Les Âmes Grises (unsurprisingly translated as Grey Souls) is narrated – twenty years later – by the policeman assigned to the murder case of the ten-year-old Bourrache girl nicknamed Belle-de-Jour. This happened in France in 1917, in a small town which is probably very near Verdun, and certainly injured soldiers and the sounds of the war are an important part of the backcloth here.
The narration is very jerky, switching backwards and forwards all the time between different dates, challenging linearity. It begins, for instance, with the murder of Belle-de-Jour, and later moves to another death which preceded it: that of Lysia Verhareine, which is officially recorded as a suicide. Lysia brings the war element closer into the book as she has found work as a teacher in the small town only a few kilometres from the war zone, where her lover is and where he will die shortly afterwards.
Lysia had been living in the small house in the grounds of the widower Pierre-Ange Destinat's 'castle': Destinat is one of the main characters and the public prosecutor who without any show of pity – indeed without showing any emotion at all – sends criminals to their death and then goes to lunch at Bourrache's restaurant, where he has a seat that Bourrache keeps especially for him. (One of Claudel's examples of class prejudicing the ordinary person.)
The judge Mierck – whose name sounds like something you wouldn't want to get on your shoes and whom the narrator calls a pète-sec (lit. 'dry fart' but meaning a haughty authoritan figure) – also has his own seat there, although the legal pair don't exchange pleasantries as they hate each other. Mierck is, well...
Joséphine (an ordinary person – at least, as ordinary as you're likely to find in this novel) introduces the idea of greyness: 'Les salauds, les saints, j’en ai jamais vu. Rien n’est ni tout noir, ni tout blanc, c’est le gris qui gagne. [...]. T’es une âme grise, joliment grise, comme nous tous…': 'Bastards, saints, I've never seen any. Nothing is completely black, nor completely white, grey is the winner. [...]. You have a grey soul, really grey, like all of us'. Sorry, but I don't buy that one: it's not at all nuanced.
Mierck, for instance, is the kind of man who regards the dead young Belle-de-Jour with equanimity and orders eggs on-the-spot because he's hungry. When – and here's class coming in again – he learns from Joséphine that Destinat was talking to Belle-de-Jour at around the time and place of her death he defends a man of his kind even if they hate each other and dismisses outright the idea of the public prosecutor being a murderer. And he – along with the almost equally gruesome Matziev (even if he did illegally support the innocent Dreyfus) – plucked two innocent scapegoats from out of the air and blamed them for the murder of Belle-de-Jour. Two deserters, these were, just your average cannon fodder, one of whom hangs himself because he knows his time's up anyway, and the other one a simple Breton lad who is tortured until he confesses to a murder he didn't actually commit, and is then executed. (In fairness, the Breton was far from innocent and thought he was guilty because he actually did rape – and kill – a ten-year-old girl, but not Belle-de-Jour.)
How can we compare Lysia's 'greyness' – say, wishing thousands of soldiers dead in return for a few moments with her lover – with the 'greyness' of the monster (and it certainly looks like Destinat, but the ending's left open) who killed Belle-de-Jour, or for that matter with the 'greyness' of the narrator himself who smothered his baby to death because it had 'killed' its mother: there's a world of difference between thinking and doing.
I could go on and talk about themes in the novel, such as flowers, writing, eccentrics, even shit (and there's a lot of the fecal matter here, either daubed on walls as the Marseillaise, or just left on doorsteps) but I think I'll leave it this time round. This is the first time I've read a Philippe Claudel novel and I shall be reading more of him – there's a lot of interesting stuff here. And incidentally le jour de gloire était arrivé for Claudel with Les Âmes grises because it won the Prix Renaudot for 2003.