At the Amiens conference earlier this month, one of the papers mentioned a French popular novel of the war years: La Fauvette des Tranchées, the story of a brave young woman who disguised herself as a man in order to fight.
This year, a best-selling graphic novel has appeared in France – Mauvais Genre, that is just about the exact opposite. In this, a soldier, disturbed by his front-line experience, deserts, and to avoid capture disguises himself as a woman, and lives in this new identity until an amnesty for deserters is declared in 1925.
Chloé Cruchaudet’s bande dessinée is based on a true story (told in La Garconne et l’Assassin by Fabrice Virgili et Danièle Voldman) but she lets her imagination go free as she recontructs the events. She presents us with two complex characters, Paul the deserter and his wife Louise, who teaches him how to become a woman.
At first Paul is a rather boorish young man, who charms Louise with his dancing skills. He is called up to fight, insouciantly at first, but his trench experience terrifies him so much that he cuts off a finger in the hope of being invalided home. The authorities are suspicious, and he is scheduled to be sent back despite his wound.
Realising that he looks quite good as a woman, he and his wife decide to make the disguise good enough for daylight. He becomes Suzanne. Some of the book’s best pages convey how hard it is to be a woman, and how much work is needed to create a feminine image.
As a woman Suzanne is a great success, especially with the girls at the factory where Louise works. Then, walking in the Bois de Boulogne one night, he discovers a world of sexual freedom, where people of all possible genders meet for polymorphous gratification. He is a great success there, too.
After the amnesty, he becomes Paul again, but the strains of their deception and the way it has changed them tell on the marriage of Paul and Louise. Things end very badly.
The book really is well done; the narrative is involving and the drawings are fluid and witty. But I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast between this and La Fauvette des Tranchées. It’s easy to see why the wartime audience warmed to a morale-building fantasy about a plucky girl – but why do modern French readers choose only deserters and sexual outsiders for their heroes? (And they seem to, in their novels and bandes dessinées about the Great War, even more consistently than the British do.)
Does choosing literature with this attitude make a statement that France is not in any way a military country any more? Does it stem from a disillusionment bred by occupation during the Second World and humiliation in Algeria? And does it reflect only the attitude of a certain segment of France? After all, the country still hangs on to its force de dissuasion (that nice euphemism for nuclear missiles).
I’m now reading – rather slowly – the novel that won last year’s Prix Goncourt, Au revoir là-haut, by Pierre Lemaitre, about two wounded soldiers who survive post-war France by performing scams and frauds. Once again, it is history as seen from the very bottom. Is there any modern French fiction that takes a different line on the War?