Fiction, Non-Fiction

The Second World War: Selected Reading

Note on photos: where possible I have photographed my own books. I own the others mentioned in this post but don’t have the books with me, so have used photos from GoodReads.

 

It would be impossible to narrow down the absolute best books about the Second World War, not least because there are scores I haven’t read. So, I’m going to detail the best of what I personally have read, subjective though that may be.

So why books about the Second World War? I’m currently reading The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, and it got me thinking about the different types of books I have read about this earth-shattering period in our history. The Kindly Ones is a fictional autobiography of Max Aue, a successful businessman who was a Nazi officer in a former life. He tells his story to ‘set the record straight’ and does not spare his reader from gruesome or disturbing details. Littell spent five years researching the book, and its detail is both astounding and endlessly fascinating (however unpleasant it might sometimes be). Really it’s quite an odd sort of book, and quite unlike most of what I have read about the war. When I finish it I will tackle writing about it properly!

The other books that have stayed with me the most are listed below.

If This Is A Man by Primo Levi – I think this is essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about what it was like to live in (and survive) a Nazi concentration camp. I read this as part of a course of Literatures of Genocide at university and it remains, to me, the pinnacle of survivor testimony from this period (whether or not that’s actually the case).

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1987 Abacus books edition (which I own). Image via goodreads.com

Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning – this was read for the same course and really opened my eyes. It is the story of a Polish police battalion, made up of civilians, who became part of an Einsatzgruppe. It’s a similar principal to the Stanford prison experiment, except this is real life and it is both harrowing and entirely believable.

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2001 Penguin Books edition (which I own). Image via goodreads.com

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt – the subtitle of this book is The Banality of Evil, and that just says it all. Eichmann was essentially a pencil pusher who wanted to further his own career, and in doing so helped put The Final Solution in motion. This is a hard-going read at times, as you’d expect, but it is most definitely worth it.

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1994 Penguin Classics edition (which I own). Image via goodreads.com

Magda by Meike Zeirvogel – this is a fictional account of the life and psyche of Magda Goebbels, and is one of the most elegant and disturbing books I have read. While not sympathetic to Magda Geobbels, this novel does try to understand her and why she became the woman she was. The beautiful writing certainly helps deal with the tragedy, and the fact that the author is German adds another layer of interest.

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2013 Salt Publishing edition

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – I just had to include this. I read it when it was reissed by Penguin a few years ago, and it just blew me away. Though fictional it is based on a true story, and exposes some of the horror of living through the war as a German civilian who did not support the Nazis. The vivid and yet subtle writing is unbeatable.

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2009 Penguin Classics edition

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall – this is also about the struggle to survive as a German civilian, and is told almost like one long bad dream. It is lyrical and strange at times, but this does not reduce the emotional depth of the sparse writing. I just read this and would recommend it anyone looking for a literary and less stark depiction of life during the war.

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2015 Peirene Press edition

Monsieur Le Commandant by Romain Slocombe – this just blew me away. It is framed as a letter from a French citizen to the Nazi Commandant in his hometown in Occupied France. He tells his life story and explores his views about France’s relationship with Germany, as well as his own personal struggles. It is a fascinating and terrifying book that I highly recommend. My review is here.

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2014 Gallic Books edition

 

There are an awful lot more books on the War that I would like to read, some of which I already own, and some which I don’t. It is a rather long list so I’m not going to include it here, but might save it for a future post. I’m sure some of the books on the list will be reviewed/written about at some point soon! Here are the books I currently own that are next on the reading list:

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I’d love to hear some more recommendations for literature of this period – what would you suggest?

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Sagan, Paris 1954 by Anne Berest

On the publisher’s website, Sagan, Paris 1954 is described as am “intimate narrative” and I think that is the best way to describe it. “Intimate” because it is a deeply personal book for the author, Anne Berest, and it explores her relationship with Francoise Sagan as a reader; and “narrative” because it tells a story. It is the story of the months in 1954 that transformed Francoise Quoirez into Francoise Sagan – from teenager to literary sensation.

