Witches’ Sabbath is the remarkable autobiographical chronicle of French author Maurice Sachs (1906–1945). To Sachs, the work was “a statement of account, a moral memo. Or should I say immoral?” He recounts how, as a young man, he befriended Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel, both of whom he stole from, as he stole from many others in his life (Sachs would later propose writing a book entitled Confessions of a Thief). He tells of when, in 1925, he converted to Catholicism and entered a seminary, only to be expelled because of his homosexuality. He tells of when he drifted through America, of when he nearly drank himself to death, of his many failed love affairs. In addition to being a compelling, honest portrait of a unique character, Witches’ Sabbath is also notable for its engagement with literature. Every period of Sachs’ life is marked by his dialogue with living and dead authors; Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, Stendhal, all are featured. Thanks to his lifelong obsession with literature, Sachs developed a style all his own: peppered with keen, acerbic portraits of his contemporaries, sometimes picaresque, introspective and often full of irony.
Translated by Richard Howard, Witches’ Sabbath is released on March 25th by Spurl Editions
My memory affords me few images of my childhood.
The first one, a big room papered in pink and white toile de Jouy where my nurse Suze was smiling at me. She was an Englishwoman whose face had withered in service and chastity. She loved me, and I loved her in return. She was the first person I ever scandalized, for I passionately longed to be a girl, and carried my ignorance of the grandeur of man’s estate to the point of insisting on urinating in a seated position. Worse still, I refused to go to sleep until Suze had promised me I would wake up sexually transformed.
Nothing tortured her so much as these supplications of mine, which she attributed to childish whims. She finally managed to soothe my frenzy, but I woke up, horrified at still being male. Since this occurred around my fourth year, one must conclude that since my earliest childhood I had inclinations that quite particularly predisposed me to homosexuality.
We lived at the time in the Rue de Lisbonne, in a rather splendid apartment, whose salon my father sold without my mother’s knowledge, during a vacation. This consecrated their ruin and hastened their divorce. My father vanished from my life, leaving no trace. I never saw him again.
Our fortunes greatly reduced, we emigrated into a wretched apartment in the Rue Roussel. Suze left us, her departure causing me the bitterest grief, and thus I made the acquaintance of my mother, of whom I had hitherto seen very little. She had huge blue eyes, a strong jaw, black hair, and, if not beauty, an extraordinary charm.
I don’t recall ever having been able to love her properly, nor even to tell her so. Nor was she able to show me the extent of her own tenderness. We lived side by side, rather isolated, and the unsociability I inherited from her character was not likely to bring us closer together. Yet I sometimes loved her quite wildly, and when I slipped into her bed in the morning and snuggled against her, I was as happy as a puppy, warm as toast, fond as love.
My life has been nothing but one long complicity with the guilty. I have always been on the side of the pariahs in my family, and since childhood have felt guiltiest of all, for to their capital sins (of which I knew nothing, though I felt their weight) I added my own whose details I know only too well.
But certainly my greatest error has always been to believe myself guilty a priori, and my worst behavior to return to my guilt in order to ascertain some kind of morbid equilibrium.
Yet this sense of guilt preceded my first fault. It was in me not only as it is in everyone, but more than in most, for I was born and raised in the accursed branch of the family, and worse still, I was the child of the accursed member of the accursed branch. Indeed, my Grandmother Bizet was condemned by her more bourgeois sisters, and my mother even more so by my grandmother. My Grandfather Sachs, too, had no great love for his daughter; my great aunts and their families entertained in our regard no more than pity mixed with disapproval. I suspect that my mother lived as best she could by whatever means were at hand, and that since she rather quickly spent the small income my grandfather gave her, she was occasionally obliged to sell her dresses and bibelots or to go into debt. In short, we were generally penniless; this was always evident in our household, and worst of all, we were penniless in the middle of a rich family.
My great-uncle H . . . had a comfortable bourgeois kind of wealth, a salon hung with red damask, and a haughty butler; my grandfather had the quickly exhausted, quickly renewed fortune of a prodigal businessman, and Jacques Bizet the kind of money which costs nothing, that of his mother and his debts, the kind which evaporated in flowers for women and the bubbles of champagne in jeroboams.
