Love and cowardice in France’s ‘Dark Years’

A detail from a propaganda poster for the Vichy régime

By Euan Cameron
Maclehose, 330pp, £17/$22

Euan Cameron was my first publisher and editor more than 40 years ago and has been one of my best friends since then. Now, after a long career, he has written his first novel. I should say I read it first in manuscript form and am indeed quoted on the cover, calling it “a beautifully written and moving story of love and betrayal that casts light on the ‘Dark Years’ of French history.”  

Some may think this should disqualify me from reviewing it. However, clearly it is a work of particular interest to readers of the Catholic Herald, dealing as it does with questions of faith, and with sin, repentance and the possibility of redemption. 

The “Dark Years” were 1940, and the years of Vichy, of defeat and the German Occupation. It has always been difficult for the British – and of course for many French people – to understand why anyone accepted Vichy. But there were certain psychological reasons. First, Vichy was a response to the question happily never asked of us: what do you do when you have lost a war? Second, for the French Right, fear of atheistic communism was as strong as fear of Nazi Germany. Finally, the Third Republic, which collapsed in 1940, was an anti-clerical regime, hostile to the Church and the Catholic ethos. So it was almost inevitable that the bishops and many Catholics welcomed its replacement by a government which promised a return to an older Catholic France. That promise was of course betrayed, but there remained some who fondly remembered it. 

The central figure of this novel is a young Englishman, Henry Latymer, a painter living in Paris in 1939. The novel is a quest, almost half a century on, for his story, undertaken by his grandson Will, a musician, and a French cousin, Ghislaine, previously unknown to him. Henry has recently died in Argentina and some papers have been sent to Madeleine, his wife perforce abandoned in 1945. She is Will’s grandmother and Ghislaine’s mother by a second marriage. 

Henry loved France, felt more himself there than in England, refused to return home to enlist or be called up, and in the summer of 1940 made his way to Vichy, where a friend owned an art gallery and was eager to hold an exhibition of his work.  

It didn’t matter to him that his friend and Chantal, the friend’s sister, were Jewish.  

The story of Henry’s time in Vichy, where he meets and falls in love with Madeleine, and where, as Vichy becomes narrower and more vicious, he is guilty of cowardice resulting in an appalling act (or, more exactly, of disgraceful inaction – a sin of omission) is skilfully developed.  

Henry and Madeleine later accompanied the rump of Vichy to Sigmaringen, the little town on the Danube where “la France allemande” lived out its last ignominious months, here beautifully described. Their son, Will’s father, is born there, delivered by Dr Destouches, better known as the great but horribly anti-Semitic novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Afraid of being arrested and charged with treason, or at least collaboration, Henry escaped Europe, leaving Madeleine with her parents, and made for Argentina.  

Exploring his life in France, Will and Ghislaine meet some of his old friends, an American art dealer who has lived half a century in Paris, and a distinguished elderly novelist, devoutly Catholic and royalist. There are beautifully written scenes in Brittany where Madeleine now lives in seclusion, before they travel to Argentina in search of Henry’s life there. Guilt-ridden, he had returned to the Church, penitent, yet always conscious of his failures, his desertion of Madeleine and their son and a single act of betrayal in Vichy.   

This is not only a beautifully written novel, but also one distinguished by a generous sympathy and understanding of moral complexity, of how people with good intentions make terrible mistakes. Vichy itself is of course now seen as just such a mistake: wrong judgment leading to contemptible action. The novel also offers a beautiful evocation of an older, now long-vanished France, one that will appeal to readers who remember France as it was – before the technocratic Fifth Republic re-established the authority of the state and, in doing so, destroyed so much and vulgarised so much more.  

In the last 20 years Euan Cameron has translated Jean-Yves Tadié’s great biography of Proust and novels by Paul Morand, Julien Green and Patrick Modiano. The influence of all these writers is evident in this novel. It is an ambitious and moving story, an evocation of a near-forgotten Catholic France, and in a sense a love letter to France and French culture. Anyone who loves the country will surely enjoy it and hear the echo of the Charles Trenet song, “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?”