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2015 Gallic Books edition (image: goodreads.com)

The story itself is rather simple, in that Francoise writes a book, gets a friend to type up some copies, delivers them to publishers, one of them chooses to publish the book, etc, etc… it’s not a remarkable story. But Anne Berest makes it seem remarkable by creating vignettes from Francoise’s life and imagining how her world was changing. She talks of the ripple effect of that first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, and the ways in which it changed Francoise’s life; but she also talks a lot about her own story, and her own experiences while writing this book, to the point that some parts of it almost feel like a confessional diary for the author. She parallels Francoise’s story with her own, and pictures herself in the world of 1954 Paris. It’s an unusual combination that both succeeds and does not.

Berest muses on life and love rather a lot, and sometimes you are learning more about her than about Francoise Sagan, which was your purpose in the first place. I do honestly feel like that, having finished the book. I have not been enlightened as to how Francoise Sagan transformed her life, and what it was like to be her in 1954. Though Berest is very knowledgeable about Francoise Sagan and her life and career, I think she assumes the reader is too, and so not much concrete information is acutally related. It is more like a dreamy narrative of ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’, with a speculative story running through it. This book started as a requested from Francoise Sagan’s son, Denis Westhoff, that Anne Berest write a book about his mother. The book was supposed to celebrate her rather than be any sort of biography, and it does do that – Berest aims to demonstrate Sagan’s lasting effect and the ways in which she can still inspire us, along with the importance and impact of her work. This is certainly achieved, and in this way the book is wonderful. Berest’s writing is also lovely to read. But for me the book was too much about lots of in-between things, and not about anything solid. Perhaps that was the point, but it was a little effervescent and insubstantial for me. That said, I still very much enjoyed it, and I think any fan of Francoise Sagan would – just don’t expect anything groundbreaking.

*

Originally published in France by Editions Stock in 2014; I read the English translation by Heather Lloyd, published by Gallic Books in 2015.

Purchase from Foyles.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern (2011)

I’m a big fan of Gallic Books and was very pleased when they sent me this novel out of the blue, despite never having heard of it or author Helene Gestern. According to Gallic’s website The People in the Photo has won more than twenty literary awards, which is incredible. It has a very simple premise and format, but it is in fact a very rich novel.

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

The ‘heroine’ interestingly has the same name as the author – not sure if that was for a reason. Anyhow, Helene  in the book is an archivist in Paris, and she comes across a newspaper clipping of a photo showing two men and a woman, posing in their tennis gear at a resort in the mountains. She recognises the woman as her mother, who died when she was three – about whom she knows nothing. So, she decides to take out a newspaper ad to seek more information on her mother or indeed the two men in the photo. A reply comes from Stephane, a Swiss scientist living in England who recognises one of the men as his father. Both Helene and Stephane are intrigued by this photo that they had never seen before, and they begin to correspond, jointly investigating both the photograph and the lives of their parents.

Helene grew up with a distant father and a loving stepmother, Sylvia – neither of whom would tell her anything about her mother; Stephane’s father was also distant, absorbed more in his photography than his family. Both parents are shrouded in mystery with Helene and Stephane knowing nothing about who they were as people, or anything much about their lives. Going through old papers and albums draws back a curtain that Helene and Stephane have had in their way their whole lives. Their parents knew each other, and so they find that their research and stories intertwine, bringing up a wealth of questions – how did their parents know each other? And when? What happened to them? And, of course, what was the real reason that Helene was never allowed to know anything about her mother other than that she died in a car accident? And even that she only found out when a drunk auntie let it slip at a party.

As Helene and Stephane discover more and more about their parents, their relationship also develops. Having these two mysterious people in common creates a deep bond between them, and they develop a strong affection for one another. Their letters, emails and text messages (which form the book) become increasingly personal and sweet, as well as moving when they discover some unsettling truths about the past. This is a book in which the past and present exist at the same time, as more is uncovered and brought into the light. It is also about family, and love, and history – and legacy. Helene’s mother has had a profound effect on her life, despite being almost entirely erased from it. Similarly Stephane’s father, though distant and unaffectionate, has created in Stephane an uncertain person, afraid to repeat the mistakes of the past.

