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‘Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s’ by Anne Sebba *****

As readers of my reviews will already know, books which focus on a very particular part of history – a short and defined time period, a distinct group of people, or a specific geographic location – are ones which I continue to seek out.  Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s contains all three elements, and I therefore eagerly picked it up.

9781780226613In June 1940, German troops occupied Paris, changing the lives of all of the capital city’s citizens in many ways, dramatically or otherwise.  Rather than look at a specific group of women  – either those who collaborated with the Nazis, or those who chose too defy them – Sebba examines the ‘moral grey area which all Parisiennes had to navigate in order to survive.’

In order to learn about her subjects, and what they went through during the Occupation, as well as afterwards, Sebba conducted ‘scores’ of interviews and read many firsthand accounts.  She successfully draws together testimonies of native Parisiennes and those visiting the city, for whatever reason, on a temporary basis: ‘American women and Nazi wives; spies, mothers, mistresses, artists, fashion designers and aristocrats.’

The Times Literary Supplement hails her achievement ‘richly intelligent…  Voices, belonging to women of all classes, ages and educational backgrounds, weep and sing through this extraordinary book.’  Author Edmund White notes that Sebba ‘understands everything about the chic, loathsome collaborators and the Holocaust victims, and their stories are told in an irresistible narrative flood.’  Sarah Helm (whose wonderful book If This is a Woman I reviewed here) praises Sebba for not offering ‘an explanation as to why some women chose one course, others another, rightly letting their actions and compelling life stories speak for themselves.’

In her prologue, Sebba recognises: ‘Echoes of the past continually resonate in modern-day France, because what happened here during the 1940s has left scars of such depth that many have not yet healed.  There is still a fear among some that touching the scars may reopen them.’  She writes that her aim is to ‘examine in these pages what factors weighed most heavily on women, causing them to respond in a particular way to the harsh and difficult circumstances in which they found themselves.’  Sebba goes on to say: ‘I want the pages that follow to avoid black and white, good and evil, but instead to reveal constant moral ambiguity, like a kaleidoscope that can be turned in any number of ways to produce a different image.’

Les Parisiennes is incredibly detailed, and impeccably researched.  A great deal of social history has been included, along with tiny details which have perhaps been overlooked by other researchers.  Along with the many women Sebba has chosen to include, she also writes about such things as the very exclusive air raid shelter set up at the Ritz in Paris, which was ‘soon famous for its fur rugs and Hermès sleeping bags.’  Sebba transports her readers to the city, which, despite the dire lack of fresh food, and the scary presence of soldiers, is still largely recognisable in the twenty-first century.

Sebba has included a very helpful ‘cast’ list of all of the women whom she writes about in Les Parisiennes.  These women are variously actresses, the wives of diplomats, students, secret agents, writers, models, and those in the resistance movement, amongst others.  She has assembled a huge range of voices, which enable her to build up a full and varied picture of what life in Occupied Paris was like.  Rather than simply end her account when the German troops leave, Sebba has chosen to write about two further periods: ‘Liberation (1944-1946)’, and ‘Reconstruction (1947-1949)’.  Les Parisiennes is, in consequence of a great deal of research, a very personal collective history.

Les Parisiennes has been incredibly well considered from start to finish.  The impartiality which Sebba gives each account works very well, and allows her to write about so many courageous, inspiring, and formidable women, all of whom did something to shape the city in the war years, and beyond.  The original evidence has been well pieced together, and the chronological structure, which seems perhaps obvious in such a book, serves it well.  Les Parisiennes is thorough and exact, whilst still remaining highly readable.  It is a triumph.

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‘Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Facism Through the Eyes of Everyday People’ by Julia Boyd *****

I received a copy of Julia Boyd’s Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Facism Through the Eyes of Everyday People for Christmas 2018, and it only took me some months to get to it due to my copy being at my parents’ house whilst I was away at University.  Boyd’s work of non-fiction has been called variously ‘fascinating’ (Spectator), ‘compelling’ (Daily Telegraph) and ‘meticulously researched’ (Literary Review).

9781783963812The core question asked in Travellers in the Third Reich is as follows: ‘Without the benefit of hindsight, how do you interpret what’s right in front of your eyes?’  Boyd refers back to this throughout, using a wide range of ‘accidental eyewitnesses to history’ – from students and journalists to tourists and celebrities – in order to try and pinpoint an answer.  Boyd has included such diversity with regard to the accounts selected, in order to ‘create a remarkable three-dimensional picture of Germany under Hitler – one so palpable that the reader will feel, hear, even breathe the atmosphere.’  She notes, in her introduction, that the ‘impressions and reflections of these assorted travellers naturally differ widely and are often profoundly contradictory’, and has deliberately used accounts from people with very different political leanings.

