Review by Sylvia D
For our women writers and World Wars One and Two session I read Storm Jameson’s Cloudless May (Macmillan, 1943 and still in print) which is a political and psychological exploration of the fall of France in the Second World War. The writing reveals a considerable knowledge of French landscape, culture and philosophy and an interesting insight into some of the reasons France capitulated so quickly when the Germans invaded in May 1940.
The action takes place between the 5th May when the weather was very hot and sunny and the 22nd June 1940 by when the weather had broken, in the fictitious town of Seuilly sur Loire, a place of some importance as the Departmental prefecture is located there and it has a sizeable garrison with great rivalry between the military and the civil administration. It is a town which is instantly recognisable to anyone who has visited that area. It had:
‘a polite shabby square with two handsome buildings. It narrowed into the main street of Seuilly, itself shabby, lively, charming. The two buildings, the theatre and the Hôtel Buran, stood at opposite corners; each had a side facing the river and a narrower side on the square. The large dining-room of the Hôtel Buran looked onto the Loire; below the level of its windows, on the Quai d’Angers itself, the terrace of the small Café Buran had only the width of the quay between it and the bright water’ – (p 1).
The opening chapters build up a picture of the complacency of the French at the beginning of May 1940 with the Germans safely ensconced behind the supposedly unbreachable Maginot Line. However, it is also evident how unprepared the French army is with its antiquated equipment and passive strategy. Its generals are old and still reliving the Great War whilst at the frontier there is ‘an appalling vacuum . . . Half a million men doing nothing, bored to death. Waiting. For what? For a German clock to strike . . .’ – (p 23).
The narrative follows the Seuilly community through the period of the German breakthrough, the fall of places with resonant names like Verdun, the German crossing of key rivers, the Meuse, the Marne, the Seine, and the arrival of the first panic-stricken refugees who were part of one of the largest mass migrations in human history, l’Exode, when around 8 million people from Paris and its suburbs all decided to head south and south-west, away from the advancing German army and towards the Loire, which once crossed, was thought to represent safety:
‘the cars, the farm carts, the delivery vans, the drays, the bicycles, the exhausted eyes, the children perched holding by their claws to the sides of waggons, the bird-cages, the clocks, . . . the sewing-machine, the small monkey, the mattresses, how many mattresses?, in the lorry the heaps of children fallen together like skittles . . . the old man sitting there and sobbing, without tears, the bullet-holes, could they be?, . . . ‘ – (p 397).
The story is told through the thoughts and actions of influential people in the town who are wonderfully drawn. Most of them can be characterised as greedy, ambitious and vain. Some are unscupulous. Some are ready to betray their colleagues and even their ‘friends’. Most express virulent anti-semitism. The Jewish editor of the local paper foresaw what would happen to French Jews if the Germans arrived: ‘they’ll have as little mercy on French Jews as on German ones, and he won’t be able to count on his Government to look after him’ – (p 392). During the War one-fifth of all Jews in France were deported or sent to the death camps with the connivance of the Vichy Government.
The citizens include the mayor, Labenne, a peasant made good who still has a peasant’s characteristics – he gobbles his food, scratches his armpits in public – and knows himself well:
‘I have no weaknesses. I know I’m a brute, a liar, unscupulous, greedy, as ambitious as the devil. But a cold devil. I have no ideals. I have no illusions. I haven’t a vice, unless it’s gluttony. The vices of a peasant’. – (p 306).
The Prefect , Bergeot, works incredibly hard and is much liked because he is so charming but is secretly squirrelling money away in New York. The local manufacturer and banker, Thiviers, is dapper, elegant, full of his own importance and desperate to protect his property from any damage. The deputy, Huet, is a smarmy politician who is for ever scheming but fails to realise that everyone sees through him. Most of them are defeatist. Even the women, Mme de Freppell, Bergeot’s mistress, and her friend, Madame de Vayrac, are not what they seem. They turn out to have been call girls made good who are only interested in saving themselves. Practically everyone in the town has terrible memories of the First World War and was reluctant to have to fight again: ‘you weren’t at Verdun, Monsieur Bergot. You don’t know what it was like. If you had ever lived in a graveyard, you would want to end this war before all France becomes one Verdun’ – (p 334).
When the Germans arrive, there are one or two acts of pointless heroism but the majority of the town’s leading citizens either join the flood of refugees or collaborate. Only the Prefect’s short-sighted secretary, Lucien Seigny, who has been unable to get into the army, and the tall, austere Colonel Rienne (De Gaulle?) quietly slip away to join the Free French in England.
Throughout the novel the Loire flows, in all its different moods, like a thread: ‘the Loire, still, below its sleek surface, wrinkled by the night’ – (p 26); ‘The Loire, firm, supple, its banks defined by sand, pretended to be idle’ – (p 203); ‘The Loire veiled by eddies of light’ – (p 399). ‘The river was fuller than it had been for weeks, and full of colour’ – (p 427). The constant presence of the river is a clever counterbalance to the growing uncertainty, tension and panic experienced by Seuilly’s inhabitants.
Cloudless May is about vanity, betrayal, defeat, and despair. But it is also imbued with a deep love of France, particularly of the timelessness of La France Profonde. It is a long book (513 pp) and about half way through I did begin to flag a little. However, after slowly building the tension, Jameson suddenly changes gear and it becomes a gripping read.