I felt that The People in the Photo seeks to demonstrate that no matter who we are or what relationship we may have had with our parents, their lives and their history are vitally important to our present lives. They inform our identity, whether they are alive or not, or whether we knew them or not. Our family is who we are.

*

Originally published as Eux sur la Photo in France by Arlea in 2011; and as The People in the Photo in the UK by Gallic Books in 2014. My copy was kindly provided by Gallic Books for review.

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Fiction, Reviews

Monsieur Le Commandant by Romain Slocombe

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2014 Gallic Books edition

Gallic Books kindly offered to send me a review copy of Monsieur Le Commandant – the cover got me straight away. A beautiful graphic font, not too busy, and a French stamp mingled with a Nazi eagle in the corner – something that becomes more and more poignant and chilling as you make your way through the novel.

Paul-Jean Husson is a French academic and hero of World War I, where he lost an arm and was awarded for his bravery in fighting against the Germans. One day in 1942, during the German Occupation of France, he decides to write a letter to the senior SS officer, le commandant, in his hometown of Ardigny. This book is that letter. In it, he tells a potted version of his life story and emphasises his undying commitment to the glory and success of France as a nation, and of its people. He believes in patriotism and strength, in conquering your enemies and taking pride in your domination of weakness.

The style of writing reminded me greatly of both Thomas Mann and Hans Fallada – though I cannot know if that is entirely the author or partly the translator. Either way it was measured and calm, whilst still being sufficiently dramatic and with plenty of emotional depth and character. This fictional story set in real historical events feels utterly true, and the characters entirely believable as real people. There were probably many like them.

Husson is a dedicated follower of Marechal Petain, the Premier of France and later Prime Minister of Vichy France during the war, who recommends an armistice between France and Germany  that is viewed by Britain as highly dangerous and would undermine Britain’s position on the continent. Husson is a highly respected writer and member of local government who has friends in high places; as the novel goes on he becomes more and more involved in the politics of France at war, and as France is bombed, attacked, and occupied, he comes to the opinion that the French people should work with the invading Germans to create a greater, stronger Europe. Like his idol Petain he supports an armistice between the two countries, and he does not believe that Britain and the rest of the Allies have France’s best interests at heart.

Paul-Jean’s son Olivier marries a young German, Ilse, who soon comes to live in France. They have two children over the course of the novel, and for a while Olivier is sent away to fight. Ilse and their first child Hermione often come to stay with Paul-Jean and his wife Marguerite, Olivier’s mother, and his sister Jeanne. Everything is idyllic, despite the war, as the family enjoy their villa and each other’s company; but Paul-Jean finds himself thinking about his daughter-in-law increasingly often and cannot blame her if she makes an error or does something wrong. He is captivated by her, and wishes that Olivier would stay away longer and she would come visit more often. He expresses his feelings of confusion and guilt to the commandant, unsure of what to do, and hints at ‘what happened next’, creating a sense of dread and fear in the reader. We know from the blurb that this letter is a confession and that he makes ‘a decision that will devastate several lives, including his own.’

This sense of foreboding coupled with Paul-Jean’s deeply felt anti-Semitism and support for Nazi Germany creates a great sense of unease. To deflect suspicion from his family he writes anti-Semitic articles for the press that he copies into his letter to the commandant; they are truly disturbing. From our future perspective, we can also see that his ideals are utterly misguided and doomed to failure, as is his support of the Fuhrer and the invading Germans, and this adds a great feeling of not only sadness but also despair that these things happened and people felt this way. From a British point of view his opinions, and view of the War, are disturbing and unsettling, as well as hard to understand.

Paul-Jean becomes increasingly conflicted about his feelings for Ilse and his feelings for his country and the Germans. His semi-incestuous love for her is intense and illicit, and becomes heightened  and more overtly sexual as he spends more time with her when his wife is ill; it is always present in his mind. But which is more important to him – the object of his affection and lust, or the future of France?

