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21 June 2010
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12 July 2010

A Fascination with Vichy

massie Today’s guest blogger, Allan Massie, will be speaking at the Library on Wednesday, 30 June at 19h30.

More years ago than I care to think I was having breakfast one morning in a café in Cambridge. It was a Friday; so I was reading The Spectator. There was a review by that distinguished historian of France and the USA, D W Brogan, of a new book about Vichy. “It was difficult,”  he wrote, “for us in 1940 to see that there was a case for Vichy; there was even a case for Laval.”

That sentence startled me. Last most of my generation in Britain, I had been reared in the belief that the French had let us down in 1940, that Vichy was contemptible, Marshal Petain a vain old dotard, and Laval a twister and Quisling. It had never occurred to me that many French people believed that the British had abandoned the Battle of France before it was truly lost, that many honourable men had served Vichy believing that this was in the best interests of France, and that the aged Marshal and Laval were both in their way French patriots.

I date my fascination with these dark years of French history from the day I read that review, but it was almost thirty years later (1989) that I published a novel, “A Question of Loyalties”, which explores the complications and moral dilemmas of wartime France, my narrator’s father being a good and honourable man who becomes a junior minister in the Vichy Government. That novel won prizes in Britain, but it was not translated into French for many years. As it happened, my friend , that very good novelist Piers Paul Read, also published a novel, “The Free Frenchman”, the same year. His hero was a Gaullist and his book was immediately translated. I could not avoid the thought that its political stance was more acceptable. Eventually my admirable publisher, Bernard de Fallois (Editions de Fallois), brought out my novel in 2004, with the title “L’Honneur d’un homme”, in an excellent translation by Jean Bourdier.

The subject would not leave me however, and I began collecting material for a non-fiction book on the continuing influence of Vichy and the wartime years on French public life. This will be published, as “The Spectre of Vichy”, by Jonathan Cape sometime next year.
Meanwhile I had long wanted to write a crime novel, partly because of the pleasure I have got from crime fiction, and especially the novels of Simenon, partly because I agree with that fine novelist Nicolas Freeling who insisted that “in prose fiction, crime is the pre-eminent and often predominant theme. Where better, I thought , than wartime France to set my story?

I had visited Bordeaux for a book event publicising another of my novels, “Les Ombres de l’Empire” and in the few days I spent there was struck by the haunting but elusive character of the city, this doubtless enhanced by my memories of the novels of Francois Mauriac. It seemed a good setting for my crime novel, all the more so because in 1940 it became part of the Occupied Zone and my hero, a senior policeman, would have to deal with the German authorities as well as his own superiors.

“Death in Bordeaux” breaks some of the conventions of crime fiction. To this extent it may be unsatisfactory as a pure roman policier, even while, being also that, it may be unsatisfactory as a straight novel. If I don’t think so myself, this may in part be attributed to a natural protective attitude to my own work. More seriously however I have long thought that the barriers separating what is called “genre fiction” from the literary novel are out-of-date, and should be demolished.

Anyway, whether it works as crime novel or straight novel, or as both or neither, is for readers to decide. Meanwhile I am happily at work on the second book in the trilogy which will take Superintendent Lannes through the darkest years of the war and the epuration  (purge) of suspected collaborators after the Liberation.

–Allan Massie

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