I seem to be in the middle of a few books about World War II and the Holocaust--if not directly about the period then peripherally. Actually just two books, but with such a heavy subject two is more than enough. I love NYRB Classics, but I also love Europa Editions. I will quite happily give just about any book published by either a try and more often than not be rewarded well as I mentioned yesterday. Just one of the books I'll tell you a little bit about today and share a teaser. I recently pulled Anne Wiazemsky's novel My Berlin Child (published in French as Mon enfant de Berlin and translated by Alison Anderson) from my pile.
Wiazemsky is an actress, author, and filmmaker who was born in West Berlin. She was married to French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and starred in several of his films. She is also the granddaughter of Nobel Laureate François Mauriac. A rather lofty pedigree, don't you think? Her novel My Berlin Child is a curious book. It is based on the life of her mother, so it is a fictionalized biography of sorts. Wiazemsky writes in present tense, which takes some getting used to and still makes me feel a little like I am on uncertain ground for some reason. She intersperses the narration with dialogue and also with diary entries and letters which Claire copies into her diary for the sake of posterity.
Claire leads a life of privilege and comfort in Paris, but she decides she must do her part for the war effort and becomes an ambulance driver for the French Red Cross. After the war, and the events that take place occur mostly at the war's end, she decides to go to Berlin to further help. She had been waiting for her fiancé to return home, but she finds that she has fallen out of love and is conflicted about what to do. She sees her work in Berlin as a brief interlude to her forthcoming marriage, but in the end she finds the courage to break it off--she is no longer the girl she was before the war (how many women found themselves in the same situation?).
I feel sometimes as I am reading that this is not a fictional story, but that it is truly biographical and the diary entries are particularly revealing. I have a couple of teasers to share. This first if from her time in Paris just after the end of the war.
"Everyone is very busy so they're not terribly interested in her experiences with the Red Cross. Particularly her father and brothers. Even her minor role in the Résistance has failed to arouse the admiration she so hoped for and needs to badly. Doesn't it simply boil down to the fact that their life, as men, will always be more important? From the start they all tried to convince her that her place, her true place as a woman, was there with her parents?"
This second excerpt comes just after one of her diary entries as she reflects on what she has seen in Berlin. It's a bit longish, but I find it to be an interesting perspective.
"She has decided to hide from her parents, from all her family, those moments when she succumbs to despondency, those dark brooding days following a mission; better not to dwell on what they have begun to find out, about the death camps, and the mass extermination of the Jews."
"But this evening she's particularly upset by the news that a German woman has died from septicemia, and she as helpless to save her. Like so many others, the woman had been raped several times by Soviet soldiers, and she tried to have an abortion. A mere handful of women, treated by the Red Cross, have begun to talk about the horrors of the capture of Berlin and the Soviet occupation. Claire cannot understand why the Allies took so long to reach Berlin, and sometimes she says indignantly to French officers, 'Why did General Eisenhower let the Red Army fight the final battle? Why did no one object to his decision?' 'It was war,' is more or less the only answer she managed to get. At the beginning of her time in Berlin, Claire swore loud and clear that she had no pity for the Germans, and she swore she would never forgive them for the atrocities they had committed; whatever they were going through was surely justice. Now she can no longer say this."
The novel really has an immediate feel to it, as if you are really there with Claire. Even if I feel a little as though I am on uncertain ground as I am reading, I like the story. I like that the author has me on my toes and that she is making me work just a little bit. I'm a third of the way through and was hoping I could finish before the month's end, but it seems as though time is slipping away from me again. I think I will have to look up those Godard films now and see what else I can find out about the Mauriac family. Despite the oppressiveness Claire finds in Berlin and the destruction, I believe she will also find love and happiness, so now I press on with my reading.