9 October 2012

Vercors: Le Silence de la mer (1942)

The short story Le Silence de la Mer – translated by Cyril Connolly as Put out the Light (1944) – is by Jean Bruller writing as Vercors. It was the first (clandestine) publication by Éditions de Minuit, conceived by Vercors and Pierre de Lesclure in occupied France. In the story, the surname of the writer Maurice Barrès is mentioned in passing, which is significant: Barrès's novel Colette Baudoche (1909) concerns Asmus, a young German teacher staying with a family in Alsace-Lorraine during German rule after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Asmus is charmed by both France and Colette – the young woman living in the house – and he unsuccessfully asks her to marry him. There are some distinct parallels between Colette Baudoche and Le Silence de la mer.

A young German officer, Werner von Ebrennac, billets himself on a French household consisting of a young woman and her uncle, neither of whom is given a name. As a protest the uncle and niece refuse to say a word to the man, who talks a great deal. The officer is always polite and a great lover of French culture. He appears to believe that France and Germany will unite in friendship. Sartre had noted, in a 1945 article and later in Situations III (1949), that the occupying Germans at first appeared polite and not as brutes, and it is this aspect that Vercors wanted to warn against: the iron fist concealed within the velvet glove.

While away for two weeks, the officer learns that Nazi intentions are anything but sympathetic towards French culture, and Vercors intended the reader to understand that Ebrennac gave in to the wishes of the régime: he added a few lines to the original story to clarify this, as some reviewers saw ambiguity in the story.

In his Afterword, Yves Beigbeder says that Vercors was obsessed by an unexpressed love that he had for a girl in his youth, regretted his missed opportunity, and wanted to put his feelings for the (now married) woman in a story titled 'Stéphanie'. Later, in occupied France and in literary collaboration with Lesclure, he found a way of affirming the dignity of his country and at the same time circumventing his personal loss. Beigbeder believes that the niece owes much to the Stéphanie that Vercors hadn't previously published anything about, that she represents purity in a world of lies, duplicity and self-deception, that she is the incarnation of what France ought to be: dignified and silent. He believes that Vercors was sending out the message, perhaps especially to the outside world, that this is what France was capable of being.

Virtually all of the story takes place in one room, and this could easily be turned into a play (a little à la Nothomb): there is a claustrophobic atmosphere, one that is quite chilling. This is a very powerful book.

The above cover is from the Raymond Gid poster of the movie of the same name which was directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and released in 1949. There appear to be burning buildings in front of the dominant figure, but on looking closer we see that this is not a figure at all but an empty uniform, representing the facelessness – the inhumanity – of fascism.

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