Half a century after it was fought, the Second World War is still being written, and still being judged. The run of new fiction, like the current debate over war crimes trials, bears witness to our continuing obsession with the events of 1939-45. Things silenced and hushed up, perhaps for good reasons, in the late Forties are now being disinterred and subjected to lengthy post-mortems. The question of collaboration amongst intellectuals in the occupied nations has again become a talking-point, thanks largely to the posthumous revelations about the Belgian-American literary theorist Paul de Man. But what about the ordinary people of the Low Countries? Hugo Claus’s The Sorrow of Belgium, a novel first published in Holland in 1983, presents a world in which collaboration with the Nazis is made to seem as inevitable as breathing.
The protagonist, Louis Seynaeve, who is ten years old at the time of Munich, grows up in an enclosed and self-righteous little community in Catholic West Flanders. The Seynaeves are anti-semitic (though until the outbreak of war Louis has never set eyes on a Jew), anti-socialist, anti-French, anti-Protestant, anti-Brussels and anti-government. Their right-wing Flemish Nationalist sympathies are restrained only by Louis’s grandfather’s anxiety to protect his monopoly over the sale of school supplies to the local convents. After the defeat in 1940, Louis’s friends and relatives are quick to enlist in Hitler’s Flemish brigades, in the National Socialist Youth Movement and in the labour units sent to work in the German armaments factories. Louis’s mother becomes the secretary and mistress of a highly placed Nazi officer, while his father, a printer, produces offical leaflets and cultivates the Gestapo. Louis, too, is briefly moved by the vision of a New European Order based on an ideal synthesis of Dietsch and Deutsch, or Dutch and German. After the Liberation several of the family go into hiding, and Louis’s father is thrown into jail. Yet their war has been, for the most part, a struggle to survive the cold, the hunger and the American bombing raids, just like everybody else’s. All this is seen through the furiously observant eye of a drifting, disconsolate teenager.
But while Claus’s novel is a major exercise in the recovery of buried historical experience, it is weirder and more idiosyncratic than this summary suggests. It is a chronicle not only of the years of social deprivation and darkness but of the ‘slimy, inner civil war’ in the protagonist’s consciousness. Louis is initially seen as the leader of the Apostles, a boys’ secret society, and his behaviour throughout the novel is a byword for furtiveness. Where the nuns at his boarding-school have an elaborate Book of Rules, the Apostles collect Forbidden Books which have been placed on the Vatican Index thanks to their quotient of freethinking, smut or socialism. The Book of Rules is reputed to include a list of devils in alphabetical order; Louis, however, has his own private demonology in the shape of the mysterious Mizzlers, pagan gods which leave no trace and have no name. The Sorrow of Belgium dips in and out of Louis’s phantasmagoric world, and the Mizzlers, or some other force, are constantly playing tricks with the story. Finally it is no surprise that the haunted schoolboy turns into an autobiographical novelist more or less deliberately manipulating his narrative.
This novel is full of Flemish interiors with interminable, allusive dialogues taking place between hard-bitten men and careworn women in seedy beerhouses or over meagre rations in farmhouse kitchens. Claus’s Flanders is so down-to-earth that even the greatest delicacy of the local cuisine, a small foamy meringue, is known as a ‘nun’s-fart’. The quality of provincial life that we are shown is not one of tragedy but of a precisely-registered, Flaubertian aimlessness rising at times to the level of violence and farce. Louis’s early adolescent sexual activities, for example, include an indecent assault on a boy who will later bleed to death after castrating himself in an attempt to halt the effects of syphilis: ‘What is so particularly well done is Louis’s anal phase,’ the Brussels critics will eventually say of this section of our hero’s autobiographical novel. Later, the attentions of a series of girlfriends and seductive war widows fail to wean Louis from his obsession with Madame Laura, the local ‘hot lady’ whose stolen panties he won from a friend as a result of a bet over the timing of the German invasion. There are other things here which might suggest the earthier and homelier version of L’Education Sentimentale, though in The Sorrow of Belgium Louis ends up by winning acclaim as a writer, which allows Claus to take us from the depths of Flanders to a publication party in Brussels where the novel can thumb its nose at the literary establishment. Politicians, state officials, priests and nuns also come off badly in Claus’s novel, which is, however, entirely serious in its compassion for the sufferings of ordinary people. Despised by many of those who try to help him, regarded by his mother and his aunts as a spy, an onanist and a sneak, Louis emerges after the death of his grandfather as the one member of his disintegrating family whose seed has not been spilled on stony ground.