The Third Reich was what Germany was known as between the First and Second World Wars, when the National Socialist Party (more widely known as the Nazis) came to power, and cruelly changed the face of history.  Emphasis is placed in Boyd’s study upon impressions each ‘foreigner’ had of Hitler and the Nazi Party.  Few were disgusted outright by Hitler’s behaviour, and could see what was happening, but many were blinded by the propaganda campaign, and seemed genuinely shocked when they discovered later what the Nazi Party was capable of.  Boyd wonders: ‘How easy was it then to know what was really going on, to grasp the essence of National Socialism, to remain untouched by the propaganda or predict the Holocaust?’

As the title suggests, Boyd focuses upon those travelling to Germany for a particular purpose – either to spend time there as part of a holiday or as a government representative, amongst other reasons – but she also considers those who chose the country as their adopted homeland whilst studying there, for example.

Germany consistently encouraged tourism, as they understood its vital importance ‘as a propaganda tool.  It was essential that their negative image abroad be countered…  Foreign tourists must be given such a memorable experience in the Third Reich that once back home they would spontaneously sing its praises.  Luring them to Germany was therefore a high priority…’.  This led to the formation of the Reich Committee for Tourism in 1933.

Boyd takes into account both the positives and negatives that she came across in the firsthand accounts.  Several aristocratic or otherwise famous visitors adored Berlin and the Nazi Party – Unity Mitford is perhaps the most striking and well-known example – and others hated it; Vita Sackville-West ‘spent as little time there as possible during her husband’s posting to the British Embassy, while Virginia [Woolf] declared [Berlin] to be a “horror” and one she would never visit again.’  Other visitors were impressed by the way in which Germany embraced modernity, and admired what the country stood for in the wider world.  In 1933, for example, Boyd writes: ‘Even the politically sophisticated found Hitler’s Germany ambiguous.’

Travellers in the Third Reich is a considered and measured work of non-fiction.  The structure which Boyd has used, focusing on different groups of people, and different reasons they had for visiting Germany between the wars, is so effective.  She looks at such examples as the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, and the draw of Germany as a fertile land for both authors and scenery, to those on the other side of the spectrum, who visited the country in order to take advantage of the sexual freedoms which it offered.

Boyd wonderfully situates all of the firsthand accounts, and her own commentary demonstrates that she has such strength in this subject. Her prose is absorbing; her style is easy to read, whilst also being very intelligently written.  I know much about this period already, having studied it for many years, but Travellers in the Third Reich has given me as a historian so much to consider that I had not thought of, or come across, before.  Boyd offers such food for thought in Travellers in the Third Reich, and I very much look forward to what she publishes next.

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‘Fenny’ by Lettice Cooper ****

In a writing career which spanned over sixty years, it is a real shame that the majority of Lettice Cooper’s books are out of print, and that most prove quite difficult, or at least rather expensive, to procure.  She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1968, and had much praise bestowed on her for her services to literature.  Of her work, I had read only The New House, which I very much enjoyed, before finding an inexpensive copy of Fenny – the 264th title on the Virago Modern Classics list – online.  The green-spined edition features an introduction by Cooper’s peer, Francis King.  He notes the high quality of Cooper’s writing, which has ‘a consistency of style, of moral outlook’.

2330502First published in 1953, Fenny is a much later novel than 1937’s The New House.  As its predecessor, it enticed me from the very beginning.  It focuses on a young woman named Ellen Fenwick, who has worked at a school in her native Yorkshire for several years.  She is offered a summer post in Tuscany, in a secluded setting quite near to Florence, as the governess to an eight-year-old girl named Juliet Rivers, the granddaughter of a famous actress whom Ellen very much admires.  The entire situation thus presents a ‘dazzling prospect’ for her.  It seems ‘far removed from the fireside teas and prize-givings’ which her current job includes, and Italy promises a ‘dreamlike setting for the new life she anticipates’.

