I ordered a copy of Maxence van der Meersch’s 700-page novel, Invasion, after reading Tom Leonard’s review of the book on Amazon, but having recently devoted a considerable amount of time to another very long–but very great–novel (Fortunata and Jacinta), I intended to stow it away in the nightstand for later.
I sat down to read a few pages to get a sense of the book. An hour later, I was on page 50 and committed to finish it.
Invasion (originally titled Invasion 14 in French) would not, at first glance, seem the sort of book that can pull you in and make you want to stay. Set in Roubaix, a French industrial town just a few miles from the border with Belgium, Invasion is the record of over four years’ occupation by the German army as experienced by dozens of the local inhabitants. Even on a good day, Roubaix is a pretty grim place: a town of mills and mines, full of streets of grey shuttered houses, much of the year under a grey a dreary sky. Trapped behind German lines, the people of the town had no choice but to remain, but today’s reader is free to leave their story gathering dust on the shelf.
However, Van der Meersch’s style (in translation, at least) is simple and immediately accessible, like Tolstoy’s, and like the great master, he has a viewpoint that seems able to get inside the head and heart of any character. In the course of the novel, Van der Meersch follows dozens of the town’s residents, from wealthy mill owners to shopkeepers and farmers to petty criminals and little children. As with a Russian novel, there are times when one gets lost in the flurry of names (I kept confusing the Fontcroix with the Laubigiers).
Yet despite the bleakness of the novel’s setting and subject and the constant shifting from character to character, Van der Meersch maintains a remarkable level of narrative tension. Put any group of people in an extreme situation and their responses will vary widely. This has been a basic formula of story-tellers for millenia. But in this case, the strain seems to increase relentlessly. No one–not even the Germans–expects the occupation to wear on for months and then years. The faint, muffled sound of shelling–the front is never more than twenty miles away–goes on and on, and the sense of hopelessness grinds away at even the strongest.
The Laubigiers, an ordinary working class family, for example, offer shelter to three French soldiers separated from their unit in the first retreat. It’s a simple gesture of charity in response to a request from the local priest. Civilian clothes and forged papers are arranged to aid their escape. But then the time wears on:
For the first few weeks an atmosphere of mutual toleration prevailed, but then a certain amount of friction began to develop. The men were bound to the Laubigiers by no real ties, and became irritable under pressure of forced seclusion. Their minds turned to their own people, and the necessity of learning new trades in order to keep themselves occupied and to earn enough to pay for their keep, of becoming cobblers, harness-makers, and chair-menders, began to get on their nerves. Quarrels started. Disputes arose over the sharing of coal and food. The carelessness and messiness of her three lodgers did violence to Félicie’s naturally tidy nature.
“Seen in its stark reality,” van der Meersch concludes, “the situation was one in which a group of people remained bound together by necessity, while all the time they grew daily to hate one another more and more violently.”
One reason I was interested in Invasion is that I wanted to explore the effects of a prolonged occupation on a people. Twice in the course of thirty years, the people of Belgium, where I live now, and parts of France, lived for years under the rule of an occupying power. This is an experience unknown in American history, and I have a theory that this is one reason why people in this part of Europe view good and evil as lying along a spectrum of infinitely subtle gradations and no clear-cut distinctions.
In the first months of the occupation, a few in the town display true heroism. A priest and a local schoolteacher manage to produce a newsheet telling about local incidents of German brutality and calling for resistance. A mill owner rallies his workers to refuse to make cloth for German uniforms. But they are all soon rounded up and shot, imprisoned or sent off to forced labor. Even the rich find their possessions confiscated and their savings eaten away by black market prices.
Some collaborate quickly and with little sense of guilt. Others give in only when their means or willpower have been exhausted. Some develop genuine friendships, as the Laubigiers do for a German cook billeted with them, that inevitably come with complications that verge or veer into collaboration.
By the time the severe winter of 1917-18 comes around, the hardships have worn away almost all sense of hope and dignity. The extent to which the experience leads inevitably to self-destruction is symbolized by peoples’ pillaging of their own homes:
Gradually, and rather fearfully, folk began to remove the banisters from staircases, trap-doors from lofts, everything that was of no immediate, or only of secondary, use. Boards were taken from the backs of cupboards, shelves for keeping food fresh in the cellars, doors and woodwork from lavatories, the seats themselves, the roofs. A futher step involved the shutters of windows, rabbit hutches, tool-sheds, coal boxes. After a further week or two the doors of the rooms had to go, attic floors, gutters, and drain pips. Finally, life came to be lived in the strangest apologies for houses, bare walls open to the air, with a mattress of the ground and a fire in one corner.
The occupation does end, however. Two hours after the last German leaves, the English arrive, and the retribution begins almost as soon as the celebrations. “Realizing that life in France would be impossible for them,” women who have taken German lovers “made up their minds to see whether they could not start afresh in Germany.” When they catch up with retreating troops, though, they are sent back to be branded and beaten.
The men, on the other hand, soon reach “a sort of tacit agreement to cease fire…. It was very much better to form a mutual admiration society than to rake up uncomfortable truths and start hitting blindly at the expense of all and sundry.” “Those who stumbled on the truth,” writes van der Meersch, “took fright and avoided it like poison.”
A native of Roubaix, van der Meersch was just seven years old when the German occupation began, but his novel is informed by a rich network of friends, relatives and neighbors and years of hearing their recollections. Trained as a lawyer, his advice was often sought out even though he never actually practiced. The historian Richard Cobb, who met van der Meersch when he was evacuated to Roubaix as an internee during the German occupation of 1940-44, described the novelist as “the magician who had pulled the front off so many corons [villages], to introduce me, de plein pied, into the kitchen and the smell of coffee and boiling potatoes.”
In an essay in his book, Paris and Elsewhere–reissued as a New York Review Classic–Cobb calls van der Meersch “a regionalist who had written almost exclusively about Roubaix and who had brought honour to the town by winning the Prix Goncourt. He was, in fact, a clumsy stylist, a Christian-Socialist Zola, who wrote off an accumulated stock of fiches [files].” Invasion does, at times, give the sense of being an accumulation of fiches–primarily because no single character dominates the narrative.
Van der Meersch wrote around a dozen novels, all of them set in and around Roubaix, in the space of about as many years. He was 27 when Invasion was published, and two years later he won the Prix Goncourt for L’Empreinte du dieu, translated into English as Hath Not the Potter. By the time Cobb met him, “He was tubercular and had fallen under the influence of a medical eccentric who preached under-nourishment as a cure for tuberculosis; his most recent novel [Corps et âmes, translated as Bodies and Souls] was an attack on orthodox medicine.” He died of the disease in 1951 at the age of 43. Although several of his novels are still in print in France, as well as Spain and Germany (not Invasion, understandably), his work has largely been forgotten by English readers.