A review of Alice Kaplan, The Collaborator: The Trial & Execution of Robert Brasillach (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000) ISBN: 0415926629. 256 pp. $16.00 pb.
Other Voices, v.2, n.2 (March 2002)
Text copyright © 2002, Rei Terada, all rights reserved.
Robert Brasillach had the dubious distinction of being the only elite intellectual to be executed for collaboration following the liberation of Paris. In The Collaborator: The Trial & Execution of Robert Brasillach, Alice Kaplan tells his story with scrupulous care and control. Based on original scholarly research but aimed at a general audience, Kaplan's book educates its readers about the rewards and problems of archival work while highlighting the rhetorical strategies that brought Brasillach fame and doom.
The son of a First World War widow and a surgeon stepfather and a bourgeois graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Brasillach composed romantic novels, poetry, and vitriolic literary criticism; he also co-authored one of the first scholarly histories of cinema. As a journalist and editor-in-chief of the right-wing newspaper Je Suis Partout—the most widely read newspaper of the occupation, according to Kaplan—he wrote and published violently pro-fascist columns. Brasillach and his colleagues were committed ideologues, positioned to the right of Action Française conservatives and of the Vichy government itself, which they considered too pragmatic and slow to forge an independently French fascism. Brasillach cast himself as a youthful maverick willing to tell France harsh truths. Under Brasillach, Je Suis Partout complained of the "pseudo-National Revolution" of the Pétain regime: "France and Germany desire the unity of our countries and the unity of the West; we must want these conditions for ourselves" (quoted on 29). This ideology could be expressed in ruthlessly practical forms. A regular feature of the paper was a list of denunciations of people who had changed their names or were attempting to elude deportation or arrest, sometimes including their addresses. Brasillach called for the executions of specific members of the resistance (29). In one fateful article, he wrote of the need to "separate from the Jews en bloc and not keep any little ones" (50).
The incoherence of Vichy France is frightening to contemplate, as students of its literature know: many people performed acts associated with both collaboration and resistance, at different times or even almost simultaneously. One can find collaborators and resisters publishing in the same literary journals, going to the same social events. Kaplan describes some of this notable and disturbing fluidity and points out that it is nowhere to be found in Brasillach's career: "From the beginning to the end of the Occupation, he was a fervent supporter of National Revolution and an apologist for the German presence" (34). Brasillach was, in his words, "a collaborationist of the heart" (58). He seemed to wonder sometimes whether to prioritize fascism as an international cause or to privilege the Frenchness of French fascism; that was as close as he came to wavering in his ideas.
The Collaborator is organized into chapters devoted to phases of Brasillach's narrative ("Jail," "Court," "Reactions") and to the people involved in it ("Brasillach's Suburban Jury," "The Government Prosecutor"). Kaplan sketches the personalities of the prosecutor and defense counsel, flamboyant in conflicting ways; the president of the court; and select members of the press corps. She expresses regret that she cannot do the same in full for the four men who sat on the jury, writing that: "when it comes to what one might call the ordinary person, how few traces a life leaves.... I would like to tell their story but finally I can only describe them" (127, 142). Nevertheless, she tells us what she can about them and the places where they lived. Here and many times elsewhere, Kaplan lets her readers in on the process of archival research, its capacity to correct the record and to constitute what counts as the record, and its obligation to risk and accept irresolvable tensions and dead ends. Reading the book is not, for the most part, an analytic experience: Kaplan's mode throughout is one of clinically linear presentation and cautious, minimal inference. There are no over- or understatements, no missteps, no reveries. At the end, Kaplan gives her own opinions in "yes or no" form about the nature of Brasillach's crimes and punishment. I wished for interpretation, but Kaplan's nervous terseness creates a chilling, hard-boiled, literary effect.