Accepting the post, Ellen soon finds herself journeying to Italy.  When she arrives at the Villa Meridiana, she finds freedom of a sort: ‘she tastes her first cocktail, cuts her hair, becomes “Fenny” – and falls in love.’  However, set as the novel is against rather a tumultuous period in history, she is ‘forced to come to terms with both emotional and political realities.’  The novel spans the period between 1933 and 1949, in which Ellen forges a new life for herself.  Throughout, Cooper charts her growth into a woman of middle age, and the circumstances which surround her, causing her to examine herself and adapt accordingly.  Ellen, throughout this, remains a believable character, constantly putting her own wellbeing behind that of those who surround her.  Of Ellen, King writes in his introduction: ‘That, in the years ahead, she should suffer so many disappointments and yet never become embittered, never lose her faith in life, never (most important of all) lose her faith in herself, is what makes her such an admirable and appealing character.’  Indeed, I liked Ellen from the first, and was so interested in the new life which she forged for herself, as well as learning about what she had left behind.

Through Ellen’s movement to mainland Europe, Cooper was able to explore one of her favourite tropes – the differences between North and South.  The North is mentioned only briefly in the novel, but it is Ellen’s assimilation into an entirely new culture and way of life which is interesting.  Added to this is the fact that before travelling to the Villa Meridiana, Ellen has never been abroad.  Far before she reaches the final stop on the train, her excitement is palpable; Cooper writes: ‘… she had been sitting on the edge of the seat, a starter poised for a race…’.  Upon arrival, Ellen is transfixed on her surroundings: ‘The strange city through which they drove was the scenery of a dream.  She saw tall, flat-fronted houses with shuttered windows, stone facades lit by street lamps.’  Throughout, Cooper’s observations of character, and descriptions of place, are perceptive and sumptuous respectively.  Italy has been used as a character in its own right here, its presence feeding into the relationships and decisions of each character within the novel.  Soon after Ellen’s arrival, Cooper describes one of the endless lovely scenes which unfold over her surroundings: ‘Every evening the sun set in splendour over the town of Florence, and as the red faded to rose and the last stain of rose died from a sky the colour of old turquoise, the sombre green cypresses became hard black shapes against the deepening blue and the appearing stars.’

Fellow Virago author Storm Jameson called this ‘certainly Lettice Cooper’s finest novel’, and it is easy to see why.  Fenny is both introspective and evocative.  It believably charts the life of a single woman in circumstances which change, and cause her to change in consequence.  Cooper has such an understanding and an awareness of her protagonist, and the things which others around her cause her to feel.  In this manner, Fenny is a fascinating and insightful character study.    Whilst, of course, the focus is upon Ellen, we do learn about the Rivers family, their friends who live not too far away, and another tutor, amongst others who are introduced later on.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout works well, and Cooper’s prose is pitch perfect.  

I found the extended timeframe in which Ellen’s story is told to be effective, and so much of Cooper’s commentary pertinent and applicable to today: ‘Of course I am interested in politics,’ a lecturer tells Ellen.  ‘Life, it seems to me, is not divisible.  One cannot disassociate oneself, especially in these days, even if one does not take an active part in them.’  I very much enjoyed reading Fenny, and whilst I did not find the final section as transporting, nor as realistic, as the previous ones, it is still a Virago publication which I treasure.

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‘Avenging Angels: Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front (1941-45)’ by Lyuba Vinogradova ***

As anyone who knows me only vaguely will be aware, I am absolutely fascinated by anything to do with Russia, and am particularly keen on Russian history.  I was therefore most intrigued by Lyuba Vinogradova’s Avenging Angels, which features many different accounts of women who worked as snipers for the Russian Army during the Second World War.  The book has been translated from its original Russian by Arch Tait, and features an introduction written by Anna Reid.  First published in 2017, Avenging Angels is the author’s third book.  It is supposed to act as a companion volume to Vinogradova’s Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler’s Aces, but I do not feel as though reading one before the other is necessary; this book does not even reference the author’s previous work.

9780857051998The Irish Independent calls the book ‘a powerful and moving account of women rising up to take arms, free their country – and, paradoxically, assert their common humanity.’  The Times believes it to be ‘well-written, engaging and enlightening’.  Certainly, the existence of such a tome is invaluable, reflecting as it does the huge war effort which the Soviet Union made during the 1940s.  In her introduction, Reid cites: ‘The Soviet Union sent more women into combat during the Second World War than any other nation before or since.’

