The Silence of the Sea

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Read 07/04/2022

Rating 4 stars

The Silence of the Sea is a novella of occupation and resistance. It was published in German-occupied France in 1942, not quite two years after the occupation began. Its author, Jean Bruller, wrote it in roughly eight months, publishing under the pseudonym Vercors. I borrowed a bilingual edition from the library that reproduces the definitive French text published in 1964 alongside Cyril Connolly’s 1944 translation into English.

The story begins with preparations for the arrival of a German officer who has commandeered rooms in the home of the narrator. The narrator is passive in the face of this mini occupation. Horses are stabled in his barn, troopers are billeted in his attic. The officer arrives at night a few days later, announced by the sound of his boot heels on the tiled path around the house. He declares himself to be a man who respects those who love their country. The narrator and his niece, who lives with him, make no reply and make a silent agreement to make no changes to their habits, but to behave as though the officer is not there.

In this opening, there is a sense of inevitably. The battle for control of France is over, the Germans have won, and there must have seemed little point in attempting to continue a public battle with the occupiers. Silence and a refusal to engage on a personal level must have seemed the safest way to resist. Is this effective compliance, I wondered, the neutrality that has been spoken of as a position Ukraine might take to avoid a larger war? What a poisoned option. You can’t win either way. Later, there is reference to the negotiations in Paris that will “prepare for the wonderful union of our two countries”, with France becoming part of Germany, not simply an occupied territory. The officer believes the union will preserve France’s character, until he attends the negotiations and realises that union means a crushing of the French national spirit. A similar fate awaits Ukraine if Putin isn’t stopped in his attempts to Russify the country and obliterate its culture.

The German officer is terrifying in his quiet egotism. Each night he delivers a monologue that expresses the national German psyche under the Third Reich. He claims superiority for Germany while acknowledging that France has fine qualities, too. In his mind, the occupation is the prelude to some kind of marriage between the two nations, one which will benefit both countries through the mingling of their respective excellences. For him, the French and the Germans are akin, ancient civilisations whose ancestors stand proud behind them in this moment of history. He casts Germany as the Beast and France as Beauty in a twisted reimagining of the fairytale. He likens the French leader, tasked with capitulating to Germany while retaining France’s dignity, to Macbeth, with the line “Those he commands move only in command, nothing in love”.

The narrator tells us of what it was like to endure these monologues.

I can’t remember today everything that was said during the course of more than a hundred winter evenings, but the theme hardly ever varied; it was the long rhapsody of his discovery of France: how he had loved her from afar before he came to know her, and how his love had grown everyday since he had had the luck to live there. And believe me, I admired him for it. Yes, because nothing seemed to discourage him, and because he never tried to shake off our inexorable silence by any violent expression…

On the face of things, then, this German occupier is a reasonable man. Never mind the horrors done collectively by his nation. He is a reasonable man, with his unreasonable beliefs. He claims not to hold the Nazi beliefs to the same depths as some of his compatriots. He claims to be horrified by the plan for absolute destruction of all enemies in order to build the one thousand year Reich. One of his colleagues says the following, “Force is all you need to conquer with, but it’s not enough to keep you masters. We know very well that an army counts for nothing in keeping you masters.” Only destruction ensures dominance. Something that most autocrats would agree with.

Throughout the novella, the niece never looks at the officer, never speaks to him. She sits and sews while he stares at her during his monologues, as though she were a marble statue. At times, his monologues seem to be directed at her, an attempt to tell her something simultaneously general and personal. There is a sense of connection between them, despite her apparent refusal to directly acknowledge him.

His disgust at the destruction of all he personally admires about France by his regime leads him to request a transfer to the Eastern Front. Presumably so that he doesn’t have to witness the demise of France first-hand. The announcement that he is leaving is the only thing that elicits a response from the narrator’s niece: a simple adieu and a final meeting of the officer’s eyes. It’s a strange moment, and is one that perhaps speaks of the need to dehumanise others when you want to reject what they stand for. It is hard to hate someone when they reveal their humanity to you and you accept it, Vercors seems to be saying.

This is a slim book. The English translation is 27 pages long, the original French fills 29. Given how soon after the start of the occupation it was written and published, and the difficult circumstances in which it was published, economy was Vercors’s watchword. Its timing renders it as much a testament to the occupation as a fictional work. I wonder what writing will emerge from the invasion and occupation of parts of Ukraine, in this world of instant global news, where a person holding up their phone can transmit live footage of war and occupation.

At the front of this edition is an Historical Introduction and a Literary Introduction. Combined, they are longer than the novel itself. I passed over them, electing to read the novel without any influence over what my reaction to it might be. I turned to them at the end. The context of the publishing scene Vercours was working within, provided by the Historical Introduction, was useful in understanding the tone of the novella. Gestapo censorship, while allowing French language publications to exist, meant an underground publishing house was needed, so that works with more subtlety than propaganda tracts could bolster the resistance. Setting such an endeavour up and producing the finished article was dangerous work, and again made me wonder what the equivalent might be, if things go from worse to disastrous in and beyond Ukraine.

The Historical Introduction relies heavily on Bruller’s memoir of the war and occupation, The Battle of Silence, bringing out the reasons Bruller the Pacifist became Vercors the Resistance Fighter. There’s an interesting paragraph about the initial phoney war waged by Germany against France before the full assault in May 1940. The French forces “Though not outgunned, certainly outmanoeuvred and psychologically overwhelmed, they retreated and then dissolved as an effective force within five weeks.” This made me wonder whether Putin expected something similar from Ukraine – a five week ‘special operation’ leading to collapse and full occupation.

I got less out of the Literary Introduction, which seeks to examine “the symbolic function of silence primarily as a literary device.” Its consideration of silence as a symbol of strength rather than an expression of weakness made me think of the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, sticking a fork in the back of her hand to learn how to endure pain in silence. It also made me think of the politics of work, where the desire to howl in the face of bureaucracy and other inefficiencies must be suppressed if you’re to be thought of as a team player. I had forgotten that silence, equally, can be used as a sign of disapprobation. A useful weapon to remember.

I do not recall who recommended this novel to me, so my apologies to the fellow blogger who did, and feel free to name yourself in the comments. I’m very grateful that you brought it to my attention.

5 thoughts on “The Silence of the Sea

    1. Fast work, Margaret! And also a clue that it wasn’t you who recommended it in a comments chat.

      I tried to read the French in the edition that I borrowed from the library but I’m sorely rusty and lacked the vocabulary and colloquialisms.

      Liked by 1 person

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