Inspiring Older Readers
The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard
The French novelist Éric Vuillard is just fifty, and yet he has already published four novels and made two films. Virtually everything he has done seems to have won prestigious awards. His latest book, The Order of the Day, published in French in 2017, has just been published in English translation.
How to describe this short fiction, little more than a novella, that grapples with one of the biggest and most complex subjects – the rise of Nazism and the annexation of Austria?
Well, the first thing that must be said is that it isn’t a conventional novel. It is consciously literary, post-modern, I suppose one might say, but on the other hand not avowedly experimental.
It is a short, episodic satire, bitter and vituperative, and castigates the crass, ruthless self-interest of the industrialists and financiers who lined up to back Hitler, to profit from the coming war, and especially from the slave labour that the Reich would deliver for German industry as the Final Solution cranked into gear.
It opens with a meeting that did actually take place on the 20th February 1933, between the president of the Reichstag, Göring, and Germany’s key industrial leaders. This opening scene is splendidly handled. The men are described in all their bespoke tailored bulk and physicality – and then Vuillard switches perspective to emphasise that these men, these “calculating machines at the gates of hell”, are in fact not important, they are of no personal significance. What is important are the “legal entities” they led – BASF, Bayer, Agfa, Opel, IG Farben, Siemens, Allianz, Telefunken, BMW and other corporations then at the heart of the German economy, as they are now.
It then jumps from this to consider other meetings that took place – especially Hitler’s ‘negotiations’ with Austrian chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, and the terms that would eventually result in the annexation of Austria.
Vuillard’s primary aims seem to be, first, to castigate the venal self-interest and ruthless pursuit of profit that had German industry and financiers donating millions of marks to the Nazi cause in the early years following Hitler’s take-over and rise to Chancellor in 1933; second, to condemn the irresolute and deluded machinations of the appeasers; and third, to demonstrate his central lesson – that “great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps”.
In all of these aims, it must be said, Vuillard succeeds to some degree. He offers something of a new perspective on the well-worn concept of “the banality of evil”.
But the showy and somewhat self-important style of the book is intrusive. The modest aims it sets itself are achieved but frankly with such literary grandstanding that not only is the novel itself diminished, the appalling events it describes also seem to shrink, to become common, unexceptional venalities. As an undertaking, the novel has a certain intellectual audacity. It also has some very good aphoristic descriptions that are both arresting and informative – such as the recently developed Panzer tanks breaking down as they swoop on Austria, their inert carcasses needing to be hauled away on special trains, “the way you’d transport circus equipment”. But these are thin on the ground, and in any case sometimes offset by clunking banalities – that may of course be a result of translation.
In any case, I finished it feeling barely engaged. It seemed as if I had just finished (it only takes a few hours) a short novel about dreadful events that astonishingly also managed somehow to be both shallow and – dare I say it? – narcissistic. How on earth did it win the 2017 Prix Goncourt? A sad disappointment.