A Fine of Two Hundred Francs / Elsa Triolet; translated from the French by ??
London: Virago, 1986, c1944.
A Fine of Two Hundred Francs, or Le premier accroc coûte 200 francs in the original, won the Prix Goncourt in 1944. It is made up of three short stories - plus a very short, shocking story added to the end - all about daily life in France during WWII. The characters are all active in the Resistance, or living with the knowledge of it. It is a powerful, striking set of stories, most likely because they were all written contemporaneously with the war, by an author active in Resistance work, and published under a pseudonym by underground presses. True story. Elsa Triolet was a badass.
I hadn't read anything by her before, when I discovered this book. But because it was an original green Virago**, I picked it up. The last owner had tucked an obituary inside of Louis Aragon, Triolet's husband, which had a bit of info on both of them. And the introduction by Helena Lewis is thorough, placing Triolet in her time and context. It really makes me want to read more by her; she was born in Russia, became a Communist but didn't follow the Soviet line so started publishing in French rather than Russian, wrote a ton, was active in the war, and seems to have been her own person in many ways.
As for these three stories, they are all quite interior; they follow the lives of Resistance fighters who have been drawn from normal everyday life, like the beautiful and efficient secretary, Juliet, in the first story. They find themselves in the midst of quite incomprehensible activities that have somehow become 'normal' in the circumstances. The final story is the most reflective -- it is told in the form of notebooks written by Louise Delfort, a journalist who is in hiding in a small village. She is bored and lonely, and so writes down her remembrances of her Russian childhood, her family, her doomed marriage, career, and work in the war. It's beautiful and terrible at the same time. Louise appears in the second story as well, which is focused on a painter who is trying to ignore most of the war and its effects, by fleeing Paris and trying to find a peaceful place to work. He's Jewish, however, so it's become a bit of a problem. Only in the last brief story does Triolet openly show the senseless, ghastly violence that was happening in France. But the looming danger and off-stage incidents are there throughout all these stories. It makes me wonder how they all got through it and kept on afterward.
|Elsa Triolet in 1925|
I really liked Triolet's writing style, a flowing narrative jumping from thought to thought of its characters. Much of what she discusses is the emotional detail of relationships created or damaged by wartime. It's a personal approach that I thought worked very well in bringing home the terror of occupied France. Interesting note - the title refers to the coded phrase "Le premier accroc coûte 200 francs" used by the BBC on August 14, 1944, to let the Resistance know that there would be a landing in Provence the next day. The phrase was a common one in billiard halls across France to let customers know that the first rip in the green felt carried a fine of 200 francs.
Triolet was a great discovery, and a writer I'll look for in future.
**Being an original green Virago, I was hoping to find more information on this book via Virago itself. Unfortunately, in the past few years, Virago has wiped all information about their past publications from their website -- you can't find any information on any of the classic books or authors. Now that it's owned by Little Brown, it's all pretty new books and no history of the press whatsoever. Very annoying indeed. There is no information in the book or anywhere online that I could discover that tells us who translated this work, originally or in any reprints. If anyone has that name, please share it here! My librarian mojo has not worked with this question!