At length, hunger made me draw up in a village called Joubert, which appeared to be doing an extremely self-conscious imitation of an Utrillo, with its duck's-egg blue shutters, denuded plane trees, black-shawled housewife emerging from the baker carrying a loaf of bread a yard long under her arm. Where, I inquired of this person, could I have lunch? Her face was dry and wrinkled like the earth in drought, her eyes, blue as two little pieces of ice in a rut, were full of pride and prophecies. "I know of a place," she said darkly, "but it is not for the likes of you" (one felt that she was satisfying the feud of a life-time).
Regular readers will know that over the past several months I've been enthusiastically devouring all the novels in English by Violet Trefusis. And when I learned that our library's interlibrary loan services were fully operational again, this was one of the first titles I rushed to request. It was described as a collection of reminiscences published in honor of the Free French not long after Violet had had to leave France when the Nazi occupation began.
Sadly, the book was a bit of a disappointment for me overall. Many of the pieces were very clearly written for those "in the know" about French high society and politics of just before the invasion. Violet presents capsule profiles of various figures, some disguised with false names, and, sadly, she proves the virtues of the old adage, "show, don't tell". Violet, by contrast, tells and tells and tells, often in the form of analogies to literary characters or classical mythology, and very rarely shows, so that even when she shifts her focus momentarily to such high-profile figures as Colette or Jean Cocteau, I confess I was thoroughly bewildered as to what she was saying about them!
This is not to mention that she quotes numerous passages in French throughout—naturally anyone who is not an utter philistine understands French!—some of which my languishing knowledge of the language could unpack, but some of which would have taken me until 2028 had I not skipped ahead. A quibble for those non-linguists among us.
There were, happily, a couple of pieces which proved more entertaining and justified my efforts in getting hold of the book. "Invasion" deals with Violet's adventures in getting out of France, which initially consisted in taking herself to Dax, a small resort near Bayonne, where her mother, the famous Mrs. Keppel, had chosen the brink of invasion as the perfect time to take a cure. In this piece, Violet is more grounded in details of actual events, not merely noting that Cocteau is rather like a daffodil (I made that one up, but it's not unlike the kinds of things she says), so it's actually quite entertaining, and culminates with their embarcation from Saint-Jean-de-Luz en route to Portugal:
There was quite an embarras de richesses of the things that could happen to us in the meantime: (a) bombs from above; (b) submarines from below; (c) Gestapo from Bordeaux who were about to occupy all the ports of France. Each had his favourite calamity, mine was the submarine.
"Yesterday" also has some excellent moments, as Violet reminiscences about life in France before the invasion. She discusses finding her home in Seine-et-Marne, in part due to a suggestion from none other than Marcel Proust, and notes that "At the moment of writing I know for a certainty that several members of the German General Staff are comfortably installed there. I prefer not to dwell on this."
She also throws in one of her delightful phrases that I hope I shall remember forever:
It was freezing. The cold always makes me feel gay and cruel, like a chandelier.
I learned a French expression which I also want to retain. Apparently, in the Midi, when one consumes a particularly delicious beverage, one might say "c'est le petit Jésus en culotte de velours" (i.e. It's the baby Jesus in velvet pants). And we also hear in some detail about an absolutely bonkers party Violet decided to host, on a whim, at the Eiffel Tower. Do they still rent out the tower for parties, one wonders?
Sadly, though, it's rather all downhill from "Yesterday". There's "Made in Germany", a rather unpleasant rant about the evils of the Nazis. "Kensington in Russia" is a bland discussion of the silliness of the last tsar and tsarina of Russia, and "Balkan Portias" deals with prominent Romanian ladies in Paris, and is also very much for those in the know (and also about how like daffodils, or whatever, these women were).
The most interesting piece in the latter part of the book is surely "Meet Mussolini", in which Violet assures us that she was the last Englishwoman granted an audience with Mussolini and describes the experience. This description is amusing at times, but largely rather self-absorbed, and her notice to the effect that she was an admirer of Mussolini early on and is writing this piece based on her knowledge then and not on the terrible things Hitler has since led him to do seems rather disingenuous.
The book closes with a final, short but bizarrely baroque piece called "Ben Ben Strikes", about, well, something about Queen Elizabeth and clocks and Essex, maybe a kind of "England shall survive" piece, but for all I know perhaps a metaphor for the making of fettuccine alfredo or an allegory for playing tennis in Fiji. I couldn't really say. When she focuses on events and characters, Violet can be an absolutely brilliant writer, but when she gets abstract, it's time to run for the hills.
So, a few charming high points here, interspersed with some seemingly random assortments of elegant-sounding words that had me thinking of my shopping list more than about the Free French. If you were thinking of frantically attempting to get hold of this book, you may wish to bear this in mind...