The women who were trained as snipers ‘came from every corner of the U.S.S.R. – factory workers, domestic servants, teachers and clerks, and few were older than twenty.  With their country on its knees, and millions of its mean already dead, grievously wounded or in captivity, from 1942 onwards thousands of Soviet women were trained as snipers.’  Indeed, the estimated figures of the numbers of Soviet women who worked in some capacity for the war effort are astonishing, ranging between 579,000-800,000 serving in the Red Army, and rising to over a million when one considers female partisans, volunteers, and civilian militias.  Many women began by taking jobs in factories, or in the realm of civil defence.  After the ‘full-scale conscription of women into the military’ began in March 1942, women became ‘fully integrated into all services.’  Those who chose to bear arms were a ‘substantial minority’, writes Reid.

Many countries were sceptical about the women’s role in the war effort, but in Russia, a positive consequence of Communist rule was that everyone was, essentially, viewed as equals.  Vinogradova writes: ‘… it did not see strange to anyone that an extensive mobilisation of women for the army should take place.’  Russia’s women snipers were so numerous that they formed many platoons, consisting of around thirty individuals each.  They were subsequently sent to ‘accompany regular units’ on the battlefield.

Here, the focus of the book is on the ‘interviews with women who took on some of the war’s most high-profile combat roles – as fighter and bomber pilots, and as snipers.’  Vinogradova assert that it is not her attention ‘to assess their contribution to the war effort, nor to Soviet gender politics, but to capture their individual stories, the particular lived experiences that are left out of conventional’ history writing about wartime.  She goes on to say of the women she interviewed: ‘My heart went out to them, I pitied them in their old age and infirmity, but all the while I was listening out for an answer to one particular question: were they tormented by the thought of the lives they had taken?’  As well as the interviews which she herself conducts, Vinogradova also includes fragments of letters and diaries, which add depth to the whole.

Vinogradova discusses at points how Russia was viewed by the wider world during the Second World War, which I found fascinating.  She tells us: ‘Russia, which until very recently had been considered a rogue state, a secretive, backward, aggressive colossus that had made a pact with the Germans and attacked neighbouring countries in order to seize territory, was now being viewed quite differently.  It was a land desperately fighting a powerful and ruthless aggressor…  Russia was on everybody’s mind and many families identified closely with the victories of the Red Army.’

The stories of so many women have been factored into Avenging Angels.  Sadly, whilst some are rather in-depth studies of what the entire war was like for a particular woman, others are mentioned only once, or take up just one or two paragraphs.  This created a feeling of imbalance in the book.  Clearly though, the author is both passionate and understanding toward them, and whilst she occasionally poses questions about the effects which war, and seeing friends and comrades killed, must have had on the young women, she never appears judgemental of their choices.

I found parts of Avenging Angels fascinating, particularly with regard to the rigorous training which Vinogradova details: ‘In the barracks there was theory, which included ballistics and the characteristics of their equipment.  The girls spent a lot of tim outdoors, whatever the weather.  They were taught to dig different types of foxholes, to camouflage themselves and sit for long periods (as they might ahead of an ambush), to navigate terrain and crawl…  There were lessons in the additional skills needed for sniping: observation and the ability to commit the details of the landscape around them to memory, sharpness of vision and keeping one’s hands steady.  They were also taught unarmed combat techniques and how to throw a hand grenade.’

Of course, inevitable comparisons will be drawn between Vinogradova’s book and The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich.  I read Alexievich’s quite masterful work several months before picking up Vinogradova’s, and must say that I enjoyed it far more.  I felt that Alexievich’s work was better structured and more linear in its approach, which made a real difference in the reading experience.

I found Avenging Angels rather muddled at times; individuals were focused upon in one paragraph, and then Vinogradova switched very quickly to giving a barrage of facts about the general state of the war, only to come back to the individual again a while later.  This approach meant that reading Avenging Angels was a little jarring.  I also do not feel as though the introduction added anything to the volume.  Reid seemed to repeat chunks of what was in Vinogradova’s narrative, sometimes quoting figures and phrases verbatim.

I feel as though Avenging Angels would have been far more successful had it been set out in a different way, perhaps using each woman as a kind of case study, where everything about them could have been set out in one place.  This would have made it far less confusing, particularly as Vinogradova has a habit of referring to a woman she has mentioned once or twice by only her first name later on in the book.  The sheer number of women included here is staggering; it perhaps might have been better had Vinogradova paid attention to just a handful of them instead.  Another qualm is the quite odd way in which the author often introduces the woman in question; she almost always begins with the ‘good and bad’ points of a woman’s physical appearance, which, of course, has no bearing on her experience or ability as a sniper, and thus seemed rather redundant.

As I was reading, I was constantly aware, too, that Avenging Angels is a translated book; some of the phrasing is odd, or clumsy.  There are also occasional slips from the past to the present tense, which added to this.  My feeling is that the translator could have done more in order to make the work a more fluid, and therefore less confusing, piece.

