SS-GB – The Hoarse Whisperer

This is a slightly longer version of something that appeared in the TLS a couple of weeks ago:

Typical, you wait years for a World War Two counterfactual drama and then two come along at once. In 2015 Amazon launched the Man in the High Castle an adaptation Philip K. Dick’s novel. It is now on its second series. Then last month the BBC broadcast the first parts of a mini series based on Len Deighton’s SS-GB. It’s tempting to see this as a reflection of today’s troubled times. Certainly a rabble-rouser in the White House, a possible (likely?!) Front National president in France and the return of anti-Semitism on the Continent certainly gives these programmes an added frisson.

In all the inevitable contemporary comparisons, however, we shouldn’t forget that counterfactual stories are a perennial favourite. They turn the conventional British and American triumphal history narrative on its head and ask difficult questions: would we have saved our Jews like the Danes did or collaborated enthusiastically like the Petain government in France? And on a more base level: swastikas sell. In recent years there was Robert Harris’s Fatherland made into an HBO film in 1994 with Rutger Hauer and Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America. More obscure is the 1978 BBC drama An Englishman’s Castle set in a fascist German-dominated Britain. Or on a similar theme, It Happened Here, a film shot in the 60s over the course of eight years by two teenagers with amateur actors and a miniscule budget.

It’s a far cry from the glossy  productions of SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle. The opening of SS-GB features a Spitfire (from a later year as history buffs  have gleefully pointed out) landing by a bombed-out Buckingham Palace all rendered in slightly queasy CGI. Technology has progressed to the point where one can easily drape London or New York in swastikas which might be why both adaptations have only appeared now; these would both have been very expensive series to shoot 20 years ago.

SS-GB is set in 1941, the Germans won the Battle of Britain and successfully invaded. Churchill has been shot and the King is being kept in the Tower of London. Sam Riley plays Archer of the Yard (as the tabloids call him) a fresh-faced detective superintendent. Though nominally independent he reports to an SS Gruppenfuhrer Kellerman. In the opening episode, a body with mysterious burns on it is discovered in a dingy flat in Shepherd Market.

Len Deighton based his novel on real plans drawn up by the Nazis for how they would have ruled Britain. The scriptwriters Robert Wade and Neil Purvis (the team behind the last five Bond films) have stuck closely to the novel which isn’t necessarily a good thing. There’s a typically labyrinthine Deighton plot involving rivalry between different factions of the German armed forces, nuclear secrets and schemes by the British resistance to involve the neutral Americans in the war. The opening episodes will be hard work for anyone who hasn’t read the book. Intelligibility isn’t helped by Sam Riley speaking in a hoarse whisper much of the time.

SS-GB is firmly rooted in the wartime London that Deighton grew up in. Here the BBC adaptation struggles to convince. None of the characters feel like Londoners and they’re not helped by a clumsy script with lines such as: “get your hand off me you bloody Gestapo bastard” or the inevitable “you just don’t get it, do you?” Both Riley and Kate Bosworth, who plays an American journalist, Barbara Barga, who Archer falls in love with, are curiously inexpressive so much so that Bosworth in her pink suit reminded me of Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds. If the Allies are wooden, the Germans have the opposite problem. SS Standartenfuhrer Huth arrives in the first episode looking like Herr Flick from Allo’ Allo’ flicking his gloves and camping about in a tight leather overcoat.

Despite being rather broad at times, SS-GB does show some of the complexity of relationships between occupier and occupied. Archer’s boss Kellerman wears tweed suits like a parody of an English gentleman. Meanwhile Archer’s son asks his father with awe whether he works for the Gestapo. Archer is caught between trying to do his duty as a policeman whilst avoiding being drawn into open collaboration or resistance. The Resistance can be as cynical and ruthless as the Nazis but what SS-GB lacks and, this is a fault of the novel, is any sense of Nazism finding a fertile soil in Britain. The premises of It Happened Here, An Englishman’s Castle or Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, are far more unsettling because the real enemies are British.

I can’t help thinking that SS-GB would have worked better stripped back into a taut feature film a la Ipcress File or Deighton’s novel used as a starting point for a longer series like Amazon’s the Man in the High Castle. As it is SS-GB doesn’t really get to grips with the full horror of occupation and collaboration. Instead we’re just left with an unusually confusing police procedural.





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.