Interviews October 2006

Sorrow Without Pity

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

I've lived in Paris for several years now and while reading Bad Faith, I would sometimes put the book down and go outside to see the buildings where events took place—where some of these sinister organizations would meet in the 1930s, and where infamous offices were located during the Occupation. It seems to me that the world looks at the Occupation of France in a kind of historical vacuum, as if 1940 to 1944 were the extent of what they call the Dark Years. But you go to great lengths to document how anti-Semitism was deeply rooted already, and that the 1930s were a sinister time with neo-royalist, anti-republican and fascist zeal. There's not much discussion of that time elsewhere.

I think the 1930s were a crucial period. I did what you did when I was in Paris two or three times; I walked around. That was the only thing I found gruesome. Particularly the avenue Foch in the 16th arrondissement, where the Gestapo made its headquarters. I made a map of every place on it, so I know what you mean. You walk around now and you see that there was this office here and that office over there.

Why do you think that in France, where there is a national dialogue about the Vichy years, there is so little discussion of the 1930s and its nationalist and fascist tumult?

I've found it quite tedious to talk about this subject in Britain because they are convinced that the French haven't faced up to their past. I say to them that the Vichy years have been explored in so many books that I can't even think of how many. But what they don't do—or didn't do–was look at it from the underbelly. When you look at it from the point of view of someone like Louis Darquier, you're looking at it as it really was—not from the top down. Secondly, something that really gets me angry is that because we are obsessed with religion, there's a fundamentalist aspect to how we can't accept that we have evil popes. I'm not saying that Pius XII was evil, but you can't even suggest it without people getting hysterical. He was not a good man. He felt he was, but he wasn't. And that's what I say about the French cardinals of the time. What they said was shocking, but nobody will talk about it. I find it baffling.

It seems an accident of history that, due to how World War I ended, it was Germany that allowed for its form of fascism to flourish leading to Hitler, when it seems clear that France, with all of its notorious anti-democratic figures like Francois de la Roque, Charles Trochu, Francois Coty, and organizations like Jeunesse Patriotes, Croix de Feu and Action Francaise among others, could have become a fascist state.

Most people from the 1930s haven't been written about. The French don't write about their scum. In fact, when I went to interview the Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, he told me, "Why are you writing about this awful man Darquier? He doesn't merit anything. It was the Germans that did it." It’s true that the French wouldn't have done as much if the Germans hadn't been around, but the impulse was there.

 What also struck me was that many of these nationalists in the 1930s were openly anti-democratic and even believed that the French revolution shouldn't have taken place. I find it hard to understand how these "leaders" could advocate for a political system contrary to the republic. That's like an American today swearing allegiance to the Confederacy. It would likely be considered treasonous by most Americans. How could these folks still be considered patriots in France?

I think that the French paid an enormous price for the French Revolution. The ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité were a great gift to the world.  But the price the French paid for them was a rift that was never resolved. That's one factor. But then there’s also the excessive reverence the French have for the intellectual. I think it's a flaw in their culture. Take someone like the anti-Semitic and monarchist writer Charles Maurras in the first part of the twentieth century. If you read him, you can't believe the civilized world would take one word of him seriously. But they did, because he was an intellectual.

I think it has something to do with a very complex concatenation of things that probably only applies to France, where the value system of the society blinded them to what hate it gave them toward some their fellow citizens. How could Vichy police chief René Bousquet have killed so many of his own people? It wasn’t just Jews; he was also extremely hostile to communists, as all the Vichy officials were. Now I think there is every reason to be hostile to Stalin—if he came into the room, I'd shoot him. But a French communist, whom these nationalist folks, due to their ignorance, also likely considered as automatically Jewish …the idea that they could kill their own people that way, simply because they were communist, it's really extraordinary.

Though it began in the 1930s with nationalists and fascists, the reality is that the republicans participated as well. Bousquet and Mitterrand were republicans. Bousquet was republican France’s greatest war criminal.

Darquier seems very much a figure like Hitler; a World War I veteran, disgruntled, a failure at his various endeavors, who begins to see the Jews as a scapegoat for social failings and finds success as a rabble rouser spewing hate and attracting ruffians to his cause.