Belgium, according to one of Claus’s characters, is a misbegotten little botch of a country; and Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s Joanna (her real name is Joan) is seen by her mother as a misbegotten little botch of a daughter. Kitty, the mother, is belatedly certified as a paranoid schizophrenic, or so one would guess; Joan is also balanced on a knife-edge. Joan’s stoical and loving Granny is the third figure in the family photograph, a group portrait etched in acid. ‘Why savour bile?’ wonders Kitty at one point, though she and Joan are content to follow Granny’s precept that salt rubbed in your wounds is the best healer. Joanna is an intense and claustrophobic evocation of mother-daughter hatred, though the author’s attempts to trace the bitterness to its source are perhaps too reticent. An opportunity is missed at the end when, 14 years after battering her mother with a broken chair, Joan seeks her out in a mental hospital. The result is a breakdown, and six months of emotional paralysis suffering from ‘inversion hysteria’, but Joan tells us that she kept her secret from the psychiatrists, and so she does (inadvertently) from her readers.
This self-enclosed family drama unfolds against the background of a familiar, if mythic, version of 20th-century history. We begin at the turn of the century with the paradisal life of the Great House, in this case a mansion called Claremont on the island of Jersey. Then the Great War intervenes, the young men go off to die and nothing is ever the same again. The Twenties are a time of metropolitan frivolities, compulsive gambling, the Servant Problem and a disastrous marriage, all of which force Kitty and her widowed mother to leave idyllic Jersey for a suburban semi in Hendon. Here Joan is packed off to convent schools, while her mother gains a reputation for fast living. Next come the Thirties, with hunger marches, the unemployed, and a sadistic Hertfordshire convent run by German nuns with Nazi sympathies. With the Second World War Kitty’s madness escapes all bounds. Tortured by her mediumistic gifts, she becomes obsessed by the atrocities committed on her beloved Channel Islands by the occupying forces. Joan, meanwhile, joins Forties Bohemia, or so we are told. The novel contains some lifeless walk-on parts, and some feeble attempts at comic relief, but whatever is not part of the umbilical knot holding together Joan and her mother is mostly perfunctory. However, a narrative which refers to nostalgia as being ‘drip-fed into my upbringing like an antidotal poison’ is at least no dull opiate.
Joanna begins with childhood holidays at the seaside, and so does Mary Wesley’s A Sensible Life – but there the resemblances stop. A Sensible Life, a sugar-and-spice-and-all-things-nice sort of tale, begins at Dinard in 1926 and finally rounds off its boy-meets-girl plot at a Cornish barbecue thirty (or is it forty?) years later. There are some necessarily inconclusive scenes in London in wartime, where Wesley’s earlier novel The Camomile Lawn was set. As historical fiction A Sensible Life may well be compared with Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, a narrative of events in 1937 and 1938 which is the first of a planned trilogy spanning the war years. Both like to drip-feed us with nostalgia, and neither is poisonous. Both, too, tend to over-compensate for the human and novelistic freedoms denied to female novelists, and to ladies of any sort, during the years of which they are telling us. Characters in today’s popular historical fiction can at last be permitted to defecate, have erections, and say what they mean, though the dialogue may be no less wooden for that. ‘Have we enough chamberpots?’ demands Elizabeth Jane Howard’s hostess preparing for a country weekend; and, when a husband in A Sensible Life mutters, circa 1926, into his wife’s ear that ‘I want to get you into bed’, ‘And I you,’ she replies.
