Paul Claudel : biography
Paul Claudel (6 August 1868 – 23 February 1955) was a French poet, dramatist and diplomat, and the younger brother of the sculptor Camille Claudel. He was most famous for his verse dramas, which often convey his devout Catholicism.
Claudel was always a controversial figure during his lifetime, and remains so today. His devout Catholicism and his right-wing political views, both slightly unusual stances among his intellectual peers, made him, and continue to make him, unpopular in many circles.
His address of a poem ("Paroles au Marechal," "Words to the Marshal") to Marshal Philippe Pétain after the defeat of France in 1940, commending Petain for picking up and salvaging France’s broken, wounded body, has been unflatteringly remembered, though it is less a paean to Petain than a patriotic lament over the condition of France. As a Catholic, he could not avoid a certain sense of bitter satisfaction at the fall of the anti-clerical French Third Republic. However, accusations that he was a collaborationist based on the 1941 poem ignore the fact that support for Marshal Petain and the surrender was, in the catastrophic atmosphere of defeat, emotional collapse and exhaustion in 1941, widespread throughout the French populace (witness the large majority vote in favour of Petain and the dissolution of the Third Republic in the French Parliament in 1940, with support stretching across the political spectrum). Claudel’s diaries make clear his consistent contempt for Nazism (condemning it as early as 1930 as "demonic" and "wedded to Satan," and referring to communism and Nazism as "Gog and Magog"), and his attitude to the Vichy regime quickly hardened into opposition.
He also committed his sister Camille Claudel to a hospital in March 1913, where she remained for the last 30 years of her life. Records show that while she did have mental lapses, she was clear-headed while working on her art. An exhibition of her bronzes in the Swiss Foundation Gianadda from 16 November 1990 until February 1991 shows clearly what can be considered only a small proof of the timeless beauty of her sculptures, inspired by a genuine talent. Doctors tried to convince the family that she need not be in the institution, but still they kept her there. (The story forms the subject of a novel by Michele Desbordes,La Robe bleue, The Blue Dress.)
Despite sharing in his earlier years in the old-fashioned antisemitism of conservative France, his response to the radical racialist Nazi version was unequivocal; he had written an open letter to the World Jewish Conference in 1935 condemning the Nuremberg Laws as "abominable and stupid." The sister of his daughter-in-law had married a Jew, Paul-Louis Weiller, who was arrested by the Vichy government in October 1940. Claudel went to Vichy to intercede for him, to no avail; luckily Weiller managed to escape (with Claudel’s assistance, the authorities suspected) and flee to New York. Claudel made known his anger at the Vichy government’s anti-Jewish legislation, courageously writing a published letter to the Chief Rabbi, Israel Schwartz, in 1941 to express "the disgust, horror, and indignation that all decent Frenchmen and especially Catholics feel in respect of the injustices, the despoiling, all the ill treatment of which our Jewish compatriots are now the victims… Israel is always the eldest son of the promise [of God], as it is today the eldest son of suffering." The Vichy authorities responded by having Claudel’s house searched and keeping him under observation. His support for Charles de Gaulle and the Free French forces culminated in his victory ode addressed to de Gaulle when Paris was liberated in 1944.
Claudel, a conservative of the old school, was clearly not a fascist. The French writers who were attracted by, and collaborated with, the Nazi "New Order" in Europe, much younger men like Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, tended to come from a very different background to Claudel’s, nihilists, ex-dadaists, and futurists rather than old-fashioned Catholics (neither of the other two major French Catholic writers, François Mauriac and Georges Bernanos, were supporters of the Nazi occupation or the Vichy regime).