A Question of Loyalties by Allan Massie

I hope readers don’t mind me posting another non-wine related thing.

It’s much harder to write a good review than a bad one. I think some enterprising publication should launch a counterpart to the Hatchet Job award, perhaps the Comfy Chair and a Good Single Malt award. Here’s something I wrote for Foxed Quarterly on one of my favourite novels. It was bloody hard work to write, I hope it isn’t to read. Foxed Quarterly is a magazine well worth subscribing to. Perhaps they could sponsor the award: 

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 Balafre – a conservative intellectual, a failed diplomat and the editor of a magazine called Le Echo de l’Avenir (‘The Echo of the Future’) – 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. In fact initially he seems a bit of a cold fish. 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 the narrative and it initially distances the reader from the story, but Massie knows what he’s doing: our confusion over Lucien mirrors Etienne’s own.

In the third section, Lucien comes into focus. We learn how he met his English wife Polly while hunting in England, and of the friendship that will guide his life, with a young German aristocrat called Rupprecht (Rupert) von Hulenberg. Rupert and Lucien are soul mates, both prone to abstraction, pomposity and romantic notions of nationhood. Polly has a brief affair with Rupert and is furious when it brings the two men even closer together.

When war breaks out, Lucien joins the army and witnesses his country’s capitulation. With France defeated, most of us would see the choice as between carrying on fighting with de Gaulle, as Lucien’s brother Armand does, or coming to a reluctant accommodation with the new regime. Lucien, however, sees it as an opportunity to serve his beloved France under a man he has long admired, Pétain. There is no question of cowardice. Lucien has fought in both this war and the last. If anything he is too brave. He has the opportunity to escape France but he refuses to do so. Instead he becomes minister of education in the Vichy government.

The idea that he can serve Vichy without morally compromising himself is tested early on during an interview with a Jewish schoolmaster, Simon Halevy, who has been removed from his post (he later becomes an important figure in the resistance). Lucien helps him flee the country but Halevy, rather than showing gratitude, is contemptuous of the choice that Lucien has made: ‘I thought you an intelligent man, and a man of honour, but when I find you sitting here, in this office, as a functionary of a regime built on a foundation of lies . . .’

A Question of Loyalties is a novel of ideas. Rupert, Polly and Lucien represent three aspects of Europe: France’s love of abstract thought, Germany’s romanticism and England’s no-nonsense empiricism. Echoing de Gaulle, Lucien repeatedly says that he has ‘a certain idea of France’. But this is also a novel about the dangers of living your life through ideas. Rupert and Lucien talk theoretically while Europe teeters on the brink. They are deluded by their ideas. Rupert writes in a letter to Lucien on the eve of war: ‘When there is a war I shall fight, but I shall fight on two fronts, against Hitler and for Germany.’ Massie contrasts both men with Polly who, though professing boredom with politics, sees more clearly than they do what is coming and who knows there will be no room for romantics.

The reader knows that this story is not going to end well. But Lucien remains in France working with Vichy. Why does he stay? He trusts Pétain, and his love for Rupert makes him imagine that accepting defeat by Germany is better than the prospect of fighting on, with Britain as an unreliable ally. And then there’s his fear of Bolshevism, something he sees as a worse threat than Hitler. As Lucien’s mother says: ‘He trusted Pétain, and if that was naïve, so were 95 per cent of the French people.’ Lucien is a man trapped by his ‘idea of France’. In the end he is too rigid, too lacking in imagination, too brave perhaps, to flee or change sides and join the resistance (as so many others did). But he has also fatally confused France’s safety with a German victory.

Massie contrasts Lucien, on the wrong side because of his beliefs, with figures from the resistance who are the opposite – thieves, opportunists and bullies. For example, Simon, a mechanic from Lucien’s village in Provence: ‘he used to sell petrol to German officers . . . like a lot who were in the Maquis, he played both sides’. That’s not to say that Massie is a moral relativist. We know with hindsight which side was morally better but Massie shows that at the time, it was not necessarily clear. ‘In a civil war, and it was that in France, there is always right on both sides.’

Etienne writes towards the end of the book: ‘Biography pretends to tell the truth about people’s lives, but it can only deal with what is revealed, and this is not the most truthful element.’ One can imagine a biography of someone like de Balafre with all its ‘one supposes’ and ‘perhaps’. It might be an interesting read but he would remain unknowable. Only a novel can explain the motivations of someone on the losing side. A Question of Loyalties is a work of fiction but it feels more truthful than most histories. It gets to the essence of wartime France and one reads it thinking, ‘Now I understand’.

Massie is a master at taking a well-trodden area of history and making the reader think about it anew. He is best known for his Roman novels, Augustus, Tiberius, Caesar, Antony and, most daringly, Caligula, in which where he humanizes one of history’s great monsters. I like the Roman novels but A Question of Loyalties is in a different league and deserves to be better known. It seems extraordinary that a novel of such power and ambition didn’t trouble the Booker judges that year. There was, however, a minor literary scandal when Nicholas Mosley resigned from the Booker committee because Massie’s next novel, The Sins of the Father, about the Holocaust, wasn’t on the shortlist.

A Question of Loyalties might also be called the Sins of the Father. Etienne’s life has been shaped and, he thinks, ruined by his father’s actions and reputation. But Lucien emerges from the novel as an intensely human and sympathetic figure, though a flawed one: a cold fish no longer. His tragedy is that he put his loyalty to an idea of France and Europe above that to his friends and family, and above his own safety.

A Question of Loyalties should rightfully be considered one of the finest post-war novels in English. It may be a novel of ideas but it’s also extremely moving. If you want to understand France, you have to read it. You can’t say that about many novels. Interestingly, Massie has recently returned to the Vichy period with a wartime crime novel called Death in Bordeaux (2010), which is the first in a trilogy. I’m going to buy a copy now.

After finishing this, I quickly read the first two Bordeaux crime novels. They’re wonderful and the third has just been published.