There are a few major plot points that I simply cannot give away because they would utterly spoil this book. There are surprises, building fears that come to fruition, and devastating moments when true feelings are revealed. Monsieur Le Commandant is at once fascinating, beguiling, engaging and, as a quote from L’Express on the cover states, terrifying. The intricate complexities of the socio-politics of World War II are carefully examined from a perspective mostly unfamiliar to us Brits, and practically the entire battlefield of human emotions is explored. I was left saddened, shocked and enthralled by this novel, and very highly recommend it.

*

Originally published in France by NiL Editions in July 2012. Published on 16th September 2013 by Gallic Books in the UK. My copy was kindly provided by Gallic Books for review.

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Fiction, Reviews

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

The President’s Hat is a charming little novel that really cheered me up on a dreary afternoon, and I am glad Gallic Books sent it to me. Set in 1986, the novel tells the story of a hat that belongs to French President Francois Mitterand; Daniel is sitting in a Paris bistro when the President comes in to have dinner with some colleagues. Amazed and overwhelmed by the man dining next to him, Daniel stays as long as the President, wishing he could join his table. After the President leaves, Daniel realises that he has left his hat behind.

Gallic Books 2013 edition. Image: amazon.fr

Gallic Books 2013 edition. Image: amazon.fr

He picks up the black felt hat, unable to believe that this is that hat of the First Frenchman. Drawn to it and unwilling to lose the feeling of excitement the evening has brought him, Daniel impetuously takes the hat. And, for reasons unknown, his whole life seems to change. He gains unprecedented confidence at work and astounds his colleagues, earning a promotion. As he relocates with his family for his new job, Daniel forgets the hat on a train outside Paris. And so begins the journey of a simple black hat belonging to President Mitterand. It travels around France and even to Venice, each of its owners completely unaware of its owner and how it came to them, but each knowing (except one!) that it makes them feel strangely different and seems to have a magical effect on their lives, changing them forever.

I really liked The President’s Hat and read it in one sitting, and was buoyed up afterwards. With each character, different philosophical and political issues are discussed – Daniel is given a chance he never imagined and dreams of greater happiness; Fanny also searches for happiness in love and business; Pierre considers his past success and current depression and disillusionment; and Bernard reconsiders his entire political belief system and changes almost everything in his life. There is also plenty of discussion of the randomness of our lives and the multiple possible routes that our lives can take, and how apparently small events can make big differences. The unknown nature of the future and the possibility of change are central themes to this novel, as well as the importance of taking chances and going with your heart.

Antoine Laurain. Image: lefigaro.fr

Antoine Laurain. Image: lefigaro.fr

There is also the question of the power of power itself – does the power of the President transfer to each wearer of his hat? Does association with power make us feel more powerful, more in control of our own lives? This book certainly suggests that this is true. Mitterand was an extremely influential and often divisive figure in French and European politics, and one wonders why Laurain chose him as the owner of the hat. Mitterand as hat-owner places the story in the 1980s, and this brings up issues of wealth and economic climate, and its effect on people’s lives. In this sweet little book Laurain manages to sneak in some much more complex issues.

The style is quite light and flows nicely, creating a whimsical and very enjoyable atmosphere. Interestingly three different translators were used – one for Daniel, one for Fanny and Bernard, and one for Pierre. There are no stark differences between the styles of the three translators (or at least none obvious enough for me to pick up on), but I like the idea of using different translators for different characters. Experienced translators will hopefully appreciate the different nuances of each section, and it gives the characters more depth.

This is a great little book that I really recommend – get it!

*

The President’s Hat was originally published in French as Le Chapeau de Mitterand by Flammarion in 2012, and in English by Gallic Books in 2013.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty by Michele Fitoussi

Gallic Books edition. Image: belgraviabooks.com

Gallic Books edition. Image: belgraviabooks.com

This book came to me entirely by chance when I saw it was up for grabs from the publisher Gallic Books on Twitter. I had heard of Helena Rubinstein at some point, not sure where, but my first memory of hearing her name was in an episode of Sex and the City when the girls visit the Helena Rubinstein spa in New York and Samantha gropes her male masseur. The manager throws them out because “Helena Rubinstein is a civilised place for civilised people”. I reckon the lady herself would have agreed.

