Sunday, February 6, 2011

"The Mistress" a novel by Philippe Tapon

On the cover of "The Mistress" there is a 1940s photograph of a pretty young woman talking with a German soldier in front of the Eiffel Tower.  The soldier has his back to the camera, so his arrogance is revealed in his posture: one foot resting on a curb as he leans on his officer's riding crop.  The woman, her hat cocked at a jaunty angle, stares off into the distance, a sly smile playing around her lips.  It is the perfect cover for this novel of wartime and its effect upon one French family.

"The Mistress" is not a Holocaust novel; it does not drag us into the camps or force us to witness a formal execution, but because these things are so omnipresent in our minds what happens on the page has the chill of death hovering over it throughout.  As is often the case, the understated, seemingly simple style carries a heavy load.  The novel is short, with descriptions of place and characters that are factual and unadorned.  In fact, as you read you are struck by the contrast between the lucid prose and the horrible cruelty that consumes almost everyone.

I just read an essay in the New York Review of Books ("Who Did Not Collaborate?" by Ian Buruma, Feb. 24, 2011) in which Buruma discusses a new history of the war years, "And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris" by Alan Riding.  It often happens that just when I'm thinking about something I see it pop up in various places all around me.  So it is with this essay and novel, both about French collaboration with the Nazis.  Riding focuses on writers and intellectuals like Sartre, Cocteau, and Camus.  Tapon looks at a successful Parisian doctor with a special interest in stomach disorders, his mistress, his two children, his estranged wife, who is a peasant living in the country, a priest, and a German officer who comes to him for relief from excruciating stomach pain.  Emile, the doctor, is a cruel and avaricious man: he has a stash of gold hidden on his wife's farm which is a crucial element in the plot.  He is a reluctant father who misuses his daughter and beats his young son.
If he loves his mistress, it is hard to see it; it is also clear that she stays with him for security and a way out of her impoverished circumstances.  They are using each other, and sex is their medium of exchange.

There are no heroes in this novel, not really any sympathetic characters.  Everyone is out for himself, except perhaps the little boy, who longs for his mother.  The cruelty begins with him and spirals out to touch everyone else with its poison.  What I find remarkable about this novel is how Tapon manages to compress a whole range of historical, cultural, and moral issues into one slim volume.  You don't have to like the characters to find them fascinating as you watch their innate natures brought to the fore by extraordinary pressures.  Under other circumstances they would still be terribly flawed, but they would not do so much damage.  Emile, the doctor, is the focal point, and his final outcome is inevitable, the result of both his weaknesses and an evil system. 

What would you do in similar circumstances?  That is the question the novel raises, and I wonder if anyone who hasn't faced them knows the answer.  I have often thought that morality is a luxury we too often take for granted.  I think it was Primo Levi who said that all the good people died in the Holocaust.  Were the survivors heroic or the beneficiaries of others who died in their place?  This is a brutal and impossible question, but it shows how complicated moral action can be.  Sometimes guilt and innocence mingle in a way that makes it difficult to separate them.  Tapon is not kind to his characters, but he is honest about them.  Whether they deserve what they get is something he leaves for the reader to decide.