The latest arrival on the ever expanding shelf of volumes assessing literary reputations during the years of the Nazi occupation of France is a long book with a short title. Ramon is a son’s biography of his father, a collaborator, and it’s hard to imagine a more tangled, unresolved contradiction of a literary career than his. Translated by T.S. Eliot in The Criterion, apostrophized by Wallace Stevens in one of his best-known poems, Ramon Fernandez was an esteemed literary critic who became, from 1936 to 1943, the self-appointed "minister of culture" for a fascist populist movement led by Jacques Doriot, the former communist mayor of Saint Denis. For Fernandez’s son, Dominique, now 80, the untangling of those contradictions has been a life’s work.
Ramon is part of a subgenre of literature by children of collaborators currently in full flower in both memoir and fiction. Among the first, and best, literary portraits of a collaborationist parent was Marie Chaix’s novel Les Lauriers du lac de Constance (The Laurels of Lake Constance), published in 1974, two years after the appearance of Robert Paxton’s Vichy France shattered the myth of global French resistance to the Nazis. Marie Chaix’s father, like Dominique Fernandez’s, was a follower of Jacques Doriot; but Marie Chaix chose to write fiction rather than memoir, which allowed her to explore the points of view of various members of her family. Her book ends with the father’s collapse and the daughter’s forgiveness. In 2000 Dominique Jamet narrated Un petit Parisien from the point of view of his boyhood self, 5 years old in 1941, the son of a socialist father gone bad. Such books are always a high-wire act, maintaining their balance by not tilting toward either règlement de comptes (forms of vengeance) or mere apology. Among the finest literary examples of writers understanding their parents’ failings with empathy, but not charity, is Francine du Plessix Gray’s Them (2005), which never neglects the worst parental sins, all the while establishing mother and stepfather as the larger-than-life characters they certainly were. Both homage and critique, Them is a measured and courageous book, and although neither parent was politically compromised, du Plessix Gray’s biological father, an aristocrat who died fighting for the Resistance, shared the anti-Semitic leanings of his class and generation.
In approaching the story of the fascist Ramon Fernandez, it’s useful to remember that even the writers best known for their moral courage in occupied France faced murky circumstances and difficult choices. Jean Guéhenno, an essayist and the conscience of the pre-war left, published nothing above ground during the occupation, as a matter of principle. He was one of the few. But he remained a lycée professor, a civil servant paid by Vichy France, and didn’t depend on income from writing. Jean-Paul Sartre produced No Exit and The Flies onstage with permission from the German authorities and with German officers in the audience. He was offered a job in a lycée, and it turned out that the person he replaced was a Jew who’d been stripped of his post by Vichy’s anti-Jewish legislation. Marguerite Duras worked as the secretary for a Vichy commission that allocated paper supplies to publishers; she also participated in a Resistance network with François Mitterrand. Albert Camus allowed his Myth of Sisyphus to appear without the chapter on Kafka, who was on the "Otto list" of Jewish authors banned by the Nazis. Camus published the Kafka essay in l’Arbalète, in the unoccupied zone. Irène Némirovsky, struggling to keep her family alive in the dangerous occupied zone, published in Gringoire, a violently anti-Semitic journal produced in the unoccupied zone. Colette published in Gringoire and in Comoedia–two publications identified with the collaboration–at the same time that she was hiding her Jewish husband.