It took a while, certainly, for me to get used to what felt like quite a haphazard approach in places, but I did find that it became a more immersive book as I continued to read.  To conclude, Avenging Angels is a fascinating and very worthy research topic, but it has been flawed in its execution.  Its epilogue also ends very abruptly, and seems to cut off with no real conclusion.  This made it feel somewhat as though the book had been rushed, which was a real shame, and which did, along with the other elements which I have pointed out in my review, dull my enjoyment levels.

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‘Irena’s Children’ by Tilar J. Mazzeo ****

Irena’s Children, a biographical account of Irena Sendler, a woman who saved thousands of children’s lives in Warsaw during the Second World War, has been written by New York Times bestselling author Tilar J. Mazzeo.  I have been fascinated by Sendler since I first learnt about her quite a few years ago, but at the time, I found it very difficult to find any books which focused upon her.  I was thrilled, therefore, when I spotted Irena’s Children quite by chance when browsing in the library, and began it almost as soon as I returned home. 9781471152610

Known as ‘the female Schindler’, Sendler, along with a vast network of resistance members, saved over 2,500 children from the Nazis in occupied Poland.  At the outbreak of war, Sendler, a Catholic, had just received a Master’s degree in social work, and had found employment as a social worker.  She was therefore allowed access to the Warsaw Ghetto, an area which all of the Jewish citizens of the city were forced to move into.  The Ghetto, overcrowded and suffering from a lack of food and sanitation, was the cruellest of places.  Mazzeo describes it as follows: ‘An area of seventy-three streets in the city – just over four percent of the streets in Warsaw – had been reserved for the Jews, carved out from what had long been one of the poorest and most run-down neighborhoods in the city centre.’  At its height, the Ghetto held over 250,000 people, many of whom were sent to different concentration camps.

Throughout the pogrom, and until the liquidation of the Ghetto in May 1943, Sendler had to ask many parents to trust her with their children.  She then set out ‘smuggling them out of the walled district, convincing friends and neighbours to hide them.  With their help and the help of local tradesmen and her lover in the Jewish Resistance, Irena made dangerous trips through the city’s sewers, hid children in coffins, snuck them out under overcoats at checkpoints and slipped them through secret passageways in abandoned buildings.’  Sendler kept extensive lists of the children’s real names, hoping that by doing so, they could be reunited with their families after the war’s end.  Of course, this only happened in relatively few cases, as many of the children’s families were murdered in concentration camps, or in the Ghetto itself.  She wrote each child’s name, along with the names of their parents and their addresses, in code on ‘flimsy scraps’ of cigarette paper, which she hid as best she could.

The leaders of the Resistance recognised how valuable Sendler was, and set up a cell under her direction.  She was more than willing to use her own initiative, and work closely with others, in order to save so many Jewish children: ‘Irena had wanted an adventure and, knowing that they were fighting against their oppressor, even if it was dangerous, made her feel alive.’

Sendler evaded detection for such a long time due to her appearance, and even when she was captured by the Nazis and taken in to be tortured, they were completely oblivious to the fact that they had one of the key members of the Resistance network in their clutches.  They thought that, because she looked like a feeble woman, she must just be a minor player, and could lead them to the main orchestrators of the movement.  Sendler is described as a ‘feather of a person with an iron spirit: a four-foot-eleven-inch wisp of a young woman, in her late twenties when the war began, who fought with the ferocity and intelligence of an experienced general and organized, across the city of Warsaw and across the divides of religion, dozens of average people into foot soldiers.’

In her prologue, which opens with a moment in 1943 in which the Gestapo come for Sendler, Mazzeo is honest and fair: ‘To make her a saint in the telling of her story is, in the end, to do a kind of dishonor to the true complexity and difficulty of her very human choices.’  She goes on to say, in the book’s preface, that ‘Irena’s love life was anarchic and unruly, and she struggled with the knowledge that she was not a good wife or a good daughter.  She placed her frail and ailing mother in grave danger and kept the knowledge of those risks from her.  She was reckless and sometimes myopic… and, at moments, she was perhaps even selfish in her selflessness.’  Mazzeo pieced together Irena’s Children by using primary materials, as well as Sendler’s own recollections, and interviews with some of those whom she helped.

