A Certain Idea of France

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In 2011 a French popular novelist called Alexandre Jardine was vilified in both Le Figaro and Le Monde for writing that his grandfather was complicit in the crimes of the Vichy regime. Over seventy years after the country’s defeat by Germany, the subject of occupation and collaboration is still a touchy one in France. The war is viewed through the prism of good and evil, collaboration and resistance, de Gaulle and Pétain. This was the narrative needed for France to recover its place at the top table of world nations after the Second World War. Of course the majority of Frenchmen did not fit into this neat analysis: their motivations are unknowable. Some initially collaborated and only later resisted, and almost everyone was compromised in some way.

Where we might see a collaborator, the author Allan Massie seeks to understand a human being making difficult choices. A Question of Loyalties (1989) is the story of just such a man. Lucien de Balafré – a conservative intellectual, a failed diplomat and the editor of a magazine called Le Echo de l’Avenir – is a creation of Massie’s, though he feels so real that I had to look him up to check. He is in some ways an unlikeable figure: priggish, humourless and given to abstract thought. His son Etienne ponders at one point: ‘Was he a bore? I wondered. I could see that, in some respects and for some people, he might have been.’

The story is told through the eyes of Etienne. As with many of Massie’s novels, the structure is artful. The book opens and closes with Etienne, washed-up and melancholic in Geneva in 1986, reluctantly hunting for the truth about his father. In the second section Etienne recalls a trip he took to France in 1951 as a teenager where he hears conflicting accounts of his father’s life and death. The third section is based on letters, documents and essays by Lucien among others, each annotated by Etienne. It’s an odd way of approaching th

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About the contributor

Henry Jeffreys is wine columnist for The Lady magazine and writes a blog called ‘Henry’s World of Booze’.

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