Tag Archives: Holocaust

Book Review: Monsieur Le Commandant by Romain Solcombe

Monsieur-le-CommandantIn Monsieur Le Commandant, writer Paul-Jean Husson writes a letter in Occupied France to a local high-ranking German officer stationed in his town. In the letter, Paul-Jean talks of his life just before and during the Second World War and devotes many pages to describing his struggling love for his son’s wife, German film star Ilse. The twist in this novel is that Paul-Jean isn’t writing to protect himself or plead for anyone’s soul, but to justify what he feels is an inexcusable hesitation and delay in outing a Jew. The letter begins with Paul-Jean relating how Ilse came into his life, after marrying his son and moving to France to set up a life. What follows are a set of tragic circumstances, including accidental death, family breakdown and Alzheimer’s as well as all of the disruption and death that the coming of the Second World War brings.

I found this to be a very powerful book – Paul-Jean claims to wholly approve of, and actively encourages, the capture of Jews in France and their removal to concentration camps. He voices some strong and abhorrent opinions which are pretty challenging. There are several episodes which I found hard to stomach, particularly a scene involving the torture of a young couple involved in the Resistance which I could barely stand to read. It’s one of those books that you don’t really ‘enjoy’ reading as such – that isn’t its purpose. It makes you feel uncomfortable as some of the views and actions of those involved are discomfiting. You are meant to be judging Paul-Jean and rightly so. There was part of me that didn’t want to be seen reading this book – I was sitting on the bus trying to hide the pages from people’s eyes, afraid that people would be horrified by what I was reading, this terrible testimony on one man’s vehement anti-semitism.

I know I’m just being naive, hoping for a better, more honourable ending for the characters but I was a little disappointed that after the letter ends, there is a summary of what happened to each of the characters. While I was reading Paul-Jean’s letter, I liked the ambiguity, wondering if his vehemence towards the Jews was real or a cover for protecting his daughter-in-law from being revealed to be a Jew. I didn’t want to know what happened – in some ways it would have been better to be left wondering about the characters. There are so many untold stories from the Second World War, so many people who disappeared that it seems fairer to let some of them survive with their dignity intact.

I find it really hard to read about the Holocaust, and I’m starting to feel like I have exhausted that period in history in my reading. I genuinely find it really hard-going and difficult to deal with – Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was a particular example which had a profound effect on me (which I covered in my list of Tearjerkers), and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak too. Monsieur Le Commandant is not an easy read and won’t be to everyone’s taste but I think it is important to read books that challenge you and take you out of your comfort zone – that’s what is so powerful about literature. It can transport you to a different place and time, and open your eyes to some of the joys and, in this case, the horrors of human nature. If you’re interested in reading more about fiction that makes you uncomfortable, there is a great post on Confronting vs Comforting Fiction on the Savidge Reads blog (which I noted has Monsieur Le Commandant featured in a photo of several confronting books).

I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher, Gallic Books. For further reading on Slocombe’s novel, there’s an interview with the author on Gallic Books’ website, where he discusses his inspiration for the novel and the project he was involved in. Gallic Books have sent me another couple of books for review The Foundling Boy and The People in the Photo. The former is out in December and the latter isn’t out until next year (so I will wait a while before reading and reviewing that one). Gallic Books have sent me several books so far and I have enjoyed them all in different ways so I’m looking forward to reading these.


1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews


panopticonIt’s not often that I cry while reading a book. I’m not really sure why that is, as I find myself crying at TV programmes and films fairly often. I was recently reading Jenni Fagan’s wonderful debut novel The Panopticon and it had me welling up in the middle of my lunch hour. I had to stop reading to regain some modicum of control so I wouldn’t be blubbing into my laptop. (Those salty tears aren’t good for circuit boards I hear…)

So this had me thinking, which books have I found truly moving, enough to have me crying, either at the beauty of the novel, or the tragedy that is unfolding. I’ve come up with a short list:

