Adrien Bosc’s novel on the voyage of the Capitaine Paul Lemerle (1941)

Eric Jennings

University of Toronto


Adrien Bosc’s latest work, Capitaine, is a wide-ranging, elegant and intelligent novel that traces the improbable voyage of a cargo-ship crammed with intellectual titans from Marseille to the Americas via Martinique in 1941. Considered “undesirable” by Vichy, hunted by the Nazis, these legions of scholars, artists and thinkers, some of them French Jews, others German dissidents or Spanish Republicans, took one of last corridors of escape in the nick of time. The vivid novel introduces readers to Simone Weil, Albert Camus, André Breton, Victor Serge, Anna Seghers, Alfred Kantorowicz, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Wifredo Lam, Suzanne and Aimé Césaire, amongst others. Bosc’s emphasis on these personalities on board the Capitaine Paul Lemerle reminds us that this was largely an elite exile, accessible only to those well connected and able to afford the now outrageously expensive tickets, visa fees, even bribes, necessary to leave wartime Marseille.

For full disclosure, the novel Capitaine covers some very similar ground to my recent book of non-fiction titled Escape from Vichy: The Refugee Exodus to the French Caribbean, which follows this as well as many other crossings (I show that some 5,000 refugees in all made it to Martinique in 1940-1941 aboard dozens of sister ships to the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle). Indeed, Bosc cites the work of several historians, including that of Emmanuel Loyer, as well as one of my articles.[1] Moreover, he engages with historical, indeed archival, sources throughout. We even embarked on the same quest for the remains of the Lazaret camp where refugees were interned outside of Fort-de-France, Martinique, in 1941. It is with the complex relationship between fiction and history that I will begin, before turning to some of the important issues the novel raises and finally to its place in both the canon and the classroom.

Some years ago, I asked an anthropologist colleague to read over a review I had drafted of two historical ethnographies. His verdict was rightly stark: “it’s fine, but it reads like a historian’s review of works of anthropology.” I certainly don’t wish to stumble into the same pitfalls here, turning the historian’s lens, criteria and expectations loose on the novel. But it seems to me that Bosc’s fiction, replete as it is with long citations (and proper acknowledgements)[2], archival references, reflections on sleuthing and historical methodologies, perspectives and distortions, has already crossed that bridge. Thus, Bosc writes:

Le roman a ceci d’ingénieux qu’il est informe, son champ vaste est sans cesse à défricher, habilement, il se niche dans les couches multiples de l’Histoire, et une fois ammassée une lourde charge, les pesantes billes de charbon, son moteur s’allume, siffle et disperse ses fumées au loin, le tchouch-tchou des vapeurs ressemble alors aux signaux des Indiens: ils ouvrent l’horizon. Pareil aux roues à aube du Mississippi, les sternwheelers, il charie les eaux du fleuve, remonte les courants…  Et se glisse entre les rayons arrêtant le temps en apnée, une fois sur deux, dans les plis, fait surgir de vastes fictions à la manière de ces algues accrochées aux pales des moulins, agripées à la rigide structure du Vrai. (p. 27)

In other words, to Bosc, the shabby navire mixte that was the Capitaine Paul Lemerle becomes a device through which to churn through a specific micro-history.  All the while, he ties a fictional sail onto a firmly tethered historical mast (le Vrai & l’Histoire – note the capitals on both).  He is thereby able to freeze the frame on key encounters, cultural dynamics and personalities.

The novel is divided into several parts. The first, set in Marseille, features the anguished and interminable wait of refugees desperate to flee both Vichy and the Nazi Kundt Commission (to which Vichy was supposed to “Surrender on demand” any German or Austrian national wanted by Berlin, by virtue of the 1940 armistice agreements). These scenes echo the queues of desperate migrants immortalized by Anna Seghers’ classic novel Transit.[3] Beyond angst, this initial phase is also marked by chance encounters, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, rumour and fear.

The second part of the novel, the crossing, retains the element of terror: denunciators operated on board, and U-boats lurked below. However, it also examines social connections, networks and intellectual trajectories. Here Bosc makes excellent use of Jacques Rémy’s text about his time on board, borrowing his phrases to conjure up the deep and enduring divisions between passengers: Belleville, Montmartre, Montparnasse, the Champs-Elysées, all of Paris’ socio-economic fault lines were reproduced on board. This is perhaps the liveliest part of the novel. It draws extensively on Victor Serge’s, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ and other testimonies of the crossing.


