A Word from the Editor
Welcome to a new year. As we embark on a new series of reviews, some themes will be familiar and others, we hope, will surprise you. With the increasing difficulty in getting students to read, thinking about assigning novels might seem utopian. Yet I continue to think that they enrich our approach to our own work and offer a different perspective on events to students eager to immerse themselves in the period. I vary my own offerings and this year I’ve added Monsieur le Commandant by Romain Slocombe to my Vichy France syllabus. Each novel in my courses is attached to a series of historical analyses. I’ve reduced the number of movies I show, however, and have students present them instead as part of an oral assignment. Of course, films have always been easier to incorporate in teaching, usually at the risk of losing precious lecture time. Students are immediately engrossed, even if a few find it convenient naptime. As we all know, Media Studies and Film Progams are booming, and many a history department hosts extra-curricular historical movie-nights. More people, as well, even though not trained in film theory, offer courses like my own research seminar on Film in History, as students seek to marry different types of materials. FFFH reviewers themselves seem happier reviewing films than novels. Literature is not so much more daunting than more time-consuming and who has spare time these days? Still, there are stalwarts and it is thanks to them that this bulletin keeps providing reviews of both.
In this first issue we return to the First World War with a review by Béatrix Pau of Pierre Lemaitre’s Au Revoir Là-haut, winner of the 2013 Prix Goncourt. An English translation by Frank Wynne, The Great Swindle, appeared in September 2015. The novel, which focuses on the immediate post-war, begins with a war crime perpetrated on the eve of the Armistice by an ambitious French officer whose further misdeeds are the subject of the book. The war over, that same lieutenant bids successfully for a government contract to remove bodies from battlefield cemeteries for burial in their hometowns and villages. He profits outrageously by providing lower-quality coffins and misidentifying corpses to speed up the process. The scandal bursts and engulfs him by the end of the novel. We also follow the fate of two soldiers who witnessed the first crime and suffered for it. They come out of the war damaged and jobless, the one so disfigured that he refuses to go home to his wealthy family. But he can draw and comes up with a scam to sell war memorials to the thousands of towns that are seeking to honour their dead. From their hovel, he and his friend peddle a brochure with architectural plans from which communities may choose and send an advance. The monuments themselves would never see the light of day but they grow rich. As Béatrix Pau explains, this second scam is a product of the author’s imagination, but the first was very real. Pierre Lemaitre based it on Pau’s prize-winning study of the merchants of death, Le ballet des morts: Etat, armée, familles: s’occuper des corps des la Grande guerre (reissued in 2016). Béatrix Pau offers us her insider’s knowledge, praising the author’s retelling of these sordid undertakings and of the grim aftermath of the war. Exceptionally we publish her review in French.
The tone is much lighter in Ken Alder’s review of 1001 Grams, a Norwegian riff on universal measures that bring representatives to France to test their national prototypes of the kilogram. A delightful rom-com develops around predictability and human whim that he heartily recommends, even if he thinks it’s too low-key to be of use in the classroom.
In our classics section, Michael Lucey revisits André Gide’s 1902 The Immoralist. Using Bourdieu as a guide, he makes the case for a thorough historicization of the novel. This is a difficult work that raises hackles and requires careful handling. The temptation is to project on the era sentiments that were not its own, and he makes sure that we grasp the range of gender identities at the turn of the twentieth century. As such a careful reading of The Immoralist remains fruitful.
University at Buffalo, SUNY