Sendler’s childhood, and her reasoning for wanting to help others, is documented fully, and is also well-situated historically.  Whilst there is a lot of information woven through Irena’s Children, and such a high level of scholarship to boot, the book is markedly easy to read.  Irena’s Children brings to the fore the story of an important, and incredibly courageous, woman, who risked her own life multiple times every day in order to help others to survive.  This biography, fascinating and harrowing in equal measure, should be read by everyone.

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‘Her Father’s Daughter’ by Marie Sizun ****

Marie Sizun’s novella, Her Father’s Daughter, is the twentieth title on independent publisher Peirene Press’ list.  Part of the Fairy Tale series, it is described as ‘a taut and subtle family drama’, and has been translated from its original French by Adriana Hunter.  Her Father’s Daughter is Sizun’s debut work, written when she was 65, and first published in 2005.  The novella was longlisted for the prestigious Prix Femina.

9781908670281Her Father’s Daughter is set in a Paris in the grip of the Second World War.  A small girl named France is content, living solely with her mother in their apartment; that is, until her father returns from his prisoner of war camp in Germany.  At this point, ‘the mother shifts her devotion to her husband.  The girl realizes that she must win over her father to recover her position in the family.  She reveals a secret that will change their lives.’  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, writes that here, Sizun presents ‘a rare examination of the bonds and boundaries between father and daughter.’

An omniscient perspective has been used throughout, in which each member of the family is referred to largely using the title of their familial position, and their relation to France.  France, for instance, is just ‘the girl’ for the majority of the book, and we also become acquainted with her ‘the mother’, ‘the father’, and ‘the grandmother’.  Of the decision to largely omit given names, Sizun writes: ‘But no one remembers now [that the little girl is called France]…  They just call her “the child”, that’s enough.  As for calling her name to summon her, to make her come back, that never happens: the child is always there, close by, under her mother’s feet, or consumed with waiting for her.’

The novella begins as France hears a radio announcement, in which her father’s position in the camp is lamented by her mother.  At this point, something shifts for the little girl: ‘She would normally be enjoying this peaceful moment spent with her mother, in the small kitchen warmed by the heat of her ironing.  But right there, in what her mother said, in those words, something loomed before her, something quite new.’ At this point, Sizun goes on to say: ‘And it’s this secret, intimate world, their world for just the two of them, that the child can suddenly feel slipping away.’

Given that France is just four-and-a-half years old, she has no memory whatsoever of her father; her only points of reference are the photographs dotted around their apartment.  Of fathers, and France’s opinion of them, Sizun writes: ‘Fathers are found in fairy tales, and they’re always slightly unreal and not very kind.  Or else they’re dead, distant, weak, and much less interesting than their daughters and their sons, who are brimming with courage, spirit and good looks.’

When her parents are first reunited, after rather a traumatic journey, to see her father in the Paris hospital he is being treated in, France soon realises that she has been overlooked: ‘How long will this performance last?  The child now feels as if time, which went by so swiftly earlier, has stopped, as if she’s been here for hours, sitting on the end of this bed.  She’s been forgotten.  They don’t see her.  She’s disappeared.  She’s not in this world.’  When he returns home, it soon becomes clear that her father’s temperament is tumultuous, and unsteady: ‘His words are always rather knowing, but never the same: gentle one minute, abrupt the next, tender with the mother one minute, formal with the child the next.  And then suddenly aggressive.  Brutal.  Violent.’  After a while has passed, the family dynamics begin to shift beyond France’s comprehension: ‘The child may now have a father but, on the other hand, she might as well no longer have a mother.  Because as if by magic her mother is reduced to being a docile wife to her husband, his sweetheart, his servant.’

The structure of Her Father’s Daughter, which uses short, unmarked chapters, works well.  The prose, which is relatively spare, but poetic for the most part, makes the story a highly immersive one.  Her Father’s Daughter is easy to read, but there is a brooding, unsettling feeling which infuses the whole.  Sizun is entirely revealing about the complexities embedded in relationships.  Powerful examinations of family are present throughout the novella, along with musings about what it really means to know someone.  Even though her protagonist is so young, this is, essentially, a coming-of-age story, where very adult situations are interpreted through the eyes of a child, who has no choice but to learn a great deal about her family, and about herself.

Sizun is a searingly perceptive author, who demonstrates such understanding of her young protagonist.  Her Father’s Daughter is an incredibly human novella, which has been masterfully crafted; it is difficult, in many ways, to believe that it is a debut work, so polished does it feel.  The novella is well situated historically, and is highly thought-provoking.

