Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2021

Le Silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea) by “Vercors”

This extraordinary story came my way via a mention of it in Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter.  The Silence of the Sea is a novel of the French Resistance, written and published underground during the German Occupation.  I read it in French in a bilingual edition that came with additional features:

  • Preface and Acknowledgements, by James W Brown
  • Historical Introduction, by Lawrence D Stokes
  • Literary Introduction, by James W Brown
  • La Silence de la mer (30 pages, including footnotes)
  • The Silence of the Sea (27 pages), translation by Cyril Connolly
  • Select bibliography

The Introductions make the significance of this short story clear.  “Vercors” chose to characterise the German officer billeted in a French home as a handsome, aristocratic, sophisticated and genial man, respectful of French culture and traditions. The point was to show Occupied France that no matter how congenial the occupiers might seem in the early stages, they were invaders who did not share the same culture and values.  It was easy to detest hateful, violent, brutish Germans, but the gentlemanly types represent an insidious threat that must also be resisted.  The story shows a non-violent form in which even the weakest can express that resistance.

There are just three characters, and only one of them speaks.  There is the unnamed narrator, his unnamed niece, and the German officer, Werner von Ebrennac.  Ebrennac’s arrival is marked by courtesy: he introduces himself and apologises for his presence.  He hopes it will not inconvenience them.  But he is met with total silence, a silence that is maintained throughout his sojourn of over a year.  They do not respond to his knocks on the door, and they sit in dignified silence when in the evening he comes into the room where the narrator reads and the niece does her handiwork.  The entire story consists of the narrator’s observations and Ebrennac’s attempts at conversation, with which he persists in good humour even after he has learned the rules by which this silence is maintained.

BEWARE: SPOILERS (though nobody reads this book for the plot, such as it is).

Vercors makes a point of making explicit the differences between Germany and France.  They do not share the same culture and values.  When Ebrennac discovers the shelves of French literature he goes into raptures about how many eminent authors there are.  If I hadn’t read German Literature, a Very Short Introduction, I might have thought that this was just French hubris, but it’s true that there’s only one great name in German literature that springs to mind, and that’s Goethe.  As the VSI explains, political and economic aspects of German history were not conducive to the emergence of literary fiction that took place in the 18th, 19th centuries and early 20th century in England, Russia and France.  Ebrennac attributes it, however, to the climate.  The winter in France, he says, as he warms himself by the fire, is nothing compared to winter in Germany.  There, people have to be strong.  In France, it is possible to be subtle and poetic.

He claims pre-eminence in music, with Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Wagner and Mozart (who was actually born in Austria).  But now that France and Germany are at war, he thinks this can all be resolved because there will be ‘marriage’ between the two countries.  He had thought at first that French acquiescence was a good thing, then he despised their cowardice, but now he admires the stoic silence of his unwilling hosts because it means dignity. And he tells the story of Beauty and the Beast—a story of reconciliation between the strong and the weak.  When Beauty realises she has misjudged the Beast and ceases to hate him, she becomes able to love him. Ebrennac sees this as a metaphor for the current situation.

Vercors tackles the possibilities of collaboration indirectly.  Ebrennac muses that he loves France, and he had hoped during the Weimar Republic that the nations could be friends. Ebrennac says that he knows all of Europe, because he’s a musician who has visited its major cities, but never France.  This was because he had promised his father, who took German defeat very hard, never to set foot in France unless he was wearing boots and a helmet—an attitude formed in the wake of WW1 after France, he says, was led by iron and steel manufacturers into the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles (though he doesn’t name the treaty explicitly).  Now he thinks that the war will bring good things including reconciliation.  He hopes this does not offend, and he wishes them good night as usual.

All through the winter, the themes were the same.  Ebrennac rhapsodises about discovering France and his grand love for it.  The narrator comes to admire him, and he thinks that his niece has made a prisoner of herself with her silence.  But he maintains his own silence all the same.

In the Spring, Ebrennac travels to Paris for negotiations and comes back a shattered man.  When he does not enter the room after his usual unanswered knock, the narrator breaks his silence to say ‘Come in, Sir’, (and then questions himself about why he used ‘Sir’.)  Ebrennac is grave, and he tells them that he wants them to forget everything he has said beforehand.  His stance about reconciliation was mocked in Paris, and he now knows that Germany has no plans for rapprochement with France.  They are not just going to destroy the country materially so that she can never rise up against Germany again, but are also going to destroy her soul.  Already the other occupied countries are subject to severe censorship—not just contemporary works but also those classic works that he had so effusively admired.  He is devastated.  He recognises that it is Germany’s ‘right’ and its ‘duty’ but he is in anguish.

He leaves the next day to fight on the front, and for the first and only time, the niece speaks.  She says ‘Adieu.’  Farewell, not ‘Till we meet again’ (Au revoir).

Reading this in French intensified the emotions that Le Silence de la mer must have aroused as it spread not just through France but throughout occupied territory, Russia, Britain and America.  The story of its publication is fascinating in its own right, and shows the incredible bravery of everyone involved.  Like Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, and H V Morton’s I, James Blunt, Le Silence de la mer is a classic of wartime literature and shows how sometimes propaganda can outlive its origins.

Author: “Vercors”, the nom de plume of Jean Bruller (1902-1991)
Title: Le Silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea)
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic, (bilingual edition), 2020 reprint, first published by Berg in 1991, from the first clandestine publication in 1942
ISBN: 9781350106239, pbk, 102 pages
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $26.72

Available from Fishpond: Silence of the Sea / Le Silence de la Mer: A Novel of French Resistance during the Second World War by ‘Vercors’

 

 


Responses

  1. Fascinating post – thank you Lisa!

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  2. there is another of his books in english but is out of print you shall know them it was out on capuchin classics but i think they aren’t going anymore

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    • That’s a shame… the introductory essay explains about other books he wrote after the war. I’d be surprised if this one isn’t taught in schools: it’s short and easy to read, and anyone reading French as their first language could read it in no time. (It took me a week, but that’s because I write a summary of what I’ve read as I go.)

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  3. This was one of the novellas I read last year in Dutch, but wrote neither a full review nor a blog post, just a quick Goodreads review. It was interesting to read your recap of the story and its progression.

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    • Hello, welcome, and thank you:)
      What an interesting blog you have! I wish I’d had a chance to browse it before we visited the Netherlands in 2015…

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      • Thank you. I also have a book blog, marketgardenreader.wordpress.com, but have never worked out how to post comments from there. My reading is random and my blogging extremely erratic. Good intentions usually scuppered by wanting to read another book.

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        • Good for you, I am firmly of the belief that book blogging like any other leisure activity, ought never to become a burden. If another book is called, or the sun is shining and the dog wants a walk, leave the blog for another day!

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          • True. However, tomorrow never comes and tempus fugit. Procrastination is the thief of time. I really admire people who manage to read, blog, work and have a family/social life. They are obviously far more focussed than I am, ha ha.

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            • Well, social media can be a killer. I do more monitoring of Twitter and Facebook than actually posting to it. I just scan down to see if there’s anything I need to engage in, and most of the time, there isn’t. Occasionally I feel the urge to weigh in on some issue, but I am getting better and better at saving my opinions for f2f occasions. (And this blog, of course.)

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  4. […] counter German censorship.  The most famous of these books, Le Silence de la Mer (which I reviewed here) isn’t mentioned, but the underground materials that Dominique delivers at Jean’s […]

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