On the subject of France during the Second World War, only the committed cynic has even a chance of getting at the truth. For decades, France fed the world an idealized history of Resistance fighters blowing up Nazi trains while saving Allied pilots who were shot down over French territory. To those who innocently absorbed the message delivered by films and books from the 1940s to the 1970s, France was a nation of heroes. In those years it was rare to hear anyone doubt that story.
But since the 1980s, historians, memoirists and journalists have taken apart that entire structure of heroism, brick by brick. Today, little remains: There were indeed some Resistance fighters, but their numbers were minuscule beside those who genially collaborated with the Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944 and ignored or encouraged anti-Semitic outrages. It now seems that most of the French considered collaboration morally correct.
Recent months have brought absorbing accounts of two quite different writers who flourished under the puppet Vichy government. One who thoughtlessly collaborated was Marguerite Duras (1914-1995), who survived to become a queen of left-wing French literature, the author of many novels and film scripts, including Hiroshima Mon Amour; like France itself, she kept her past buried for a long time.
Another intellectual who collaborated, not thoughtlessly but with malevolent passion, was Robert Brasillach, who did not survive: In February, 1945, with the war still raging but much of France free, he was executed, after a conviction before an embarrassingly slapdash court set up by the victorious and vengeful Resistance.
Laure Adler's biography Marguerite Duras: A Life (Gollancz) sees its subject as a fascinating and appalling figure. Alice Kaplan's Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach (University of Chicago Press), a narrower but better book, leads us carefully into the milieu of the French intellectuals who sided with the Nazis.
In Adler's biography, Duras appears as a sacred monster of literature, a woman of considerable talent who believed herself genius and expected genius treatment at all times. "Learn to read them properly," she wrote of certain pages in one of her books. "They are sacred." Good friends often found her arrogance unbearable, and on one occasion she acknowledged that, if she were not Marguerite Duras, she couldn't stand Marguerite Duras either.
One of her autobiographical self-portraits describes her as a girl "who secretly masturbates every day. They say masturbation makes morons of children. It wasn't the case with me. On the contrary, it brought me reason, revolt and joy."
She was a child of the French empire, born the daughter of two French schoolteachers near Saigon. In mid-adolescence, she had the love affair with a rich Chinese man that inspired her most famous novel, The Lover, and the film that Jean-Jacques Annaud made from it in 1992. In the novel she was 15, but the film made her 18 for decency's sake; in life, apparently, she was 16.
She loved to see herself as the star of a great drama, but it was also a comedy. Her first writing was hack propaganda for the French government. In 1938 she worked, Kaplan writes, for "the committee responsible for publicizing French bananas. She left bananas to work with tea." Then she helped write a book explaining the virtues of the empire, built on the assumption that whites should rule the world; decades later she was still trying to pretend the book had never existed.
After France surrendered to Germany in 1940, Duras joined the Vichy government's Paper Allocation Agency, which determined which books could be published. She worked for many months under the control of the Nazis, serving their interests, but she seems to have found this neither disagreeable nor shameful. Then, like her friend François Mitterrand, she jumped from the Vichy government to the Resistance almost at the last moment, ending the war on the winning side.
Brasillach was a brilliant product of the best French education. In the 1930s he wrote novels, literary criticism, and attacks on those who were not fascist enough for his taste. In wartime he was the star writer for the pro-Nazi press.
He was a weirdly sentimental fascist, whose politics contained elements of romanticism and eroticism. He wrote that in the war, Frenchmen had "more or less slept with Germany ... and the memory of it will remain sweet for them." At his trial, this line was quoted with pleasure by his prosecutor, who was anxious to identify Brasillach as a homosexual.
Brasillach saw himself as a "moderate" anti-Semite, but as things grew worse for French Jews, he did nothing anyone would call moderate. He celebrated German power and publicly denounced Frenchmen, including Jews, who, he said, should be arrested by the Gestapo. At one point he suggested killing all communists in prison; they were, after all, enemies of France.
A petition asking that his death sentence be commuted was signed by Albert Camus, François Mauriac, Jean Anouilh, Jean-Louis Barrault and Arthur Honegger, but Charles de Gaulle let the firing squad proceed. Brasillach was the only writer of any distinction to be executed by France for what he wrote, and his execution seems to have been intended partly to ease France's shame over surrender and collaboration. He was also a victim of bad timing: Had he gone into hiding for six months, like many others, he would likely have received a prison sentence.
Today, French fascists use Brasillach as a hero and martyr, a man of intensity and glamour whose life was unfairly snuffed out by the communists, the liberals, etc. They have turned him, Kaplan says, into "the James Dean of French fascism."
As for Duras, she spent a lifetime bumping along the spectrum of politics. The colonialist civil servant switched to Nazi collaborator, then joined the Communist Party in 1945 and left it in a bitter dispute in 1950. After backing dozens of left-wing causes, she announced in 1986 that she was an admirer of Ronald Reagan, having decided he was "the incarnation of a kind of primal, almost archaic, power."
She had this much in common with her contemporary Brasillach: She, too, was given to a fancifully romantic view of politics.