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One From the Archive: ‘London War Notes: 1939-1945’ by Mollie Panter-Downes *****

First published in 2015.

The 111th entry on the Persephone list, and one of this year’s spring reprints, is Mollie Panter-Downes’ excellent London War Notes: 1939-1945.  First published in the US in 1971 and the UK in 1972, the collection gathers together material which was originally published in The New Yorker during the Second World War.

Between 1939 and 1945, Panter-Downes wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’.  These letters began at a pivotal time for Great Britain, as: ‘The first was written on the very Sunday that Neville Chamberlain informed the nation that his untiring efforts to preserve peace had failed’.  In all, she contributed 153 such pieces, as well as two dozen short stories, which Persephone have already gathered together in the Good Evening, Mrs Craven collection.

Edited by William Shawn, this new edition features a far-reaching preface which has been written by David Kynaston.  He believes that Panter-Downes’ humour is ‘wryly observational’, and this volume rightly leaves ‘historians as well as readers forever in her debt’ for the slice of wartime life which it presents.

The original American spellings and turns of phrase have been retained within London War Notes, as they ‘give a better sense of the period and of Mollie Panter-Downes’s original audience’.  Another nice touch within the book is the way in which it has been split up into sections, each of which refer to different years within the Second World War.  Each thus begins with a helpful timeline of the main historical events which occurred in any given year, which are both of importance in general terms, or which had definite consequences within Britain, and thus had major effects upon the populous – the rationing of petrol in September 1939, for example.

Robert Harris called Panter-Downes ‘the Jane Austen of the Home Front’, and it is easy to see why.  She is incredibly observant and, Kynaston agrees, she ‘deftly and economically makes us feel present without ever resorting to purple prose’. Panter-Downes is a wonderful writer; she is coolly intelligent, and is never one to get flustered.  One immediately receives the impression that she was one of those incredibly collected and headstrong women, who always tried to make the best of any given situation.  Each of her observations within London War Notes is of value, and never does she under- or overstate anything.  Panter-Downes is particularly fabulous at reasserting her own position, and that of her country, against the war at large.  She is a thoughtful prose writer, too: ‘The London crowds are cool,’ she writes on the day that war is declared, ‘in spite of thundery weather which does its best to scare everybody by staging unofficial rehearsals for aid raids at the end of breathlessly humid days’.

London War Notes is a wonderful and all-encompassing read.  It is a fabulous piece of non-fiction, and feels incredibly fitting for the varied Persephone Classics list.  As far as journalism – and particularly wartime journalism from the perspective of somebody who was surviving on the Home Front – goes, London War Notes is at the very pinnacle.

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‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ by Svetlana Alexievich ****

Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘classic oral history’ The Unwomanly Face of War has recently been released in its first English version, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I was so excited to pick up a copy, fascinated as I am by Russian history and the Second World War, both of which Alexievich’s work encompasses.

During the Second World War, ‘about a million women fought in the Soviet army,’ Alexievich writes in her introduction.  ‘They mastered all military specialties, including the most “masculine” ones.  A linguistic problem even emerged: no feminine gender had existed till then for the words “tank driver,” “infantryman,” “machine gunner,” because women had never done that work.  The feminine forms were born there, in the war’.  Belarusian Alexievich then goes on to discuss her experiences growing up just after the war in Ukraine, when tragedy affected everyone: ‘We didn’t know a world without war; the world of war was the only one familiar to us, and the people of war were the only people we knew.’

Alexievich, 9780141983523an investigative journalist, wanted to write an account about women, and of their experiences in conflict.  Her reasoning and justification for writing The Unwomanly Face of War are strong.  She saw the existing reportage of wartime accounts flawed, due to their masculine leanings.  She writes: ‘There have been a thousand wars – small and big, known and unknown.  And still more has been written about them.  But… it was men writing about men – that much was clear at once.  Everything we know about war we know with “a man’s voice.”‘  She goes on to exemplify the highly varied experiences of women, and their often far more emotive accounts.  ‘”Women’s” war,’ she points out, ‘has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings.  Its own words.  There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.’

It was markedly important for Alexievich to speak to as many women as she could, and in consequence, she is able to share ‘stories of women’s experiences in World War II on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories.’  To collect the testimonies, she took ‘dozens of trips all over the country, hundreds of recorded cassettes, thousands of yards of tape.  Five hundred meetings, after which I stopped counting; faces left in my memory, only voices remained.  A chorus resounds in my memory.  An enormous chorus; sometimes the words almost cannot be heard, only the weeping.’  Accounts came from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.  She interviewed snipers, drivers, traffic controllers, liaison officers, nurses, paramedics, mechanics, telephone operators, pilots, and partisans, to create her multilayered portrait of women in war.