I shall not take into consideration infantile transgressions which it is difficult to summarize and which are, en masse, about the same for everyone, any more than I shall discuss sexual guilt, for as far back as I can recall I have never had any particular shame in this regard nor in that of the special nature of my physical inclinations.
But there is one guilt which has weighed much more heavily upon me that I wish to discuss, a deviation which it has been very difficult for me to correct: from earliest childhood, I was dishonest.
One of the worst misfortunes that a human being can suffer is to be crooked before having become aware of himself, for he grows up with his fault, counting on it, and struggling for rather than against it, like a lame child that gets used to walking in a way that best suits his club foot and whom nothing can induce to walk straight. Much later, when one of my follies had brought me into court, the judge said to me: “I’m amazed you have no innate sense of honesty.” What could I answer? I was panic-stricken over the fact myself. I was born without it.
People are always astonished that true criminals are not touched by remorse. It is the opposite that should be astonishing. There is no remorse because there is no sense of the fault; and the fault exists because the sense of fault was lacking.
Between the criminal and the well-balanced man there is a difference of climate that wrecks almost any hope of seeing the well-balanced man judge the criminal rationally (unless he makes him a subject of study). One must always have gone through this ordeal to understand anything about it. Now the misunderstanding occurs when the well-balanced man instinctively believes that the thief, before stealing, has asked himself: “Shall I steal?” and has debated the matter like a lawyer deciding: “Shall I study the Singapore dossier today?”
Theft is as irresistible as physical desire can be on certain nights. It will be objected that many criminals make a profession of crime. Yes, the stages of the profession are arranged beforehand, but the choice of the profession is not. I am sure that it could not be. For the fascination that leads to theft is an intoxication which grips a man, wracks his whole being and casts him up again, exhausted, slaked and satisfied once the crime is committed.
It is a passion which declares itself very early. I felt its first effects toward my tenth year. I was then studying half-days at the Lycée Carnot. We bought candy from the concierge. My allowance was not enough for my greed.
I no longer remember the date of the first time I stole money to buy the things I wanted. It was out of the bag of one of my mother’s cousins. I took two sous, while the family was at lunch. The immediate explanation, of course, is that the theft had a motive since everything can be explained by my longing for candy. I don’t think so. The rather mild craving for an almond tart – a craving weaker, once I had stolen, than that of taking – was only a pretext. My soul was waiting for it with the bad excuse furnished by my palate.
To buy a tart, I took two sous, then I waited, in an agony of impatience, for another visit from our cousin, and as soon as I decided she was busy eating, I rushed to open her bag, not for a tart this time, but for the anguished delight of the theft. It is quite impossible to express in writing the violence of the emotions that agitate a thief, doubtless the same for the child pilfering two sous as for the gangster jimmying a safe.
What inner chaos! What seething of the blood! Then, once the theft is accomplished, what calm, what well-being! One is saved, restored to oneself. And so virtuous! Moderate! Unassuming! Moreover having just done evil to excess, one is happy to rejoin the community of men, to behave as well as they, if not better.
I would not have it thought that I am writing here with any cheap complacency about a vice I can discuss only because I have – at the cost of what efforts! – turned from it; but it is impossible to conceal that I am writing about it with a kind of voluptuous pleasure, and that ever since I began this chapter, a distant voice calls to me: “Forget about all that,” it says, “you have better things to do than write. There are houses to rob, jewels to take, a world of dangerous and delicious adventures that interest you much more than this notebook.” This voice is one of my own. Yes, one of the professions that would have pleased me most would have been that of thief. I had a vocation for it in my blood. Yet I gave it up, but not because theft is immoral, or because I disapproved of an anti-social action as such. (Legally organized theft is too common in the world for me to heed the moral reasons forbidding it.) I believe aesthetic reasons turned me from stealing. A thief does not conform to a certain vivid ideal I cherish.
