After the liberation of France, the hunt for collaborators began almost immediately. And the hunt was a bloody one.
Women who had slept with German soldiers were paraded naked, heads shaved, through towns to be spat upon and abused. Trials began, with harsh prison and death sentences meted out. (As passions cooled, many of these sentences would be reduced significantly.) And soon, like the German civilians who survived started to claim that they had hidden Jews in their attic, widespread boasting about participation in the resistance began. But, of course, had every claim been true, the Holocaust would not have happened, and France would have thrown off its oppressor years before.
Read the last Bookslut on the David Wojnarowicz bio 'Fire in the Belly.'
Of course, this sort of thing is activated by one distinct thing: shame. Everyone has grand ideas about how they would totally resist if occupiers invaded their land. But then what happens to your family? Even when there’s a war on, there is rent to pay and food to buy. If you have children, things get even more complicated. And everyone seems to be watching everything you do these days, you just can’t imagine how to get started.
So you make concessions. And maybe when the markets run out of food, you tell authorities something that you know in trade for some butter. Your children are starving, after all. And there you have it: you have collaborated. Just a tiny bit. So when someone who collaborated full on comes paraded by, you throw stones. You spit. All to keep from thinking about the decisions you made during the war.
Marie Chaix’s The Laurels of Lake Constance deals with both the impulse to collaborate and the impulse to shame. Her father was a collaborator during the war, a Fascist who decided to throw his lot in with the occupying force. It didn’t look like they were going anywhere. But they did, and his daughter Marie is forced to reckon with her father’s past and the decisions he made during the war—not loyal, not noble.
While reading the book, I kept thinking of Rebecca West's line about how the female defect is that "intent on their private lives, women follow their fate through a darkness deep as that cast by malformed cells in the brain." And that for men, "they are so obsessed by public affairs that they see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature." Certainly in this family the lines were drawn that way for the men and for the women as things begin. I wondered if Alice, the mother, could be seen as being culpable as well, for, as you write, focusing only on her pregnancy and those sorts of things, and ignoring what her husband was up to.
Rebecca West’s view of the roles of women and men was certainly valid in the society in which Albert and Alice married. But I’ve never felt that my mother was indifferent to her husband’s activities and absorbed in domesticity. She lived, in fact, in a state of perpetual anguish over the mystery of his repeated absences and his visible obsession with politics. It was Albert who deliberately and steadfastly kept her, and his children, in the dark about what he was doing.
It wasn’t until I wrote The Laurels that my family learned the true story—too late for Alice, who had never dared read Albert’s notebooks, but a total and devastating revelation to my older sister, Anne.
As you use your own name in Laurels and tell your family's story, I was wondering why the book was classified strictly as fiction. Did you decide there was enough that had to be re-created that it resisted the nonfiction label?
Autofiction was a rarity in the 1970s. Memoirs were the work of famous people, De Gaulle, Malraux, Eve Curie. My publisher decreed The Laurels a novel, much the way John O’Brien of Dalkey Archive insisted, in 2005, that my husband’s My Life in CIA be presented as a novel rather than autobiography. It made the book more accessible and so was commercially more sensible. Readers quickly realized that it was nonfiction, even if, obviously, much of it had to be imaginatively re-created.
It seems that in the last few decades, French historians have been more open about the time of collaboration. There have been better books on Vichy and on the collaboration that went on in Paris, for example. As this book was originally published in the ’70s, do you think the French reception would be different now had it been published for the first time this year?
Robert Paxton’s books on Vichy, published from the late ’60s on, sparked the appearance not only of histories, but of novels and films about the period. For instance, Patrick Modiano’s novels, especially Lacombe Lucien, made into a movie by Louis Malle , or Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity .
In part because of its opportuneness, The Laurels was recognized as a welcome addition to this movement of historical renewal. Certainly the effect of freshness would no longer remain if the book were published today, but I would like to point out that it still sells regularly, acquiring new readers year after year.
You stated that you researched this book by reading your father's notebooks from the years he spent in jail. Did it ever feel a bit like spying? Obviously you had to come to terms with who this man actually was, but surely there must have been times when you thought you might rather not know.
I never felt that I was “spying” on my father, and I never wished not to know what I found out. On the contrary, I felt only satisfaction at clearing up the mystery of what my father had been up to all those years. I had absolutely no sympathy for his political activities, but it was a relief to know at last what they had been.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.