Sachs, Maurice. “Witches’ Sabbath”, translated by Richard Howard, Spurl, 2020.
Maurice Sachs— 1906-1945
“Witches’ Sabbath” is the autobiography of French gay Jewish author Maurice Sachs (1906-1945). Sachs felt that this was “a statement of account, a moral memo. Or should I say immoral?” He shares how, as a young man, he was a friend of Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel, both of whom he stole from, just as he stole from many others in his life (Sachs proposed writing a book entitled “Confessions of a Thief”). He tells of when, in 1925, he converted to Catholicism and entered a seminary but was expelled because of his homosexuality. He tells of drifting through America, of when he nearly drank himself to death, of his many failed love affairs. While this is a compelling, honest portrait of a unique character, “Witches’ Sabbath” is also an engagement with literature. Every period of Sachs’ life is marked by his dialogue with living and dead authors including members of the French literary elite— Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, Stendhal and others. His lifelong obsession with literature let Sachs developed a style all his own— his writing is of acerbic portraits of his contemporaries, sometimes picaresque, introspective and filled with irony.
Sachs’s character sketches are filled with of venom. The translator, Richard Howard, had a rough job but has accomplished it admirably. This English version will interest those who desire to recapture the intellectual and artistic life of Paris in the Twenties.
We read of the competing and often contradictory currents of between-the-wars France. Originally published after the Second World War, Sachs was shot on a forced march from a German concentration camp.”
I must admit that I anticipated something much eviller that what this is. Yes, Sachs lived a wild life. He was born to non-religious Jewish parents in Paris, went to school in England where he discovered, enjoyed and enthusiastically practiced his homosexuality. Returning to France, he converted to Catholicism and started training for the priesthood until he was kicked out after his sexuality was discovered. Later on, he went to the United States, converted to Protestantism, and was married for a short time to the daughter of a preacher. He returned to Paris with a steady American boyfriend and hit bottom. He describes the seedy hotel where they were staying at the time and made me itch as I read. Throughout, Sachs was involved in several shady business schemes and suffered from alcoholism. Yet, he managed to write and befriend a number of famous writers. During the war, a period not covered by the book, he worked for the Gestapo for some time before being sent to a concentration camp himself and was killed during a forced march to another camp in 1945.
He was just 39 when an SS bullet entered his neck. His life ended as a Hollywood
fantasy. He was a self-destructive French charmer, cad, deceiver, thief who had no morality whatsoever. This memoir and his other writings make him an infamous underground literary figure.
Sach’s memoir was finished in 1942, the year before he was arrested by the Gestapo. Reportedly an informer, Sachs even double-crossed the deadliest thugs . When he was just 15 years old he helped his mother (his father deserted them years earlier) flee to England after she bilked a friend out of thousands. He never saw her again. In his teens, he became involved in the literary/art scene and used relatives and male sex workers to gain a place. He always seemed to be out on the town with his pals. Men were his pleasure.
Meeting Maritain, he decided to convert to Catholicism and become a priest. He gives an intense explanation of his need for Godliness. Then, feeling religious pressures, he’s off to see Glenway Westcott and Rebecca West at Juan-les-Pins. He claimed that kneeling at a long Mass, he explains, gave him an erection.
When finding himself hungry, he goes to work for Coco Chanel, creating a library for her. He makes money, wastes it and owes Chanel who fires him. For consolation he goes to a male brothel that was furnished by Proust.
He goes to America and marries the daughter of a minister in Smalltown, USA but rushes back to France – with a boyfriend right after the honeymoon. He began his downward spiral into alcohol and soon his life was over being shot as a Jew, the religion he left.
His autobiography is fascinating and disturbing.
Parts of this read more like a novel than an autobiography. Sachs lived life to excess, drank too much, had sex too much and stole too much. He actually wrote much deeply about his interest in Catholicism than he did about his time of “vice”. During his most decadent periods, he never really seemed to enjoy himself, He had alcoholism but succumbed to it. He went from having lots of money to being very poor. Yet it was during his time of poverty and living with the man that he really loved that his book shines. I could not help but wonder if his despair came from his being a queer Jewish man living in a prejudiced society. I also wonder, knowing the extent of his lies, how much of Sachs’s story is actually true.