Interviews October 2006

Sorrow Without Pity

Carmen Callil discusses Bad Faith, her unflinching portrait of a fascist Frenchman.
book cover

Bad Faith [Click the title
to buy this book]

by Carmen Callil
Random House
640 pages

In 1960, Carmen Callil, a young Australian living in London, began seeing a psychiatrist named Anne Darquier, only a few years older than she. After a decade of therapy, Darquier was found dead one September morning with a lethal combination of barbiturates and alcohol in her system. A year later, watching the French documentary Le Chagrin et La Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity) about the German Occupation of France, Callil noticed that a Vichy official mentioned in the subtitles had the same last name as her therapist. After looking into the matter, she learned that Anne had been the abandoned daughter of Louis Darquier, the commissioner for Jewish Affairs, responsible for the despoliation and deportation of Jews in France.

Thirty-five years later, this discovery would lead to the publication of Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland. The book, which traces the lives of Louis Darquier and his Australian wife, Myrtle Jones, offers not only a look at a somber history that led to genocide, but also a fascinating exploration of two fabulists manipulating everyone around them.

There are legions of books about the war years in France, from both French and foreign pens, but with this book, which follows the life of just one man, Callil casts a new light on France between the wars, and on its inexorable momentum toward a low-grade civil war between its republicans and its rabid nationalist, anti-Semitic fascist leagues. Callil devotes a significant portion of her 600-page tome to giving readers an in-depth understanding of the period as it was experienced in multiple locales; beyond France, we are taken to Myrtle’s (and Callil's) native Australia, as well as to 1920s London and to Spain through several decades following the war.

Perhaps most surprising is how pathetic a figure Louis Darquier turns out to be; readers of World War II history are quite familiar with the inhuman and cold efficiency of the Nazi machine. But in Bad Faith, we encounter inept, lazy civil servants, who are conniving, backstabbing and at times unable to please their Nazi superiors due to their poor job performance in ridding France of its Jewish population. It's a fascinating and undeniably rich human portrait that spans the twentieth century—horrific and devastatingly sad throughout, but also curious and at times absurd, weaving together ghoulish, well-known European history with the depravity of a bad but at times hapless and ineffective man and his alcoholic, prevaricating wife.

Callil, 68, created the independent, women-focused publishing house Virago Press in 1972 (later sold to Little, Brown) and then went on, in the late 1980s, to become director of Britain's Channel Four Television, as well as the managing director of the Random House imprint Chatto & Windus. Presently, she's thinking about adapting her Darquier story into a screenplay. I spoke with her by phone on the evening of Sept 29 .

Grant Rosenberg

Carmen Callil
Carmen Callil

You wrote this—your first solo book, and a fairly epic one at that—after years as an editor and publisher. Was the process like you expected it to be?

I didn't find it as different as everybody expected I would. I've lived with writing all my life, so I didn’t find it such a transition.

Can you describe the process a bit and how the book evolved?

I'd written a book with the Irish writer Colm Toibin, a guide to the best novels in English [The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950], and I knew I liked writing, and that I wanted to write something. I was sitting with the Australian writer David Malouf and I told him the story about Anne, saying how it had always interested me. He said, "This is the most extraordinary story; you must write it." I said, “No, the source materials will all be in French, I'm not a writer, blah blah blah.” But the long and the short of it was that when he said it was worth doing, I went off and did it. I just needed a shove from somebody who told me that what I had thought was an extraordinary story was indeed extraordinary.

At the time you were talking to him, how much about the story did you already know?

Almost nothing. I knew what I had found out from the documentary Le Chagrin et La Pitié. I knew Anne's mother was Australian. But I knew nothing about Louis Darquier's family, where he came from, nothing at all. Nothing about Anne's mother's family. Not even where Anne was raised.

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Grant Rosenberg lives in Paris where he writes for TIME and other publications.

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