One From the Archive: ‘A Fine of Two Hundred Francs’ by Elsa Triolet ****

First published in April 2014.

I had been looking forward to reading Elsa Triolet’s A Fine of Two Hundred Francs for several years before I finally purchased a copy.  What could be better than a book of short stories which appears on the Virago Modern Classics list, all of which are set within the French Resistance movement during the Second World War?  Triolet herself was part of the revolutionary Russian Futurist movement, and was awarded the Prix Goncourt for this book.  She was also decorated as a heroine of the French Resistance in 1945.  The entirely important stories within A Fine of Two Hundred Francs were first published illegally by underground presses in France, and according to their blurb, they provide ‘… a moving and shocking testament to the courage of those caught up by the nightmare of war’.

Four stories in total appear in this volume – ‘The Lovers of Avignon’, ‘The Private Life of Alexis Slavsky, Painter’, ‘Notebooks Buried Under a Peach Tree’, and ‘A Fine of Two Hundred Francs’.  Each story is more like a novella, really.  I must admit that I skipped Helena Lewis’ introduction, as it did give quite a lot of the plot of the first story away, and I wanted more than anything to be surprised by the tales.

Regardless, Lewis does set out the way in which Triolet has chosen an interesting choice of settings and subjects.  In ‘The Lovers of Avignon’, it is 1942, and we meet Juliette Noel, who is working for the Resistance during the winter, trudging from one farm to the next to find places in which those she is helping will be able to stay.  In ‘The Private Life of Alexis Slavsky, Painter’, a Jewish artist has to conceal his religion, lest he be set upon, or have to face the cruel consequences of his people.  ‘Notebooks Buried Under a Peach Tree’ tells the story of an escaped woman in hiding, who seeks a safe house in which to live out the remainder of the war.  ‘A Fine of Two Hundred Francs’ wonderfully highlights the tensions which prevail in situations of such strain.

Each of the stories is as strong as the next, and they make a wonderful and thought-provoking collection.  So much consideration has clearly been woven into each, and each story is full bodied and well realised in consequence.  Interlinked details and characters meander from one story to the next, and this helps the book to be a coherent, almost novelistic, volume, which simply cannot be put down.  Triolet is gifted at using differing narrative perspectives, and has such grasp of the little details which make stories so memorable.

The details which Triolet injects into her stories are both thoughtful and startling, and the sense of place is marvellously wrought: ‘All night the rats did an infernal dance’, the fallen snow is ‘beautiful like fragile lacework’, and the slopes of mountains look like ‘badly shaven cheeks, dark and wrinkled’, for example.  She writes beautifully, and her characterisation is exquisite throughout.  She is so perceptive of each of her protagonists, and describes their thoughts and feelings with such clarity, as though she herself is living within them and experiencing everything which they do, making them feel wonderfully fleshed out.

It is so important that books like A Fine of Two Hundred Francs are read and considered.  The tales which they tell do not deserve to be forgotten, and I was surprised to discover that this volume is currently out of print.  Whilst we wait hopefully for a Virago reissue, I can only suggest that AbeBooks, libraries and secondhand bookshops are scoured for this wonderful volume.

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