The Light Years is to some extent padded out by its author’s vast appetite for ephemera, for recipes and brand-names, for the authentic recall of the smallest details of cooking and shopping. (At least, one hopes it is authentic – were Steradent, Jeyes’ fluid, Walls’ Snofrutes and shoe-shop X-rays really so ubiquitous in the Thirties?) Howard is excellent on children’s games and children’s jealousies, and as for the adults, there are times when her wealthy London timber merchants and their wives almost seem to be the targets of Orwellian satire. Communism, the Spanish Civil War and the arrival of Jewish refugees all pass virtually unnoticed in this corner of Tory England, and, at the time of Munich, the male heads of the Cazalet family refuse to discuss the international situation when children and old ladies are present. The dowager Mrs Cazalet notes with approval that Mr Chamberlain is not the kind of man to want to discuss war on a Sunday, and perhaps, in the next volume, that will be registered as irony. Before the Prime Minister flies home with his scrap of paper, the Cazalets are shown digging new Elsan toilets on their country estate, doing gasmask drill, and unmasking a German spy thinly disguised as a sulky au pair. Schweinhund! she hisses at her shocked employer, as she takes her leave of English novel-land and flounces off to report to the Führer.
Mary Wesley is a bit more cosmopolitan than this despite her weakness for chinless heroes with names like Mylo, Piers, Blanco and Cosmo. Born in 1912, her long-delayed first novel was Jumping the queue (1983). Her best-selling status is based on a combination of up-market Mills and Boon with her claim to be a last celebrant of the vanishing life of the English upper and upper-middle classes. The inheritance of an estate is an issue in A Sensible Life, and its locations include a French seaside hotel, a London club, and the inevitable country-house weekends. Flora Trevelyan is on the outermost margins of the Times-reading classes, but as this is a Cinderella story, she eventually winds up with a prosperous barrister.
Wesley’s attitude to her protagonist is sufficiently indicated at the moment when, rescued from the boarding-school where she has been abandoned by selfish Anglo-Indian parents, Flora arrives to spend her summer holidays with her friends at Coppermalt. She feels as if she is emerging from a ‘long, lonely, foggy tunnel’ into an ‘atmosphere of affectionate delight’. This novel is all delight and no tunnel: it wallows in the reassurance surrounding Flora’s emergence from deprivations we are expected to take on trust. At Dinard while still a child she fell precociously in love with three older boys, and the rest of the novel is a device to enable her to work through them one by one, with long rest periods in between, including a twenty-year disappearance before and after the Second World War. During this time, we are told, she worked as a housemaid. As this wholly voluntary career choice should illustrate, Flora in reality is both a poser and a voyeur. She becomes a servant in order to keep watch on the upper classes from an invisible safe distance, to see and not be seen, keeping track of her erstwhile friends’ marriages and divorces by regularly sneaking a look at her employer’s Court Circular.
Where Mary Wesley has a profound lack of interest in her heroine’s life as a servant, Elizabeth Jane Howard labours to include the Cazalets’ domestics as human beings who are part of the family even if, alas, they live rather boring lives. This is a shrewd move, and a sign of our own times rather like the recent opening-up to visitors of the kitchens and pantries of National Trust houses. Elizabeth Jane Howard is known for writing on restaurants and food, and a fascination with the sheer mechanics of the country-house party – how the food is ordered and cooked, who eats up the left-overs, what happens to the servant who goes down with the measles – is evident in The Light Years. No doubt we can look forward to lashings of snoek, cod-liver oil and Woolton pie in Howard’s next volume. Perhaps this total recall of the trivia of pre-war and wartime life (which is also a feature of The Sorrow of Belgium) is the novelist’s tribute to a moment of shared and overwhelming historical experience? Or are we just faced with the sort of mindless literary-archaeological instinct which in fifty years’ time will create a demand for novels enumerating the contents of today’s supermarket trolleys, and for period heroines taking time off to read Mary Wesley’s latest?