wise and moderate: Culture is universal and thus, though offering the citizen the joys of knowledge in peacetime, it may be pursued, untainted, during the war. 14

Ancient Greek civilization and language fascinated Guicharnaud during Hypokhâgne. He even dreamed of a previous life “under the attic sky.” In his head he conceived of scenarios and stories that he longed to write about Pericles and the Spartan war. He found his hero in Philoctetes, a Trojan War soldier and protagonist of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides plays. When he returned home to his parents’ apartment at 20, rue Lacépède, right off of Place Monge in the 5th arrondissement and just a few minutes’ walk from Henri IV, he gladly spent hours drilling Greek and Latin vocabulary. It gave him much satisfaction to read Cicero, Catullus, and Aristophanes off the cuff. He began his own translations of these works for his own enjoyment.15

At the time, Guicharnaud realized how odd it was that the war rarely made its way into his day-to-day concerns:

There’s the war, the Occupation. I never talk about it. Why? One day I’ll have to speak about this weariness, this uncertainty that weighs me down. I have the impression that we are fighting for values that do not exist. I’m neither anglophile nor germanophile, neither sovietophile nor a Pétainist. I don’t know. It seems to me that all of this means nothing.16

Guicharnaud’s closest encounters with the war included the food rationing system, whose alimentary tickets were a necessary part of his daily life, as well as the March 1942 and April 1943 bombings at Boulogne Billancourt, the closest bombardments to Paris during the whole war, which he heard as he tried to fall asleep. Throughout the 1940s Guicharnaud remained more or less apolitical, though he would later come to surround himself with politically engaged, Resistance, and Communist writers.17

Even without the war, Guicharnaud felt like he had more than enough to worry about. Prépas was characterized by a perpetual feeling of anxiety and dread. “My anxieties don’t subside. As the concours gets closer and closer, more and more does it seem monstrous,” he wrote at the beginning of Khâgne, the second year. Since the prépas curriculum was immense, it was impossible to predict specifically what subjects would be tested. For Guicharnaud, Khâgne was the “key year” in his career. “Right now, I’m building my future… The feeling of playing such a big role, I’ve never felt this so intensely until now. It’s not that it’s disagreeable, but it does make me nervous… It’s my life that’s at stake right now. I must be accepted.” There were only 24 open spots at ENS, when Guicharnaud completed the concours from May 30 to June 8, 1943. The thought was stomach-lurching and meant many sunny afternoons spent inside doing schoolwork. He developed nervous habits; whenever he read, he ate at his right thumb, to the point where it looked like he had scabies. He witnessed his older friends’ failures, unable to keep up. Brigeon was a “raté,” or a failure. Like Guicharnaud, he had literary ambitions, too, and had realized his full potential, but the concours was stronger than he. “He was a ruined man. He was to be unhappy.” Jean-Claude did not make it either. “He talked about killing himself! He has these dreadful moments of melancholy.”18

Guicharnaud so desperately wanted a bright future for himself. He needed to make it to ENS. He wanted the stable, established life of a professor. Otherwise, he felt doomed to a future as a civil servant without prospects: in other words, a failure. During evenings spent studying in his bedroom, he occasionally amused himself by imagining a high school professor several hundred years from now explaining Guicharnaud’s works to his students. “That would be too wonderful,” thought Guicharnaud, “especially since what I write does not actually mean anything. Let’s randomly take one of my poems. There’s always a way to find some meaning.” Guicharnaud wrote a poem. “Imagine the old bearded man hunched over this text,” he said to himself. Then, in quotation marks, Guicharnaud would write page-long explications of his own work, imagining how future scholars would interpret it. Guicharnaud tended to find great value in most of what he wrote.19

At Henri IV, one professor in particular put a great deal of pressure on the young Guicharnaud to succeed academically and earn a place at ENS. Daniel Forget vested his confidence in the young man, raising Guicharnaud’s self-esteem when the pressure and competition at school made him doubt his own abilities, and Guicharnaud admired him above anyone else. Forget’s musical voice, brilliant insights and dynamic classes drew Guicharnaud in. Guicharnaud became a favorite, and Forget regularly invited him to his house on the rue de Vaugirard, next to the Luxembourg Gardens in the 6th arrondissement, where they discussed everything from Breton and his Surrealist Manifestos, to Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play, Ubu Roi.20 For every visit Guicharnaud brought Forget his newest literary interest. Forget valued Guicharnaud’s taste and literary insights just as much as the student looked up to his teacher. Only Forget had the privilege of reading all Guicharnaud’s creative writings, including poems, short stories, plays, and once a novel, for he valued Forget’s opinion above all and eagerly awaited each upcoming rendez-vous. Guicharnaud’s feelings ran deeper than admiration. The more Guicharnaud saw him, the more he loved him.21

He felt incapable of expressing his admiration, and though he wished to declare his adoration to his teacher, he could not speak as elegantly or as poetically as he would have liked. “Every time I go see Monsieur Forget, I’m pathetic. I make grammatical mistakes when I speak – and I don’t say much. He always directs the conversation toward books that I don’t know. Really, it’s humiliating, but, like discipline, it’s probably good for me.” Forget was demanding and intimidating. As Guicharnaud began to take his independent writing more and more seriously during Khâgne, his relationship with Forget slowly fell apart. Forget made it very clear when he found Guicharnaud’s writing mediocre. Every time Guicharnaud visited, Forget never forgot to remind Guicharnaud of how important it would be to pass the concours. He encouraged Guicharnaud to put aside his creative writing and focus on his studies at hand. Perhaps Forget did not understand him as well as he had hoped.22


  1. Pierre Alexandre De Looz, “Telephone Interview,” (20 April 2013); James Austin, “Telephone Interview,” (21 April 2013).
  2. Sarah Mishkin, “Retired French Prof Guicharnaud Dies,” Yale Daily News 2005.
  3. De Looz, “Telephone Interview.”
  4. Alan Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris  (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010). P. 45. 
  5. Jacques Guicharnaud, “Curriculum Vitae,” (French Department, Yale University, 1978).
  6. H.R. Lottman, The Left Bank: Writers, Artists, and Politics from the Popular Front to the Cold War  (Houghton Mifflin, 1982). P. 14-18.
  7. Jacques Guicharnaud, “Higher Education,” Yale French Studies, no. 22 (1958).
  8. De Looz, “Telephone Interview.”
  9. Lottman, The Left Bank: Writers, Artists, and Politics from the Popular Front to the Cold War. P. 16-17. 
  10. Jacques Guicharnaud, “Notebooks,” in Jacques Guicharnaud Papers (General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, 1941-1944).
  11. J. Bouillon and B. Roussel, Le Lycée Henri-Iv Paris  (Gérard Klopp, 1996).
  12. Centre canadien d’architecture, Caisse nationale des monuments historiques et des sites, and Hôtel de Sully, Le Panthéon: Symbole Des Révolutions  (Picard, 1989).
  13. Guicharnaud, “Notebooks.”
  14. Jacques Guicharnaud and Kevin Neilson, “Those Years: Existentialism 1943-1945,” Yale French Studies, no. 16 (1955). P. 129.
  15. Guicharnaud, “Notebooks.”
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Daniel Forget, “Correspondance,” in Jacques Guicharnaud papers (General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, 1941-1943).
  21. Guicharnaud, “Notebooks.” 
  22. Ibid.