Alice Yaeger Kaplan - The Collaborator: The Trial & Execution of Robert Brasillach

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Treason judged in the heat of passion

Jul 5, 2002 (Updated Aug 11, 2007)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:interesting case

Cons:somewhat clunky exposition

The Bottom Line: an interesting but far from perfectly constructed book


The Collaborator is not as luminously written or entrancingly constructed as Alice Kaplan's previous book, French Lessons. But few books are! That book used up her best materials on studying French fascism, learning and teaching French, growing up in Minnesota and France, and attending Yale. The Collaborator is about a trial rather than being about the author's development. A finalist in the biography category of both the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prizes for 2000, The Collaborator is a study with almost as many weaknesses as strengths.

Kaplan is not absent from this book about the trial of Robert Brasillach, an extreme right-wing journalist who admired the Nazi conquerors, wrote fawning praise of them, called for the execution of the French leaders of the prewar Third Republic, and called attention to enemies of the Reich in print. He was an extremely vitriolic literary critic before the war and also wrote childish soft-focus fiction. After a one-day trial in January of 1945, (i.e., before the German surrender) Brasillach was executed -- the only writer of any importance executed by de Gaulle's (unelected) government. He was not tried for complicity with genocide, but for the capital offense of undertaking "intelligence with a foreign power or its agents with a view towards favoring the enterprises of this power against France" in wartime. This offense is less than crystal-clear, and whether France was at war after its surrender to Germany in 1940 is a particularly vexing legal question. Kaplan does not have anything as straightforward as a simple murder trial to explain!

The Collaborator sometimes seems rambling, and its succession of capsule biographies is positively clunky. Moreover, there are some repetitions from earlier chapters in the long central chapter on the actual trial. (Did the author expect readers to skip the earlier character-establishing chapters?)

The book also shows that is not true that one can find out anything with research (as she claimed n the book's dedication page). For instance, Kaplan did not find out the jury vote or whether the prosecutor held the defense attorney's speech against him. Too, she seems oddly reticent to press what seems the most compelling reason to execute Brasillach: the precedent of his own arguments for executing the leaders of the Third Republic. She notes that evidence of his complicity in genocide was not presented by the prosecution, but it also seems there was no proof that those he denounced (in print) were rounded up by the Nazis. In finding him guilty of the ambiguous charge, there was a rush to judgment—even though the judgment was probably right.

Kaplan is careful to distinguish the widespread perception that Brasillach was homosexual from any direct evidence that he was (or that the judge, a "lifelong bachelor" with a longer life, was). No male sexual partners have been revealed, and from the extensive writings Brasillach left behind and the pallidness of personal experience portrayed in his fiction, one can easily believe that he had no sex life of any sort. However, the assumption of Brasillach's homosexuality and a very prejudicial link between homosexuality and worshipping fascist domination was used by the prosecutor.There was a rush to judgment and from there to quick execution.

Kaplan's forthright criticisms of Brasillach's novels -- for their sentimentality and the remoteness of their narrators from human (especially sexual) experience -- show that she is not a postmodernist unwilling to make judgments of literary worth. She carefully explains why Albert Camus and other Resistance writers sought clemency for Brasillach, including praise of his writing with which she obviously does not concur.

I am surprised that a Duke literature professor does not discuss "performative" speech (à la John Austin, not Judith Butler) in regard to wartime denunciations. I'm equally disappointed that she does not comment at all on the treatment of the World War II treasons of indisputably major writers, such as Ezra Pound in the US, or the collaboration of Nobel Prize-winner Knut Hamsum in Norway (another occupied country). At least she does render her own final judgment on Brasillach's case, however, and that's something. Although the book doesn't entirely gell, it includes many interesting analyses and a clear narrative of a very slippery case in a place where writers are taken more seriously than they are in the US.

© 2005, Stephen O. Murray



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