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

captain corellis mandolinThis is the first book I remember crying over. I was reading it for a critical essay I was writing for my English Standard Grade. I can’t remember why I picked it – I think it may have been a recommendation from my Mum. Anyway, the bit that got me involved a firing squad and an act of bravery. I won’t say much more than that as I don’t want to give anything away but I remember sitting in the back of the car (most likely on one of the frequent trips to Glasgow to see family), having to stop reading so I wouldn’t start bawling and my brother wouldn’t give me a slagging for crying at a book.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Sunset Song was a formative book in my life, in that it was the experience of reading it that made me realise that I wanted to go to university and study English. I’d always loved books but for some reason it had never really occurred to me before that this could be more than just a past-time. I had dreamt of being an author, of course, and had written short stories and childish novels but that was as far as the dream had gone. But getting back to the crying…I studied this as part of my Higher English course and it really spoke to me – I started looking at the landscape more and thinking more often about national identity and a person’s connection to their homeland. I cried at this in the middle of an English class, while my teacher read out a passage towards the end of the book about Chris’s husband and the First World War. There seemed to be some kind of collective grief going on as I remember several others in the class wiping their eyes as well…

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

j1cmqfdNever have I cried so much at one book than I did when I read Sophie’s Choice. I read it several summers ago, when I was still at uni and my flatmate had gone home for the summer, leaving me all on my lonesome. I was working almost full-time in a pub but even that didn’t seem to fill up my time off so much, so I spent hours and hours just lazing about reading. I love the memory of that summer, days stretching out in front of me… I had picked the book up at the local Salvation Army shop for 50p – it was an old battered edition with a film still with Meryl Streep on the cover. I had often heard comments about Sophie’s Choice but didn’t really know what it was about – boy was I in for a roller coaster ride! It is such a powerful book, and one that I think should be recommended reading for those who truly want to understand the Holocaust and the misery of the concentration camps. It put a lot of things into perspective for me, and despite History classes studying the Second World War, this was the first time that I really comprehended the devastation, cruelty and sheer number of casualties in the war. I would urge everyone to read it – although I’d also warn you that it certainly isn’t an easy-going read.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefAnd to the Second World War again with this one – it is a young adult book so slightly more accessible than Sophie’s Choice but by no means less affecting. It is the War seen through the eyes of young Liesel, adopted by a family in a new town and trying to understand the injustices and contradictions of the war and life in Nazi Germany. We follow her as she steals books and food, we see her being taught to read by her adopted father, we see her offering some solace to Jews and we hope that the war will not have too devastating an effect on her life. Which is too much to ask of course, the book is narrated by Death, the Grim Reaper, and from the very beginning you know that not everyone will survive. This is a very moving book, and one that is told so inventively.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

harrypotterhalfbloodprinceNow onto something a little more light-hearted (if you can call it that!). If you’re a Harry Potter fan then you’ll know what happens at the end of this book so I shall not divulge in case there is someone reading this who hasn’t succumbed (rather unlikely) to the amazing series that is Harry Potter. I can’t remember if I have re-read this one – I’ve definitely read the first five twice – but certainly every time a certain scene plays in the film I start welling up again…

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

The History of LoveI can’t remember what sparked me off with this book particularly – it was just so beautiful and some of the images of book pages and words were just perfect. I wrote a review of this last year which you can read here if you’d like to know more – it was one of my more essay-like reviews so I think I’ll let it speak for me again!

I love having those moments with books, where you are just so involved and you can’t help but shed a tear or two. What are your tearjerker books? Have you ever cried while reading a book in public? One of these days I know I’m going to end up howling on a bus on my morning commute!


Filed under Literary musings

Book Review: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

Publisher: Vintage Books
Selected Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-099-48878-1
Published: 2007 [2006]
No. of Pages: 403
Price: £7.99

This is such an interesting account of the Nazi Occupation in France, and given its back story it becomes all the more poignant. Irène Némirovsky was a Russian émigrée of Jewish descent who spent most of her life in France and was in her lifetime a published author. The manuscript for Suite Française was kept by her daughter after Némirovsky’s death in Auschwitz, unread, for 50 years before its publication in 2004.

The novel is really two, split into the first volume Storm in June, which chronicles the accounts of Parisians fleeing Paris for the country side; and Dolce which describes the first few months of the German Occupation in a small town outside of Paris. Although linked by characters and theme, the two volumes could be read separately and although I loved the depictions of the characters in the first volume, I found the second much more compelling.

Continue reading


Filed under Book Reviews