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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 June 2017
The story is told by Étienne de Balafré at various stages of his life. He was born in Provence in 1930, the son of a French father, Lucien, and an English mother, Polly. When war broke out in 1939, she left Lucien and, with her nine-year old son, went back to England. After Lucien’s death, she married Roddy, a South African, and went with him and Lucien to South Africa. She never talked about Lucien, and for years no one would answer his questions about how he had died – merely that he had died a hero’s death. Étienne went to Cambridge, and at the age of 19 went back to visited France for the first time since he had left it. There he attended a dinner party at which one of the other guests, unaware of who Étienne was, made disobliging remarks about Lucien. Later on his trip, Étienne visited Lucien’s mother in Provence. She had kept Lucien’s journals, which Étienne began to read and which, fleshed out by Étienne, make up a very substantial part of the book. They were mostly about his political and cultural ideas.

Born in 1902, wounded in the First World War, he flirted with Communism for two years; then warmed to Maurras’ ideas, though not to his politics; joined the French diplomatic service; supported the League of Nations; was posted to the Berlin Embassy in ion 1930; empathized with Prussian Junkers who had lost their lands to Poland; deplored what Versailles had done to Germany, but abhorred Hitler; established an important friendship with an idealistic young German aristocrat, Rupert von Hulenberg, who believed in Franco-German friendship and also abhorred Hitler; resigned from the diplomatic service and in 1934 started a magazine – political, cultural, but until 1936, unaligned. Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland then persuaded him that a political and moral crisis faced Europe; and at that time he asked Marshal Pétain to contribute his ideas the magazine. He instantly revered him as incarnating the virtues of eternal France. Pétain was impressed by Lucien, and after the fall of France appointed him to his staff and then to a ministerial post. He was also occasionally Pétain’s speech-writer.

Lucien had already written in his journal of his dislike for socialism, finance capitalism and Jews, and had expressed a hankering after an older, more traditional and especially provincial and Catholic France. These were of course the ideas that distanced many Frenchmen from the Republic; but of course as proud Frenchmen they saw the German victory as a national humiliation. Such people were divided after 1940: as anti-communists many of them turned to Pétain, while others, like Lucien’s younger brother Armand, supported De Gaulle as a matter of patriotism.

Lucien, an idealist, was himself torn; but he had decided that his duty was to support Vichy. The novel is mostly about showing how Lucien, Pétain and many of his supporters were not bad people. Lucien did not like the devious Laval, but acknowledged that he, too, was a French patriot. But of course they would all be put into increasingly intense dilemmas as they had to acquiesce in German demands and even, after the Allied invasion of Algeria in 1942, to the German occupation of Vichy France. That occupation made Lucien feel that he could no longer serve Vichy, and he resigned from the government. Laval, too, sought an understanding with De Gaulle and with the German opposition of which Rupert von Hulenberg was a part. Lucien accepted from Laval a diplomatic mission which nearly led to his death at the hands of the Vichy milice. Even so, when the Liberation came, he was so well known as a former Vichy minister that it was only a matter of time before he would be arrested. He had been prepared to stand trial and explain his thinking, but it never came to that. It still remains uncertain at the end of the book whether he was shot or committed suicide.

“Balafré” means “scarred”: an appropriate surname for both Lucien and Étienne; for Étienne was scarred, too, as the novel reveals.

There is a great deal more in this dense and complex book than I have discussed in this review: many references to French and occasionally English literature, as well as to French history which may be unfamiliar to many readers; philosophical reflections on individuals caught up in history; reflections on biographies and fictions; several subplots – a few of them unnecessary, in my opinion; a host of beautifully described people (several of them real historical figures) I have not mentioned, and character sketches of those I have; sexual and homosexual connections; fine descriptions of rural and urban settings.

A remarkable book.
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on 26 July 2016
I first read thisin 2002 and have just re-read it. This is a marvellous book, rich and detailed with an accomplished depiction of the very ambiguous nature of France between 1940 and 1944. Don't forget, France had been fought across a mere twenty years before . The French had only just recovered from that experience and the inter-war politics had been extremely unstable. Massie expresses their dilemma clearly, without overt moral judgement and with a great deal of compassion. Instead of pontificating in Churchillian style, we should ask ourselves "what would we have done". I really could have been us and had the Americans not entered the war, it might well have been.
Massie explores the complex psychologies, emotions and attitudes with absolute conviction and shows how these spill down through the generations. He explains very well how certain character types are more easily swept into situations which others would avoid and how dogma can eclipse insight and judgement. As he said 'History does not repeat itself, people repeat history'..a very true statement in a profound and brilliantly written book. I enjoyed it even more second time around.
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on 14 December 2014
I highly recommend this novel. It is a deeply involving story in which Massie uses one man's life lived through and involved in the drama of the second world war and in particular life in Vichy France. It contains lyrical passages that, at times, rise to poetic levels but always hinting at shadows behind. Look out for the account of a ride on horseback across the South African Veldt at dawn; told as apparent nostalgia but ending with an allusion that spells loss and grief. The manipulation of time and place is masterly and if the overall tone is tough and despairing, the last section (perhaps a little too long-if so, the only fault) suggests the possibility of reclaiming a little of what has been for so long lost.
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on 19 March 2015
Such a good book, well written, moving, informative. There was so much I didn't already know about Vichy France and information was one welcome strand. But the overarching theme seemed to me to be a moral one and continually posed the question, 'What would I have done?' This was a book group read and I'm so glad as I'd never have come across the author otherwise. I was amazed that I was one of only two in the group who liked it. So it's clearly not for everyone but if you like serious, thought provoking literature you might like this.
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on 4 April 2018
After reading all of Allen Massie’s Bordeaux series and enjoyed them all decided to try something else. I certainly was not disappointed. A great read with a bit of history - can’t beat it
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on 18 May 2017
An extremely interesting approach to a fascinating and instructive subject. I have read it 3 times and found something new in it each time.
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on 12 May 2014
This is a superb novel, exploring the conflicted loyalties of those living in France between the wars and how they tried to deal with the events of 1940 and thereafter. The author enables one to think with the characters and one becomes embroiled in their lives.
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on 17 February 2015
This book contains much that is good, in fact,very good. But it also raised questions like, if the Fall of France was important, why did it get such a cursory interrogation? There were other aspects to it which were equally mystifying such as the decision to tell the tale in an episodic, fragmentary form.
Laval emerges as something of an archetypal Frenchman - heroic in his wisdom and in his cynicism - but why?
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on 30 December 2014
This book is a really good read. It is thought provoking without being hard to follow. At times I found it hard to believe in Lucien as a character. I also found some of the coincidences unconvincing. That given, I did enjoy the book.
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on 18 January 2013
The French epuration, the period between 1945 and 1947 when pent up internal animosities were unleashed, isn't something that the French talk about much. I think that this book provides a sympathetic presentation of how this all came about. The best of his post-war trilogy in my view.
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