I really tried to explain how everything came from the First World War. When you went into some of those places in the 1930s, in those tiny rooms where people gathered to talk and quarrel, a lot of those men had only one arm or one leg or one eye, or they were orphaned. I think the First World War was particularly cataclysmic for France. They suffered more than anybody and it had a tremendous effect on that generation.

From the archives:

"The Holocaust and the Catholic Church" (October 1999)
A review by James Carroll of Hitler's Pope.

I think that if people had thought more about Spain than Germany, what happened in Vichy would have been more understandable. That whole business of opening your mouth and criticizing the Catholic Church for its role in the last war would have happened. But it didn't. They all thought of Franco as someone living out in the middle of the Mediterranean and never connected him to people like Pétain. This was really Catholic fascism, very much supported by the Church, right up until Franco died. It's never really been condemned. People write books like Hitler's Pope but they don't really get the whole measure of it. The Pope had millions of cardinals following his line.

Putting aside for a moment all of Darquier's vitriol against Jews, Freemasons and communists, you make it clear that at heart, he was a conman. How was he able to rise to a position of authority as the head of the commissariat of Jewish Affairs?

Keep in mind that he was appointed by the Germans. He earned his medals by being an outspoken anti-Semite, funded by them in the ‘30s. And the existing commissioner, Xavier Vallat, wasn't doing what the Nazis wanted because he was a Catholic anti-Semite, which meant that he was making all these exceptions for war veterans and others. Vallat would never have supplied the number of Jews that they wanted. But much of it was about money. Darquier was terribly interested in money. The Occupation really only became the money machine that the Nazis wanted once Darquier was running the joint. Not that he was running it himself, really. But under him, efficient people were in place to make sure that all Jewish property, art, and everything else went to the Reich. And of course, Vichy officials were trying to get it for themselves. Darquier was put in because the Nazis thought they could manipulate him for that purpose.

Another thing that’s hard to really understand is why these people would steal the property of those they deported. Even if we can try to enter the logic of these men who committed genocide, in their own minds it was a defensive maneuver. But I don't see how they could rationalize stealing art and property, because I would think that would make them feel like petty thieves.

Everything … all my research showed that money came out of everything. They all wanted the wealth as much as anything else, both individually and for the state.

But that's what’s so ironic. These collaborators and Vichy officials seem to be fulfilling the very stereotypes they’re using to demonize the Jews—people manipulating others and seeking to profit at all costs. Attacking Jews for the qualities they see most in themselves. Is that fair?

I don't know. Well, Darquier wasn't an absolute monster. The monsters were really those above him, who used him as a puppet—people like Pétain who used beautiful words, saying, "We're saving the nation," and then did terrible things. Darquier, on the other hand, said terrible things and then did terrible things. I think that's the area where the book will be a problem for the French when it's published there next year. Not because they haven't faced up to Vichy, but because they haven't faced up to this class of person.

Given all of your exploration of the extreme right wing political groups between the wars, what is your perception on the National Front and other extreme right parties today?

All the parties, particularly LePen's National Front, use the motto that Edouard Drumont, used in the 1880s, "France for the French." I think LePen softens it a bit, but it's much the same. There's always been ten to fifteen percent of the French population who didn't accept the Revolution; they’re represented in the vote every time, and that's LePen and his confreres. It won't go away. But what happened in Vichy is that these people got power.

In the United States, culturally speaking, there was a price to pay when artists, like Elia Kazan for example, named names during the Red Scare. And yet there are many French cultural figures who collaborated with the Germans—people like the writer Colette, or Coco Chanel, to say nothing of Taittinger of the eponymous champagne and Scheuller, who created L'Oreal—whose reputations not only survived but flourished. And others, like Darquier, weren't pursued at all for their crimes. How do you account for the pass some got after the war?

That's a very complicated subject. DeGaulle wanted to unite the nation and many people were tried and sentenced. But the restof them were let off by about 1958, in the name of healing the great rift in the French body politic. To some degree it worked. But that means that justice was not carried out. And I think there needs to be some lancing of boils, if you know what I mean. I can understand that they didn't want to go on with civil war forever. And in Collette's case, she just didn't care about politics. I much more dislike Gertrude Stein. After all, she was Jewish. Collette was only married to a Jew. But Gertrude Stein….yecch. This whole business that art is above human life, I don't accept that.