Alexievich is aware of the flaws to be found in any project of this kind, primarily the validity of what she is being told, as there is no way to verify individual accounts.  She says, ‘but the narrators are not only witnesses – least of all are they witnesses, they are actors and makers.  It is impossible to go right up to reality.  Between us and reality are our feelings.’  Her aim here is to portray the ‘sickening’ futility of war, and its far-reaching effects: ‘I write not about war, but about human beings in war.  I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings.  I am a historian of the soul.’

The Unwomanly Face of War, as far as it can be judged to be so, feels candid.  Both the accounts which have been transposed, and Muller’s intelligent and measured commentary, are expressive and immersive.  Whilst the accounts themselves are sometimes very matter-of-fact, and verge upon the simplistic with regard to their language, they are often horrific and difficult to read.  The Unwomanly Face of War is such an important historical document, touching and tender.  Alexievich has included fragments of so many stories which deserve to be told.

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2018 Travel: Books Set in Germany

Germany is the third country which I have been lucky enough to visit so far this year.  My boyfriend and I travelled to beautiful Munich at the end of February.  Here are seven books set in Germany which I have loved, and would highly recommend.
1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005) 893136
HERE IS A SMALL FACT:  YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.  1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.  Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with her foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.  SOME MORE IMPORTANT INFORMATION:  THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH.  It’s a small story, about: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery.  ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW: DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES.
2. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (1995)
Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.  When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover—then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
494653. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (2004)
For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald.  Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life.  Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.
4. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008)
A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.
5. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City by Anonymous (1953) 12238919
For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. The anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject–the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.
6. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (1995)
‘From the Booker Prize-winning author of Offshore comes this unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his fiancee Sophie, newly introduced by Candia McWilliam.The year is 1794 and Fritz, passionate, idealistic and brilliant, is seeking his father’s permission to announce his engagement to his heart’s desire: twelve-year-old Sophie. His astounded family and friends are amused and disturbed by his betrothal. What can he be thinking?Tracing the dramatic early years of the young German who was to become the great romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, The Blue Flower is a masterpiece of invention, evoking the past with a reality that we can almost feel.’
95455457. The End: Germany 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw (2011)
Ian Kershaw’s The End is a gripping, revelatory account of the final months of the Nazi war machine, from the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 to the German surrender in May 1945.  In almost every major war there comes a point where defeat looms for one side and its rulers cut a deal with the victors, if only in an attempt to save their own skins. In Hitler’s Germany, nothing of this kind happened: in the end the regime had to be stamped out town by town with an almost unprecedented level of brutality.  Just what made Germany keep on fighting? Why did its rulers not cut a deal to save their own skins?  And why did ordinary people continue to obey the Fuhrer’s suicidal orders, with countless Germans executing their own countrymen for desertion or defeatism?

 

Have you read any of these?  Have any made their way onto your to-read list?

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One From The Archive: ‘The True Story of Hansel and Gretel’ by Louise Murphy ****

First published in 2013.

9780142003077I am drawn to stories set during the Second World War, particularly when those stories are involved with survival.  I will read anything to do with this topic, from the diaries of those who hid from captors, to fictional accounts of the ways in which both capture and death could be evaded.  I also love fairytales, and modern day adaptations of old favourites.  I had therefore had my eye upon Louise Murphy’s The True Story of Hansel and Gretel for quite some time, and began it as soon as I had procured a copy.

Throughout, I found the novel incredibly powerful – unsettling so at times.  The sense of place and atmosphere which Murphy built up were truly stunning.  I loved the way in which she transferred the fairytale to a believable historical setting – World War Two in Poland, where two young children – renamed Hansel and Gretel by their father so that they appear to be more German – are left in the woods.  They soon come across the house of an elderly lady named Magda, who is purported to be the town’s ‘witch’.

Throughout, Murphy has successfully brought some of the horrors of the Holocaust back to life, and she describes the struggle for survival which Hansel and Gretel and their new family endure so poignantly.  Each scene, particularly with regard to the darker ones, were incredibly vivid.

The author has created a wonderfully crafted and memorable tale, which I found very difficult to put down.  Murphy’s ideas were so clever throughout, and the original tale woven in so cleverly, that I am hoping she will continue the theme of updating fairytales, making them fit into both our generation and our history.

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