Another book I read on holiday was a proof copy of Monsieur le Commandant by Romain Slocombe, translated from French by Jesse Browner, which was sent to me by the publisher Gallic Books for review.
It’s one of those things that sounded fascinating, but which I wasn’t at all sure that I actually wanted to read: a “shocking depiction of French collaboration during the Second World War”, longlisted for the Prix Goncourt in 2011, variously described as gripping, harrowing, significant and powerful.
French Academician and Nazi sympathiser, Paul-Jean Husson, writes a letter to his local SS officer in the autumn of 1942. Tormented by an illicit passion for Ilse, his German daughter-in-law, Husson has taken a decision that will devastate several lives, including his own. The letter is intended to explain his actions. It is a dramatic, sometimes harrowing, story that begins in the years leading up to the war, when following the accidental drowning of his daughter, Husson’s previously gilded life begins to unravel. And through Husson’s confession, Romain Slocombe gives the reader a startling picture of a man’s journey: from pillar of the French Establishment and World War One hero, to outspoken supporter of Nazi ideology and the Vichy government.
And yet despite all that it was, in some ways, surprisingly readable. The writing and storyline are both compelling and I was drawn in, desperate to know what happened and yet dreading it. It is clear from the start that this is going to end badly – the only question is, how badly? Of course this means that in other ways it was anything but easy to read. The language drips with hatred and anti-Semitic bile. I kept wondering how anybody could write or translate this stuff without feeling dirty all the time. How exactly do you go about choosing the mot juste when its a matter of which vile term of abuse fits in any given circumstance?
The fact that it is set in Normandy, quite near to where we were staying, gave it an extra immediacy. Some of the places mentioned I’d visited, or was about to, and plenty more I’d at least seen on the map or on road signs. There’s some interesting information about the history of Le Mont St Michel as well, which we visited a day or two after reading the book.
It also offered an interesting counterpoint to the pacifism of Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past. One of the reviewers quoted on the back cover described this as “in a unique way, a powerful piece of Resistance literature”. It’s a very different approach – letting the Pétainists condemn themselves out of their own mouths – and a risky one as it could end up seeming to approve of what they’re saying. The book concludes with various telegrams and other factual information about the people involved, which serves as a sobering reminder of the reality of these horrors.
I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in the history of the period when it’s published in September. Not for the faint-hearted but worth grappling with for a greater understanding of the French siutation during the Second World War, as well as a gripping narrative.