“I always stay at the Louisiane when I’m in Paris, if only for sentimental reasons. It is not the most comfortable of hotels, but I like to think of figures such as Henry Miller and Ezra Pound staying there in the years between the wars. There is still a lingering louche whiff of a hôtel de passe, and of what I imagine Paris to have been like in the immediate post-war period, with those cobbled streets, open-backed buses and the faces that you see in Brassaï’s photographs.”
Madeleine is a perfectly-formed, psychologically acute first novel of love and war, shameful secrets and cowardly treachery. Euan Cameron’s prose sparkles with unsettling beauty and intelligence as he vividly brings to life the world of the French haute bourgeoisie that is shot through with chauvinism, moralistic posturing and anti-Semitism.
The Orphans of World War Two
A baby is born in Copenhagen in 1945. He is abandoned by his French mother and his English father who send him to Britain to be cared for by his aunt Lavinia who more or less adopts him, treating him as her own son. Theo grows up, “an orphan of the Second World War, a child who had been deserted and dispossessed, one of the casualties of mid-twentieth-century European history. He always bore the attitudes of a foreigner, of an outsider.”
As a student in Edinburgh, Theo meets a fellow violinist while playing in the university orchestra and they marry two years after graduating. His unhappy childhood is a taboo subject. They have a son, William, also a musician, who receives a New Year greetings card out of the blue, in 1999.
Will’s French cousin, Ghislaine de Valcros, suggests that they meet when he is performing in Paris, “to understand the past and our families’ complicated relationships after all these years of not communicating. I am particularly keen to do so because a few weeks ago my mother, Madeleine de Launay, received a letter and several packets of what she describes as ‘family archives’ from Henry Latymer – your grandfather, she told me, and her first husband – who, it appears, has been living in Buenos Aires for some years.”
La Vie en Rose
He is captivated by the glamorous young parisienne, “Her voice, her infectious laughter, her total naturalness, the delicacy with which she moved, her sheer physicality.” Will and Ghislaine’s love story runs parallel to that of Madeleine and Henry, each one conveying a strong sense of place and time.
The Sorrow and the Pity
Following the thread of his British pro-Nazi artist grandfather’s life in occupied France before emigrating to Argentina, Will stumbles upon a trail of long-hidden family secrets. He reads Henry’s letters and diaries and discovers he was granted French naturalisation at the personal request of Maréchal Pétain.
Encounters with two wartime friends are disturbing but illuminating. The writer, Sylvain de Gresly is an “unreformed Pétainist”, and holds a supper party to welcome the young man. Will gets “a feeling of claustrophobia . . . I had the acute sensation that Ghislaine and I were surrounded by ghosts, by masked puppets from a bygone age.” Whereas urbane American expat Robert Worcester, who originally believed in “the new Fascism, in the vision of men like Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, because they were the only ones who have sufficient courage to resist the Communist menace,” had had a change of mind when he began to understand the consequences of harbouring such negative, hubristic beliefs.
What reads initially as a finely-crafted literary novel infused with cultural references becomes a chilling journey into the minds and hearts of those who collaborated with the enemy invader, enjoying a stylish life under Nazi occupation.
When France fell in June 1940, it was divided into the Nazi-controlled northern zone – Occupied France – with Paris as its capital; a southern zone known as Vichy France because the prime minister, Marshal Pétain, based his government in that spa town; and Free France led by General de Gaulle which had its HQ in London.
Fascism: Past, Present, Future
The extent to which fascism in Europe in the 1930s-’40s and the cult of the strong man have ideological parallels with the current situation in the Anglosphere comes clear. Pétain’s determination to restore traditional French values that he represents, and Nazi incitement against the Jews, have echoes in the rhetoric of populist leaders today. In 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen revived Pétain’s dictum, travail, famille, patrie, saying it was preferable to liberté, égalité, fraternité.
France has struggled to come to terms with its fascist past. The question “Grandpa, what did you do in the war?” sounds innocent enough, but not when asked at the dinner table of a French family.
Ghislaine de Valcros expresses the ambivalent, uncomfortable amnesia that is still prevalent in certain sectors of French society, “You know, that period of the war is a very delicate subject for her generation of French people, as I’m sure you know, and we can never be certain what they felt about the Occupation and about Vichy, or the fact that so many of them were collaborators – though that’s not how they see it, of course.”
The high fallutin’ high society Paris of the time – a glittering and murky world of gangsters, charlatans and psychopaths – is disturbingly portrayed in the fiction of Nobel-winner Patrick Modiano. Euan Cameron is his translator, and duly makes a passing reference, “ever since Modiano’s early novels, people seem to be fascinated by those dark years . . .”
Self-centred, cowardly and careless, Henry Latymer is honest about not being prepared to lay down his life for his country, “I am twenty-four, an independent artist whose small talent is infinitely more likely to be recognised here in France than it ever would be in London. Nor can they appreciate that my political opinions differ from the comfortable, flabby illusions that prevail in middle-class Britain.”
His words “Patriotism is for those who can no longer think for themselves – the last refuge of a scoundrel,” are an apt description of Trump in the US, Johnson in the UK, Erdogan in Turkey, el-Sisi in Egypt, and Orbán in Hungary.
A beautifully written and nuanced evocation of life in occupied France, Madeleine is a perfect read for Francophiles and fans of Michael Ondaatje, Sebastian Faulks, Ian McEwan and Tatiana de Rosnay.
Madeleine by Euan Cameron | Fiction 272 pages | MacLehose Press 27 June 2019 ISBN 978-0857058591
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