Personally I’ve come to care a lot more about beauty and skin care in the last few years, and now find myself reading about it more and more, both in magazines and online (XOVain is particular favourite). Helena Rubinstein is a hugely respected name in the industry but has been a little forgotten of late, with no visible campaigns and their products barely mentioned in the press. But, as Michele Fitoussi’s title states, Helena Rubinstein was a pioneer of the beauty industry and was a key player in the invention of what we now know as ‘beauty’ in the modern sense.

Madame (as she came to be known) was born in Krakow, Poland in 1872, the eldest of eight daughters. She refused to follow her parents’ wishes and marry someone just because she should, and so was more than happy to be sent to live with her maternal uncles in Australia in 1902. Her mother Gitte had created a simple face cream that she insisted all her daughters use every day; Helena took twelve jars of it with her and began telling women about it in her uncle’s shop after they asked how she achieved her flawless complexion. She sent for more cream from her mother and after obtaining the formula made it herself, and sold it in her uncle’s shop. This simple face cream, originally called Valaze cream, was the beginning of her beauty empire.

Charismatic and with excellent marketing and sales skills, Rubinstein made her Valaze cream so popular that she was eventually able to set up salons in the biggest Australian cities, after selling it in her uncle’s shop and encouraging word-of-mouth amongst society ladies. She remained a national hero there for the rest of her life. Her empire (an appropriate word once you read her story) spanned Australia, New Zealand, Europe, America, and even Japan in the late 1950s.

From Australia Madame moved to western Europe, conquering Paris and London, before tackling New York. She was always ambitious, and no success was ever enough – work was everything. Even through her troubled first marriage and the births of her two sons, she worked tirelessly, even to the point of neglecting her family. This is where we might not like Madame as much as we did initially. I was certainly thrown by her willingness to leave her children with nannies for such long periods of time, to the point where the boys felt a huge emotional distance between them and their mother. Fitoussi however is sympathetic to both Madame and her sons, and describes their relationships from both sides, examining how their childhood affected their later lives. I think Rubinstein’s approach to motherhood says a great deal about her, as career was everything for most of her life. It was only when bad health forced her to slow down that she began to reflect on her role as a mother and wished she had spent more time with her children when they were young.

She was certainly not without heart, but she was consistently tough with all those around her, demanding more and more from them every time she saw them. Most of her sisters were summoned to work in her salons, as well as nieces and nephews, and even her beloved assistant Patrick O’Higgins, a fixture in her later life, was not immune to her harsh words. It seems to me that Madame greatly appreciated family, but was so incredibly determined to succeed in business that she sometimes forgot just how important they were to her.

Michele Fitoussi documents the life of Madame with obvious affection and admiration, although sometimes the sheer amount of travelling and dramas that happened seem to be too much to fit into the pages, and a list-like structure sometimes appears. Most of the time, however, Fitoussi manages to include all the major life events and key minor moments while still portraying the humanity of the woman at the centre of an enormous business empire. It is glamorous and exciting, but not without the mundanity of everyday life and the struggles of familial relationships.

Despite her shortcomings, I really do admire Helena Rubinstein. She battled through a tough childhood, very uncertain and difficult beginnings in Australia, a constantly changing industry and challenging rivals, not to mention being a woman and a Jew in a world that favoured neither. She was defiant and brave, and unendingly determined to succeed. She was always in charge and never let anyone beat her – even when her home was burgled, she sat in the bed, a defenceless old woman, and hid her diamonds and the key to safe in her nightgown while the thieves tried to find her best jewels. Helena Rubinstein was tough, bold and very intelligent. She is quoted as saying she felt as if she had lived “a dozen normal lives” and after reading Michele Fitoussi’s excellent biography I can see why.

*

Originally published by in France by Grasset in 2010, and was published in English in 2013 by Gallic Books. My copy was kindly provided by Gallic Books for review.

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