This is my review of Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba.
Although much has been written about France under German occupation in the 1940s, “Les Parisiennes” takes a fresh angle on how women in particular were affected, describing the part they played in resistance, collaboration, or simply “getting on with life”.
The book is thoroughly researched with a six page “cast of characters” at the front, detailed notes on each chapter and an extensive bibliography at the end. However, I felt bludgeoned by the unrelenting spate of prose, since the basically chronological approach not only flits breathlessly between characters, but keeps digressing into a flood of often gossipy and gushing details or condensed potted biographies which seem of only marginal relevance.
Perhaps inevitably in view of the author’s interest in fashion, there is a clear preoccupation with the wealthy and glamorous who could afford to patronise the fashion houses which managed to flourish under Nazi rule. I suppose it is mildly interesting that gas mask holders were made into fashion items (but for how many women?) or that designer clothes had to be purchased under a “couture ration card” system with Balenciaga forced to close for exceeding the quota of seventy-five outfits (a year?) imposed to ration the amount of fabric used. It is made to sound like “a good thing” that of the 20,000 passes issued to attend fashion shows during the Occupation, only 200 were given to the wives of German officers, but weren’t the French women who attended to some extent collaborating? There is too much emphasis on people having a good time when for others basic food was in short supply and Jews were being dragged off by French police to the Vel d’Hiv (Vélodrome d’Hiver) en route for concentration camps. Also, can one really believe the example of so called “refugee-chic” in the tale of a woman fleeing from the fall of Paris who left her vehicle in search of petrol to remove the nail varnish which did not match the colour of her hat? Wouldn’t she have worried more about the smell and risk of catching fire?
The effect of this emphasis on celebrities and the privileged, is to trivialise events and create a sense of unease over being compromised oneself as a reader. In just one paragraph, we are told how “by the end of the forties”, the Marshall Plan had improved conditions, but not exactly how, except that a New Yorker journalist’s “Parisian friends had stopped griping about the black market (which they could presumably afford).. but are back to discussing passionately….the heady mysteries of La Grande Cuisine which, next to women, has always been their favourite topic of conversation”. The paragraph ends as follows. “Not only were the Parisians eating well again, but Wallis, Duchess of Windsor and her friends were buying jewels and couture clothes once more.”
If this book is best read by “dipping in and out”, there is the danger of missing some of the best passages, as in the chapter “Paris Returns” on the immediate aftermath of war, which actually includes some analysis, such as whether the death penalty was too harsh for the anti-semitic literary critic Brassilach (who gets very little mention elsewhere in the book, much less than Wallis Simpson). Simone De Beauvoir supported the punishment, perhaps swayed by De Gaulle’s view that “in literature as in everything, talent confers responsibility” but Anne Sebba points out with uncharacteristic tartness that De Beauvoir was also complicit, having claimed to be an anti-Nazi whilst eating well because her lover’s mother Jean-Paul Sartre took pains to obtain the best black-market foods. There is effective coverage on the practical problems of returning from the hell of the concentration camps and the guilt of those who came back alive: as a memoir recalled seventy years later, “”to survive it was necessary to destroy memory”. The author also considers the complicated relationship between the women who risked their lives in the resistance and were later rewarded as heroines, and those like the equally courageous Simone Veil who felt great bitterness over the lack of recognition of her suffering as a victim, deported to the camps.
Yet overall I was disappointed by the oppressive weight of excessive detail and too often superficial approach to a potentially fascinating subject matter – but the photographs are evocative.