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miroir de nos peines

21 april 2020

The third volume of Pierre Lemaitre's trilogy of novels about France between the world wars, Miroir de nos peines, is intriguing and unsettling. Au revoir là-haut, the first, is a novel of great complexity and panache. The second, Couleurs de l'incendie, is more mechanical, though still a strongly-propelled story. Miroir de nos peines is less histrionic than either, but never formulaic. It is a tale of people losing touch with one another in wartime – or rather, of realizing that peacetime was, all along, largely a matter of losing touch with people. Read against a global pandemic, Miroir de nos peines is rich with longing.

We live through 1940 via several characters' points of view. Louise, the plucky girl from Au revoir là-haut, is now an adult, depressed over her inability to bear a child: she teaches school on weekdays and on weekends serves meals in a café. Gabriel, another teacher, now finds himself serving on the Maginot Line with Raoul, an inveterate grifter. Désiré, another born trickster, jumps from one profession to another – teacher, surgeon, lawyer, intelligence analyst – without bothering to train for any of them. And Fernand, noncommissioned officer in the National Guard, gets a perilous mission as the Germans descend on Paris: and tries to carry it out while lugging an ill-gotten fortune around in his rucksack.

Our characters head southwest from Paris as the Germans advance from the east. The setting is the debacle – not Émile Zola's Débâcle of 1870, but its 20th-century parallel. Still, as always, Lemaitre's situations and plot directions echo the 19th-century French canon. Above all, Les Misérables, invoked here by recalling incidents like Fantine's abandonment of Cosette, or Jean Valjean's hair suddenly turning white.

Trauma, movement, uprooting, extremity: the flight of refugees from Paris is indeed a "miroir de nos peines" (398), a reflection of our anguish. The anguish of 1940 specifically, but it could be anything, COVID-19, mortality itself. And as is also Lemaitre's style, we learn that by and large our characters survive these extreme incidents, and life goes on, with its small triumphs and general overcomings.

Lemaitre's entre-deux-guerres trilogy is uneven. Au revoir là-haut is I think the best of the three, audacious and original. I was least impressed with the second, Couleurs de l'incendie. Miroir de nos peines lacks the tightly-wound intrigue of Au revoir là-haut, but it gives the reader offbeat characters to care about. The whole trilogy is an eminently readable contribution to the grand tradition of French narrative.

Lemaitre, Pierre. Miroir de nos peines. Paris: Albin Michel, 2020.