May 8th is a National Holiday in France in honor of Victory in Europe Day, the day the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II. It brings to mind all of the good literature, both fiction and nonfiction, that has been written about this time period in Paris. Just a few recommendations to share with you.
Americans In Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation by Charles Glass is an excellent and highly readable account of the Americans who stayed behind after France declared war on Germany, and even after the United States entered the war. Just like the French who stayed in Paris, many of the Americans who stayed lived in the grey area between resistance, collaboration and survival.
Except of course, Sylvia Beach, the owner of the original Shakespeare & Co. She stood her ground and refused to sell the last copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a German soldier, insisting on saving it for an English-speaking customer. Beach knew she had infuriated the German officer, so within hours, she packed up all of the books in the bookshop and moved them a few doors down to her apartment on rue Odéon. She never re-opened her shop again.
Another excellent nonfiction account of the Occupation era is And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alan Riding. A thoroughly researched book, this one focuses on the ways that the Parisian culture – from the opera and the nightclubs – continued to thrive under the Nazis, although with considerable censorship and control. Sylvia Beach again merits attention, as does the Rose Valland, the surprising heroine of the Jeu de Paume who kept meticulous records of the artwork plundered by Hitler, Goring and their associates, so that it could be tracked down after the war. Again, there are the complicated issues of collaboration and resistance, which Americans seem to find so difficult to comprehend. Fascinating.
I am also recommending a book that it completely new to me; in fact, I have just ordered it thanks to the folks at Paris Walks, who read a powerful excerpt during my recent Left Bank During The Occupation tour. It is called The Journal of Helene Berr, and it sounds like Diary of Anne Frank, except written by a mature, college-educated Parisian. Like Anne Frank, she was Jewish, she was deported and she was killed just before the war was over, but her diary has survived. Although this book was originally published in French, it is also available in English.
Finally, I must mention Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky. It has received many well-deserved accolades, and was very well received by many book clubs when it was released, so it should be no surprise. But if you haven’t read it, I urge you to read it now. This is powerful fiction. Much of it is based on Nemirovsky’s own experiences as a Jewish woman who escaped Paris with her family to live out most of the war in Issy-l’Évêque, a small town in Burgundy. Like Helene Berr, Nemirovsky was eventually deported and killed, but her daughters kept her manuscripts hidden in a suitcase. I really, really loved this book.
In previous posts I have written about two other World War II era works of fiction set in Paris: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, and Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Hoghtelling. Check out my earlier posts for a photo tour of some of the scenes from these books.
I would love to hear any World War II era books you might recommend, especially those set in France.