The name of the author, the actress Simone Signoret, caught my eye and I bought this book for 50 cents (521 pages, hardback) last summer while browsing the stalls at a village brocante, a kind of flea-market in rural France where the locals bring out the items they wish to sell.

On opening the book (published in French by France Loisirs, Paris. 1985) and starting to read I was stunned to find that I was reading the saga of two families of Polish Jews who emigrated to Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century, and so before too long I was engrossed in the account of the lives of the Guttman and Roginski families, their struggle to find their feet and make a living, their relations with one another and with the other residents of their building and their delight a few years later on obtaining their naturalization papers as French citizens. Of course, I had to struggle with the French language, and found myself referring quite often to my dictionary, but I could not tear myself away from the chronicle of their daily lives and the characters they encountered along the way.

Knowing Simone Signoret’s career as a film and theatre actress, I suppose it is no coincidence that as the story develops some of the characters find themselves involved to a greater or lesser extent with the French film industry, whether as seamstresses or furriers, as well as with political developments in the country. The history of Europe has a role to play in this inter-war period, together with memories of pogroms in the families’s countries of origin, of relatives lost and property destroyed. As the children of the families and their neighbours grow and develop we know that the clock of history is ticking, that the period of the Second World War and the German occupation of France is approaching and that the characters with whom we have become involved will have to face a period of darkness and danger.

Simone Signoret describes the individuals with a theatre-director’s eye, or perhaps it’s a cinematic eye, but it is also an ear and a nose, for her accounts of scenes, people, situations and incidents are always lively and convincing. The lives of people are always played out against the backdrop of world events, and it is with admirable skill that Signoret succeeds in combining the two threads.

This is less a novel about Jews than about people who are doing their best to fit in with the wider society, find their place and provide their children with the education that will equip them to function as adults, not knowing what lies ahead.The characters do not celebrate their Judaism or observe any traditions, but simply seek to find their place in the world and in modern-day Paris. The eponymous Volodia makes only a small appearance in the book, but he symbolizes the world that has been left behind and the tragic fate of the Jews there that has always been in evidence. Occasional references to conversations that take place in Yiddish are the only other acknowledgement of the characters’ place of origin.

The reader is spared lurid accounts of atrocities and brutality, and the description of the way Jewish residents of Paris are persuaded to accompany the French police to an unknown destination is presented with sensitivity and delicacy. By a quirk of fate (or of the author) the characters to whom we have become attached are spared the destiny of so many of France’s Jews, and we are also given an insight into some of the ways in which the Resistance worked to sabotage the plans of the Nazis, both in Paris and in the countryside.

At the end of the book Simone Signoret gives her own account of the process whereby she wrote the book, providing a fascinating insight into the workings of her mind and the way she tackled her subject-matter and the process of writing. Born in Germany to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, she seems to have been well-situated to describe both societies and the individuals who comprised them. She confesses that although she had always loved to write, as an actress it was considered advisable to present herself as illiterate rather than as a writer. There is no doubt, however, that she is (or rather was, she died in 1985, shortly after the publication of this book) a very talented author.

 

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