Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 10, 2015

The Foundling’s War, by Michel Déon, translated by Julian Evans

The Foundling's WarI enjoyed The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon, (see my review) but this sequel is not quite as successful.  It is, as the title and the book cover suggest, a continuation of the life of Jean Arnaud who comes of age as France capitulates to Germany during World War II.  Most of my reading of fiction about this period has tended to explore evil and the struggle to deal with it, so I found this book a little wanting.  Amoral adventures and a disdain for politics that seem somewhat charming in adolescence resonate differently when life gets serious under a jackboot, or so it seems to me.

But I wasn’t just disappointed by Jean’s scant attention to the Occupation and its pro-Nazi offshoot in Vichy.  The sentimental education of a boy that seemed life-affirming in the first novel seems a little over-worked here: it’s too long, too improbable and sometimes too confusing because (even though I read The Foundling Boy only recently) the plentiful characters from the first novel reappear without timely explanation.  Jean went to bed, or wanted to, with quite a few women in The Foundling Boy, but in the sequel I lost track of which women were relations and which were former lovers.  And although Jean has two fathers and two mothers in The Foundling Boy it was easy to keep them separate because the peripatetic biological parents were both flamboyant characters while the stay-at-home adoptive parents were stoic and rather dull; in the sequel since they are all offstage almost all the time, the occasional references to them had me floundering sometimes (especially in the case of Antoine, his lovers and his other children).


Amongst other improbabilities, in The Foundling’s War Jean falls for a gorgeous woman who won’t bed him.  Claude has a husband doing something non-specific in London, and although they were on the verge of divorce, she has promised him to be faithful until he returns.  So despite an intimacy that would test any young man’s ardour, Jean and Claude are not lovers but of course everyone thinks they are, (and presumably the husband would think so too.)  Her behaviour changes after she is arrested and tortured by the Germans and then released (because Jean and his conman friend Palfy know people in high places) – but this change is because she is traumatised.  To pay for her psychiatric treatment, Jean becomes involved in smuggling money for the Germans.  And he cheers himself up about this depressing situation with an affair with an entertainer called Nelly.  Claude eventually takes up with an eccentric ‘man of the woods’ which made no sense to me at all.  (Maybe I missed something? Deon writes as if from a first draft, with snippets of out-of-time-or-place information all over the place, giving the impression of reminiscences as they come to mind, though presumably the style is intentional.)

Some time ago, I read a book called Island Madness by Tim Binding.  It was a novel set in Guernsey and it explored the moral compromises that accompanied the German Occupation.  Reading that book challenged my simplistic ideas about collaboration, as did Irene Nemirovsky’s  Suite Française.  But The Foundling’s War is a weak effort at illustrating the moral complexity of choosing between the needs of a loved one and patriotism in wartime.

Well, it is meant to be a light-hearted novel, and no doubt there were plenty of people on all sides of the conflict who managed to romp through it without too much hardship.  Claude certainly suffers, and Jean does not escape unscathed: he is nearly shot after he absconds from the French army, he goes hungry as many did, and he gets some rough treatment in the post-war vengeance on collaborators.  But overall, the war is a canvas for a coming-of-age story and not much more.

One other thing: there’s a reference to the Allied sinking of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, an event which inspires the author to write

How could one hope to succeed in a defeated country that, since the unprovoked massacre of its sailors at Mers el-Kabir, no longer knew whether yesterday’s allies were not today’s enemies and whether the enemy currently occupying half the country in such a disciplined way would not become tomorrow’s friend? (p. 75)

Never having seen this event referred to as a massacre before, and curious about why an author writing in 1977 would have a character – even a politically naïve one – raise the prospect of forming an alliance with the Nazis, I looked it up on Wikipedia (though conscious that the French edition of Wikipedia perhaps interprets events differently).

The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir, part of Operation Catapult and also known as the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir, was a British naval bombardment of the French Navy (Marine Nationale) at its base at Mers-el-Kébir on the coast of what was then French Algeria on 3 July 1940. The raid resulted in the deaths of 1,297 French servicemen, the sinking of a battleship and the damaging of five other ships.

The combined air-and-sea attack was conducted by the Royal Navy as a direct response to the French-German armistice of 22 June, which had seen Britain’s sole continental ally replaced by a collaborationist, pro-Nazi government administrated from Vichy. The new Vichy government had also inherited the considerable French naval force of the Marine Nationale; of particular significance were the 7 battleships of the Bretagne, Dunkerque and Richelieu classes, which collectively represented the second largest force of capital ships in Europe behind the British. Since Vichy was seen by the British (with a good deal of justification) as a mere puppet state of the Nazi regime, there was serious fear that they would surrender or loan the ships to the Kriegsmarine, an outcome which would largely undo Britain’s tenuous grasp on European naval superiority and confer a major Axis advantage in the ongoing Battle of the Atlantic. Despite promises from Vichy Admiral of the FleetFrançois Darlan that the fleet would remain under French control and out of the hands of the Germans, Winston Churchill, still reeling from Dunkirk and stung by the Vichy French collaboration, determined that the fleet was simply too dangerous to remain intact, French sovereignty notwithstanding.[3]

In response to the British attack at Mers-el-Kébir and another at Dakar, the French mounted air raids on Gibraltar. The Vichy government also severed diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. The attack remains controversial. It created much rancour between Vichy France and Britain, but it also demonstrated to the world and to the United States in particular, Britain’s commitment to continue the war with Germany at all costs and without allies if need be.

I can well understand why there was rancour from collaborationist, pro-Nazi Vichy France, but given the unequivocal terms of the British ultimatum, I found it surprising that the author/translator refers to it as a massacre.  It was not indiscriminate killing of unarmed people.

Author: Michel Deon
Title: The Foundling’s War
Translated from the French by Julian Evans
First published as Les Vingt Ans du Jeane Homme Vert in 1977
Publisher: Gallic Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781908313713
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallic Books

Fishpond: The Foundling’s War


  1. Your analysis is detailed and useful, enjoy reading it!

    I wrote a review on The Outsider by Albert Camus. You may want to check it out : )


  2. This is an interesting and well-written review, but I feel that you reveal too much of the plot. I accept that many professional reviewers supply spoiler-ridden plot summaries, but it is possible to make useful comments without doing this.


    • Hello Eleanor. Yes, I think you’re right, I think I have overdone it a bit. I’ll edit the review to include a spoiler warning. (I usually do this, I must have forgotten in this case, and I’m sorry if I’ve spoiled your reading of the novel). Thanks for letting me know:)


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