ADAM & EVE AND THE CITY Selected Nonfiction By Francine du Plessix Gray Simon and Schuster. 370 pp. $19.95
THE WEEK that I read this collection of articles, I also read two memorable news items. A 78-year-old Takoma Park grandmother received the Medal of the Righteous Among the Nations for heroism in rescuing Jews from the Nazis, and a French jury convicted Klaus Barbie on 22 counts of crimes against humanity. Lucia Howicki-Eisen's wartime activities included hiding two doomed babies and constituted a capital offense; Barbie's included deporting an entire orphanage to Auschwitz and constituted law enforcement. Together, their stories provide a perfect accompaniment to the powerful final section of Francine du Plessix Gray's book, the rigorous, sensitive, searching meditation on the complicity of her native France in the Nazi evil.
Perfect because Gray does not meditate in the abstract. A writer of deeply religious sensibility, she bodies forth good and evil in the form of real acts by real persons. At the time she wrote her piece, intellectuals were debating -- in that particularly French style that combines precision and obfuscation -- whether the trial might resurrect too many painful memories, destroy too many tender illusions, for France's fragile postwar identity to bear.
For Gray, such abstract considerations carry little moral weight. The true issues are simpler: specific midnight knocks on specific doors, specific applications of specific truncheons, specific boxcars bound for specific Polish destinations. She constructs the moral debate out of the concrete acts of vividly drawn actors: the Butcher himself, a sadist who discomfited even his Gestapo superiors; Jean Moulin, whose true courage eclipsed even his reputation as the Resistance's martyr hero; Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, the Nazi hunters, a French Jewish son of an Auschwitz victim and his German Christian wife, driven respectively by memory and expiation; and the lesser folk, the bureaucrats, cops, politicians and plain citizens, who enacted, willingly or unwillingly, their roles in the impromptu passion play.
YET however staunchly Gray demands justice, she offers no glib verdict on the troubling question of national amnesia and evasion; even she, a mere child during the war, harbors a history of denial. Her own father died early in the Resistance, and for 40 years she neither confronted that fact nor explored its context. She only discovered the details of his fate while researching this piece -- if "discover" is the word for learning facts emblazoned on a Paris monument she had lacked the courage to visit. Her generous, though clear-eyed, love for her native land checks her moralistic, American impulse to judge choices that we, never occupied, have blessedly never had to make. But even we come to appreciate the human context -- an appreciation all the richer for having made, in an earlier chapter, an enthralling visit with Gray's large French family at their summer retreat.
Though slighter, the other articles in the book are no less fine than this single, masterful piece of reportage. Of all humanity Gray cares most, it seems, about those driven to concrete action by abstract ideals. The book opens with penetrating portraits of the clerical wing of the Vietnam War resistance -- the Berrigans, Elizabeth McAllister and other, mainly Catholic, activists who interfered with the functioning of the war machine through extravagant acts of religious witness. (We also meet a charming devotee of deceit, the FBI informer who trapped them.) Gray is a scholar of devotion; she contrasts the Christian style of symbolic protest with the Klarsfelds
"utterly pragmatic" use of civil disturbance, which puzzles her by being "frequent, risky," but "quite devoid of any notion of 'witnessing.' " In Judaism, of course, memory itself constitutes "witness."
Gray explores and confirms this truth during her richly documented sojourn in the world capital of religious fervor, Jerusalem. Her talks with kibbutzniks, PLO supporters, students at Bir Zeit and Hebrew Universities, politicians, hitchhiking soldiers, and famous writers are skeptical, affectionate, pointed, complex and full of sympathy for that depth of belief that is the wellspring of principled action. She unfailingly senses real conviction; her articles on the Rev. Moon and the Guru Maharaj Ji swiftly and unflinchingly uncover their spiritual shell games.
Many other striking characters also throng these pages: Great White Hunters on photo safari, Hawaiian nationalists, Thomas Merton, Clare Boothe Luce, Coco Chanel. Even the lesser portraits arrest and challenge us. Indeed, they are "lesser" not because of any failing of insight or skill, but simply in that they lack quite the luminous intensity of the best pieces. The book as a whole is the product of a subtle mind deeply engrossed and a hardy spirit utterly engaged.
Beryl Lieff Benderly's next book, "The Myth of Two Minds: What Gender Means and Doesn't Mean," will appear this fall.