Left: André Breton, Victor Serge, Benjamin Péret and Remedios Varo. Villa Air-Bel in Marseille, France. January-March 1941 – Image ID: HN2NAP; Right: Max Ernst, Jacqueline Lamba, André Masson, André Breton and Varian Fry, Marseille, 1941, photograph, Archives Masson, Paris

The third part of the book centres on Martinique. The arrival in the tropics is chilly to say the least, with the travelers running a gauntlet of humiliation organized by the local Vichy authorities. Bosc rightly depicts the latter as ultra-zealous in their anglophobia and in their urge to apply the exclusionary and hierarchical edicts and principles of Philippe Pétain’s National Revolution. Quickly, however, Breton and Lam meet Suzanne and Aimé Césaire as well as René Ménil, and the magical encounter of surrealism and negritude bears fruit. Still, this encounter is anything but flat or monochromatic. One senses the author’s inherent sympathy for Suzanne’s worldview over Aimé’s, and for Aimé’s over Breton’s. The final sections take us onward to Guiana, Brazil, Ciudad Trujillo, Porto-Rico and Ellis Island, and then to the present, to Bosc’s quest for photographic and archival material relating to this story.


On many an occasion, I noted just how “right” Bosc got group and individual portraits, contexts, moods, tensions, locales and trends. For instance, at the end of chapter two he analyzed the duality of European visions of Martinique. To some it conjured up the mysterious nature of Douanier Rousseau, while to others it rhymed with death or deportation (p. 72). These binary tropics come up again as the refugees near the Antilles (p. 189). Bobards, false rumours of every sort, rage at sea and during the stopovers in Algeria and Morocco. Onboard superstitions and rituals, including the celebrations associated with crossing the tropics, and the projection of motion pictures, even the slaughtering of animals for food, are all rendered with flair. The confiscation of writing materials and cameras on arrival at the Lazaret and Balat camps in Martinique is wonderfully told. On location in the Caribbean, espionnite, the all-encompassing fear of spies, is richly recounted. Even the high-stakes escape of some of the gold of the Bank of France to Martinique via Halifax in 1940 winds its way into the plot. There is, admittedly, the occasional glitch: thus the sinking of the French fleet at Toulon moves from 1942 back to 1940 (p. 111), and Anna Seghers and her family seem to land in New York rather than Mexico. But here I must guard from acting as if it were a historical monograph.

This is also a novel about books. Seghers’ classic The Seventh Cross, whose protagonists are inmates escaping a Nazi camp, becomes an important subplot, as it is almost destroyed as she flees Paris to the Pamiers, then to Marseille, and on to Martinique. Some of the discussion on board prefigures Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes tropiques. There is also an intriguing nod to Victor Hugo’s Bug Jargal, the portrait of Toussaint Louverture painted by the novelist while he was still a teenager. Paintings, be they by Degas or Lam, also move and evolve in this novel. In fact, with its many nods to other oeuvres, the novel bears some of the hallmarks of a left bank art and literature insider.


The part of the book set in the wartime French Caribbean likewise fits into a rich body of literature. For reasons that remain obscure to me, the Vichy regime overseas has received perhaps as much, if not more, literary as it has historical attention. Consider Michaël Ferrier’s recent Mémoires d’outre-mer, set in Vichy-controlled Madagascar, Raphaël Confiant’s Le Nègre et l’Amiral and Daniel Maximin’s L’Isolé Soleil which both unfold in the French Antilles under Vichy, Monique Agénor’s Bé-Maho, dealing with Réunion in this same time, and Morgan Sportès’ Tonkinoise cast in a carnavelesque style against the backdrop of Vichy-ruled Indochina.[4]

For those who have read Adrien Bosc’s previous novel Constellation, it and Capitaine share a common thread.[5] Constellation had told the tale of an ill-fated transatlantic flight that crashed in the Azores in 1949, killing violinist Ginette Neveu, boxer Marcel Cerdan and forty-six others. Beyond the transoceanic dimension, the two novels are connected by one character, René Hauth. In 1940, the Alsatian Hauth set off from Marseille so as to continue the struggle against the Nazis. He appears in both voyages, tragically perishing on the far less risky of the two (his family, like many others in Capitaine, was contacted by both Bosc and this reviewer).


