Books interview: Paula Schwartz

The professor of French studies and author of Today Sardines Are Not for Sale: A Street Protest in Occupied Paris explains how exploring small, overlooked episodes brings human drama to history

August 5, 2020
Paula Schwartz

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
I loved the Nancy Drew mystery series, and I also relished books about animals, both fiction and non-fiction. In high school, I remember reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which made a huge impression on me.

Your new book examines a 1942 ‘street protest in Occupied Paris’. Which books first alerted you to intriguing but unexplored episodes of the Second World War?
The work of British historian Roderick Kedward has intrigued and inspired me for decades. Until the publication of Resistance in Vichy France: A Study of Ideas and Motivation in the Southern Zone, 1940-42, followed by In Search of the Maquis: Rural Resistance in Southern France, 1942-44, few historians had made such extensive use of oral history, and fewer still had paid any attention to the role of women in the underground movement. Resistance historiography was then more heavily weighted towards politics and structures. Kedward took a more a social and anthropological approach.

What are other notable accounts of street protests?
I know of very few accounts of street protests, which is part of why I found the demonstration on the rue de Buci so compelling. Demonstrations have played a significant role in all social movements, but a demonstration per se is rarely the subject of a book. A notable exception is the Rosenstrasse demonstration, which took place in Berlin in 1943. Nathan Stoltzfus wrote a study of it, Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany. Since then, there have been reinterpretations of the event by scholars such as Wolf Gruner.

What books have proved useful models in bringing ‘microhistorical’ events to life?
The first that comes to mind is Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre, which I first read as a graduate student in history. The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg, one of the founders of the genre of microhistory, is the remarkable study of the “cosmos of a 16th-century miller”. Both of these books are based on court records full of human drama.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. It is a monumental work of fiction, based on a mind-blowing amount of historical research, that I have now read twice. The story is told from the point of view of an SS officer. Truth be told, I don’t think either of the friends to whom I gave this book has tackled it. At some 900 densely packed pages, it is not for the faint of heart.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
I wish such books were merely confined to my desk! They are piled on the floor and heaped on furniture intended for other purposes. Among them are Frank Snowdon’s masterful Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present and Léon Werth’s Deposition, 1940-1944: A Secret Diary of Life in Vichy France.

Paula Schwartz is the Lois B. Watson professor of French studies at Middlebury College, Vermont. Her latest book is Today Sardines Are Not for Sale: A  Street Protest in Occupied Paris (Oxford University Press).

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Print headline: Shelf life: Paula Schwartz

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