As Kaplan presents him, Brasillach did little but write (17). She believes he had no personal life to speak of and certainly no life partner, unless it was his school friend Maurice Bardèche, who married his sister. Contemporaries insinuated his homosexuality; Kaplan shows that Brasillach's own writings make similar hints in a metaphoric register. One of the most interesting parts of her discussion concerns his literary sexualization of the occupation. Brasillach described the French Republic in 1942 as "an old syphilitic whore, stinking of patchouli and yeast infection" (41). He turns from the crone France to the German army, writing in 1944 that "Frenchmen given to reflection, during these years, will have more or less slept with Germany—not without quarrels—and the memory of it will remain sweet for them" (58). In the same article, he alludes to "fraternal ordeals" undergone by France and Germany and "the feeling" these produced: "the feeling is there now, and if you want to know what I am about, you have to give it its due" (162). Such tropes, fallen into the hands of prosecutor Marcel Reboul, probably helped to send Brasillach to the firing squad. At the trial Reboul returned Brasillach's words to him: "This feeling that dare not say its name ... is love!" (162). Like the women who had affairs with German soldiers, Kaplan muses, Brasillach was cast as a "horizontal" collaborator (162). After he was condemned, Brasillach seemed to accept Reboul's characterization of him as the feminized lover of Germany in a remarkable poem called "Bijoux." In the poem, his manacles become adorning bracelets. If it was perverse that he slept with Germany, he implies, it was even more perverse that France now clad him in the costume of one who had done so. By dressing him as the sexually ambiguous seducer it feared him to be, and by binding him to mutually titillating effect, France acknowledged his seductions.
According to Kaplan, Brasillach took a rather enthusiastic attitude toward his trial and execution. He and his attorney, Jacques Isorni (a right-winger who was elected to the National Assembly in 1951), perhaps sensed opportunities in martyrdom that tempted them away from expressions of regret or arguments that Brasillach was insignificant. Jean Paulhan thought Brasillach was "frivolous," as Kaplan mentions, and that a death sentence dignified his mediocrity (215-216); Paulhan, Brasillach and Isorni all seemed to assume that death and value go together. At the trial, Brasillach played his favorite role of cool, precocious smart aleck while Isorni inflated his literary prowess. Either they failed to realize that the less hypocritical and more talented Brasillach looked, the worse his crimes would look, or—for they were both very literary thinkers—they chose symbolic over literal life. Brasillach was endlessly willing to view his life as a literary production: "This time, [I'm] going to learn about prison, real prison, the one people talk about in books," he wrote in his diary (75). Perhaps in this way too, Reboul's allusion to the trial of Oscar Wilde is relevant: like Wilde, Brasillach courted the life in death, the undead status, of an aesthetic figure; unlike Wilde, he apparently never looked back. Brasillach is masochistic as well, in a way Kaplan leaves implicit: she notes that he was happy in the German Oflag where he spent ten months of the war, and excited and productive in prison awaiting trial. One gets the idea that in threatening to execute him, France was finally doing something that Brasillach considered interesting.
The administration of the death sentence too had a rhetorical dimension. Petitions to save Brasillach's life circulated in the literary community, and de Gaulle and his interim government—for all of France had not yet been liberated—had to decide whether and on what grounds the execution would be a salutary public act. In the end, Kaplan suggests, the execution of a paper fascist signaled respect for writers at the price of perpetuating Brasillach's notoriety. Brasillach himself treated the firing squad as another setup for adolescent wit, shouting "Vive la France quand même" as the rifles went off (210).
In a late chapter Kaplan describes the dossier of charges, records, and letters that landed on de Gaulle's desk as: "an ordinary looking administrative file, kept in a 'chemise,' or paper folder" (202). The Collaborator resembles that dossier in both function and style. The collection of Brasillach's work edited by his brother-in-law and fellow fascist Bardèche fills twelve volumes, but Kaplan's book is not a literary history; she briefly summarizes a few of Brasillach's writings and performs extended readings of none. Nor is it a wide-ranging cultural history of Vichy France, nor a psychological biography. Kaplan does not try to get inside Brasillach's head. She adheres strictly to an exhibition of facts pertaining to his career as a propagandist. "It's very difficult today to get any reliable sense of his personality at age twenty, age thirty" (5), she claims. One can understand Kaplan's decision not to work with Bardèche, a worst-case literary executor; as she explains, Bardèche's edition of Brasillach expurgates certain antisemitic references and other remarks detrimental to Brasillach's literary reputation. Because she bypasses Bardèche, she may have had to do without materials that would allow for a more searching investigation of Brasillach. I suspect, though, that more than that is at issue in the externality of her method. After all, Brasillach's loquacious published writings themselves recreate the effect of his mind much more than Kaplan does. Kaplan prefers the virtues of keeping Brasillach public and small, contextualized to the point of miniaturization. The most vivid picture of Brasillach in the book is one quoted from a trial reporter of a plump, bespectacled, overgrown boy in the defendant's box, "tiny little hands sticking out from his sleeves" (Le Figaro, quoted on 150), betraying just a little stress. Apparently Kaplan does not want to humanize Brasillach with psychological detail or participate in his glamorization by allowing herself to react to his crises or wisecracks. It is as though Brasillach, in his lifetime, had already said far too much.