In 1978, at the age of 81, Darquier was openly living in Spain—he was even listed in the Madrid phone book. He was interviewed by a reporter for the French magazine L'Express, which you quote from, where he denied the Holocaust and that he was responsible for any crimes, attributing it all to Jewish propaganda. Do you think he believed what he was saying, or that he was rationalizing away his crimes—or that he didn’t believe what he did was monstrous?

I don't think there's any way to convey in my book how much Louis and his wife lied. These people lived in another world of fantasy where their own words were true. I think at the time of the interview, he was very angry because Franco had just died. Within twelve months, Juan Carlos brought in everything Darquier most hated in the government. There was democracy, a parliament, and even the communist party.

Have readers responded to the book as you expected?

I found Darquier funnier than most people have. But I think that the circumstances are so black that people can't see the hilarity of such a character. I'm afraid he and Myrtle made me laugh quite often. The black humor of it, I notice people don't react to that very much.

What about from those connected to Louis and Myrtle?

Myrtle's family is not pleased. They were the worst of all. I was on an Australian television program with Myrtle's remaining sister and she still maintains that Louis was a wonderful gentleman and Myrtle an elegant lady who played piano. Myrtle's nephews, they all understand the truth of it. But the one sister said I told lies from beginning to end.

How did you react to that?

On TV, I said I was flabbergasted. I can quite see that you want to think your sister and brother-in-law are excellent people, but the stories of what happened to these deported people have been available for people to read for over fifty years, in the French assessments of deaths in concentration camps. And anybody could go to a library for the last two decades and read about Louis Darquier. Admittedly in a minor key, but he was still the same man that married her sister.

You mention right in the prologue how your childhood was your "purgatory," and how at the age of 21, you began seeing a psychotherapist, Anne Darquier, because you had attempted suicide. What compelled you to make such a personal admission in the book, and on page one at that?

Because one of the themes of the books is children. I felt connected to those Jewish children. I always understood how they felt. But that's a longer story. The point is that one of the themes of the book is powerlessness. I could have written about a thousand different deportations and experiences of French Jews on their way to Auschwitz, but I wanted to write about the children because they expressed for me a powerlessness that I felt in my own childhood.

It certainly marks a reader to learn right at the outset that the writer attempted suicide, to see that kind of honesty and candor on the part of the person who is about to share with us another's history. Considering your relationship to Anne and what happened in her life and how it ended, I was wondering what the process was like as you decided what to reveal about your own life.

That was the way the book began. I never changed that first page. I don't think I could have written about her otherwise, because that was the truth, and one of the things I was trying to do was write the truth.

 How much of your desire to write the book was based on Anne and whatever her lineage may have been, and how much was the specific fact that it was Louis Darquier? In other words, if Anne's father had been someone else, would you have written that book?

No way. Anne stands for the powerless. Those children on the trains. No food, no water, nobody to speak to. She stands for them and they stand for her. I can't really explain it. You see it like that and you write it like that.

In the last two paragraphs of the postscript, you write that people have asked you how you could stand to write about such horrible things, and you draw a connection between the Jews of France and the Jews of Israel and the terror that the former experienced and what the latter is passing onto the Palestinian people. Why was it so important to you that that message serve as the final words of the book?

It's the children again. During the years I was writing the book, the Intifada was going on. You see these kids throwing stones and children being killed all the time. And it was also my disappointment in Israel. I can't believe they could have suffered so much and not understand. I want them to see that if you pass on pain and suffering, that will be your reward, and I think that's what Israel has done to the Palestinians of the next generation.

You mentioned that the manuscript started out much longer than the 600-page version that ended up being published. How long was it originally?

Double. I knew a lot more about the 1930s than I put in the book. French fascists fascinate me.

Are you working on another book now?

No. I don't think the world needs another book from me. Now there's a publisher speaking.

Grant Rosenberg lives in Paris where he writes for TIME and other publications.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In