And doubtless I have the vocation of theft without having the ambition.
But that is one of the goals this little book proposes: to show what great changes one can effect in oneself by ambition.
I have said that theft preceded puberty, in my case. It was the source of the only intense emotions of my youth, for aside from stealing, nothing amused me, nothing really aroused me. I was one of the most solitary, the most apprehensive of creatures, and constantly suffered from the horrible sensation of not being like the others. Already not at all resembling the rest of my family, it was, unfortunately, my lot to hate being a boy, to enjoy none of the games appropriate to my age, and worse still to be the victim of a perverse taste which I could confess to no one. Certainly this was enough to make a child morose and withdrawn. My only companions in these sad years were the characters in Mme. de Ségur’s books, and two saintly, charming old ladies whom I always remember with the deepest emotion, my eyes brimming with tears. They were Mme. Vignaud and Mme. Rateau. What can I say about them that will properly express their wonderful talent for loving me so dearly! I used to visit the first often; the other, who lived very near us, I went to see every day. How dear to my heart were their kisses; how lovely were Mme. Vignaud’s white curls; how comforting Mme. Rateau’s good humor! I would rather speak of them for a hundred pages than of the miseries and horrors I must reveal, but books like these are not suited to such peaceful memories.
I send them only a tender, a filial greeting here. I loved them, I love them now, and I shall love them till my dying day with all my heart. How much I would have adored them as grandmothers!
And thus, without saying a word about my moral development, a few pages have brought me to my tenth year. But this is because I had nothing else to say. Everything is gray and monotonous in my memories. Ten years of silence and boredom in which only theft appears, without any preparation, as an emotion of unparalleled intensity: the only salient feature of my youth, and the only pleasure until the discovery of sex.
I should have enjoyed being able to speak of that faraway war, which so many apprehensions of the wars to come make still more remote, but I was only seven years old when it was declared. My father left to serve in it, but since we no longer knew him, I heard nothing about it. From our balcony, I saw a zeppelin which I thought very beautiful, and we often went down to the cellar during the raids, but a child sees only the details of a universal upheaval. He understands nothing, and the world’s excitement delights much more than it frightens him. My mother was often in correspondence with soldiers at the front, and later worked as a secretary in the offices of the American army. When it was believed that the German troops would surround Paris, my grandfather made us leave for England.
It was on a London street corner that I first saw the landscape around me, or more exactly that I realized I saw it, and that I gained an aesthetic awareness of my surroundings. The street was paved and gray. A red brick house stood at a corner, a sheet of fog hung between sky and ground. In the little image which this intersection has left in my memory, the details are very clear, like a Pieter de Hooch. That is the only aesthetic pleasure that I experienced in my childhood, and I knew no others until after I had experienced voluptuous ones, for until then I remained quite apathetic to almost everything and walled up in myself, a fat, clumsy, slow little boy.
Maurice Sachs (France, 1906–Germany, 1945) was a French author known for his autobiographical writings. He worked as an editor of a major publishing house and in 1935 published his first novel, Alias. A gay Jewish man, Sachs began World War II by hosting an anti-fascist radio program. Sachs then moved to Hamburg, where he was a black marketeer and an informer for the Gestapo. In 1943, Sachs was arrested and sent to the Fuhlsbüttel concentration camp. During a long march to evacuate the liberated camp, Sachs was shot and killed by an SS soldier. Many of Maurice Sachs’ works were published after his death, including Witches’ Sabbath (1946); The Hunt (1949), which describes Sachs’ life during the occupation; and Derrière cinq barreaux (1952) and Tableau des moeurs de ce temps (1954), which Sachs wrote while imprisoned.
Richard Howard is a poet, critic, and translator. He has published over 150 translations from the French and nearly twenty volumes of poetry. Howard has translated works by Roland Barthes, Charles Baudelaire, E. M. Cioran, and Guy de Maupassant, among many others. He is a recipient of numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the PEN Translation Award.
Featured image: Sabbat (Watercolour) by Tony Grist