A TEST CASE: LITERARY FICTION, MAINSTREAM FICTION (AND THE JEWISH GIRL WHO ESCAPED FROM VEL’ D’HIV)

You might be familiar with the French film Sarah’s Key (Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 2010), originally titled Elle s’appelait Sarah, like the best-selling novel (2007) by Tatiana de Rosnay which it adapts. I saw the film, loving, as usual, Kristin Scott-Thomas’s fine performance. She plays Julia, a journalist who doggedly follows the clues leading her to discover the identity of the little Jewish girl who used to live in the Paris apartment she’s to move into, owned now by her husband’s family. I was not so keen on the suitability of the horrifying, sensational central anecdote that the English title refers to, but I was appalled enough to read the novel by the representation of the rounding up of thousands of Jews –many children– at the Vélodrome d’Hiver in July 1942 by the French police, of which I’d never heard (and I am interested in the Holocaust). The novel contained, as I expected, more information about brave Sarah and the ghastly conditions which Jews endured at Vel’ d’Hiv, but also even more melodrama, as the book really narrates the strange beginning of a second-chance romance between Julia and a man closest to Sarah (um… that’s half a spoiler).

To my surprise, I came across at my local library with a novel by Spanish writer Juana Salabert, Velódromo de Invierno (2001), about exactly the same topic. Little Jewish girl escapes the horrors of French collaborationism by sheer pluck and luck to be plagued by survivor’s guilt for ever; there’s also a little brother and a son, and parallel narrative strands contrasting past and present. I’m not claiming that De Rosnay plagiarised from Salabert and, at any rate, I haven’t come across comments on the internet about this. Salabert’s volume is now and then mentioned when De Rosnay’s or discussions of the Vel d’Hiv horrors crop up. That’s all.

Since one is Spanish and the other French, I’ll never teach these two books together but I wish I could do it because their contrasts illustrate to perfection the difference between highbrow or literary fiction (Salabert’s) and middlebrow or mainstream fiction (De Rosnay’s). I don’t think one could/should write formula lowbrow fiction about such a sensitive subject, but there might be some. I fondly remember a seminar on the Holocaust organised by my colleague Gonzalo Pontón at UAB in January 2005. We endlessly discussed what strategies of representation were more apt: high culture to keep the seriousness of the subject intact or popular culture to teach a moral lesson to the largest possible audience (yes, Shoah versus Spielberg’s Schindler’s List). I myself spoke about the 1970s TV series Holocaust, so you can see which thesis I defended. Today, with De Rosnay’s and Salabert’s books here before me I haven’t changed my mind.

Before you tell me I should read a history book if I’m so interested in Vel’ d’Hiv, let me say that fiction’s function is to represent the human emotions that essays cannot and need not reflect. Salabert’s high literary prose is certainly beautiful and far above anything De Rosnay can manage. Yet, half the time I kept thinking that ‘people don’t speak or think like that,’ the other half I struggled to follow who was saying what and to whom, as Salabert eschews the conventional presentation of dramatised scenes that De Rosnay uses, preferring, as it is fashionable in Spanish Literature, long passages with very few full stops and dialogue compressed into blocks of texts interspersed with stream of consciousness. Salabert’s Ilse could hardly come up to life in comparison with plucky Sarah and, although I admire the book very much for Salabert’s self-assured artistry, I wished she’d simply been more direct, for, to my mind, this is what her subject demands.

On the other hand, although the film does a much better job of this, in De Rosnay’s novel Julia’s love life weighs too heavily on Sarah’s story for my liking. It provides, actually, a totally unnecessary narrative framework, which is why many will consider this is not a serious Holocaust novel but (pure) melodrama. Fair enough. Yet, despite cringing now and then –which is what middlebrow fiction will do to you at its worst– I enjoyed De Rosnay’s novel far better than Salabert’s. One I could not drop, the other I forced myself to end.

Personal opinion, of course. 19th century novelists managed to be entertaining and literary at the same time. The Modernists then made these two values irreconcilable and now, in Post Post-Modernism (please, someone find a name soon), we’re stuck, with just very few writers managing to provide all kinds of pleasure. Name one, if you can…

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