Capitaine could be taught in conjunction with many texts and visuals. It might be paired with Emmanuelle Loyer’s books, be it her study of intellectuals in exile, or her excellent biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss. It could be combined with the recent film adaptation of Anna Seghers’ Transit, which, for better and for worse, has been uprooted from its original context. It could also be matched with Varian Fry’s Surrender on Demand, a rich primary source that provides the context for rescue in Marseille from 1940 to 1942. For insight on the reasons for the Martinique route’s opening and eventual closure, its raison d’être, and its ambiguity as an expulsion and a rescue plan wrapped into one, readers could turn to my Escape from Vichy. Capitaine could also usefully be twined with the magnificent catalog of the André Masson exhibit organized in Marseille to honour Varian Fry, or with Daniel Maximin’s catalog to the Grand Palais exhibit on Wifredo Lam and Aimé Césaire. It could be read in conjunction with Germaine Krull’s remarkable photos, and Raymond Assayas’ insightful texts, just published in France, co-edited by Bosc and film-maker Olivier Assayas.[5] Finally, it could be put into fruitful dialog with the writings of Suzanne and Aimé Césaire, even the review Tropiques, if this were for a French literature class. I would, however, recommend it for an upper year or graduate course, given that its many historical and literary allusions which might dazzle or bewilder lower-year students. In sum, this is a rich book that blurs the lines between history and literature.

Adrien Bosc, Capitaine (Paris: Stock, 2018).


  1. Eric Jennings, Escape from Vichy: The Refugee Exodus to the French Caribbean (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2018); Emmanuelle Loyer, Claude Lévi-Strauss (Paris: Flammarion, 2015); Emmanuelle Loyer, Paris à New York: Intellectuels et artistes français en exil (1940-1947) (Paris: Grasset, 2005).
  2. This comes in marked contrast to a recent novel set in another French colonial setting — Patrick Deville’s Peste et choléra. The latter has been criticized for extensively citing, without credit, passages by Alexandre Yersin, the scientist at the heart of Deville’s novel.  The passages in question were apparently drawn from an existing biography of the Swiss-born scientist, and hence from the work of those biographers.  On this controversy, see:
  3. Anna Seghers, Transit (New York: New York Review of Books, 2013).
  4. Among the relevant novels, see Michaël Ferrier, Mémoires d’outre-mer (Paris: Gallimard, 2015); Monique Agénor Bé Maho, (Paris: Le Serpent à plumes, 1996); Raphaël Confiant, Le Nègre et l’Amiral,  (Paris: Grasset, 1988); Morgan Sportès, Tonkinoise,  (Paris: Le Seuil, 1995); Daniel Maximin, L’Isolé Soleil (Paris: Le Seuil, 1981).  For histories of Vichy in the colonies, see amongst others: Jacques Cantier, L’Algérie sous le régime de Vichy (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2002); Jacques Cantier and Eric Jennings, eds., L’Empire colonial sous Vichy (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2004); Evelyne Combeau-Mari and Edmond Maestri, eds., Le régime de Vichy dans l’océan Indien (Paris: SEDES, 2002); Ruth Ginio, French Colonialism Unmasked: the Vichy Years in French West Africa (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006); William Hoisington Jr., The Casablanca Connection (Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, 1984); Eric Jennings, Vichy in the Tropics: Pétain’s National Revolution in Guadeloupe, Madagascar and Indochina (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001); Christine Levisse-Touzé, L’Afrique du Nord dans la guerre: 1939-1945 (Paris: Albin Michel, 1998); Chantal Metzger, Le Maghreb dans la Guerre, 1939-1945 (Paris: Armand Colin, 2018); Sébastien Verney, L’Indochine sous Vichy (Paris: Riveneuve, 2012).
  5. Adrien Bosc, Constellation (Paris, Stock, 2014) translated into English, under the same title, with The Other Press. André Masson, de Marseille à l’exil américain (Marseille: Lienart, 2015); Daniel Maximin, Césaire et Lam, insolites bâtisseurs (Paris: Grandpalais, 2011); Adrien Bosc and Olivier Assayas, eds., Un voyage: Marseille-Rio, 1941 (Paris: Stock, 2019).
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