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Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindle (Review)

December 2, 2016

Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindleAs I was reading Pierre Lemaitre’s literary page-turner, The great swindle, I started to wonder about the endings of books, what I look for, what I most appreciate. What I don’t look for is neat, happy conclusions. There are exceptions to this of course. Jane Austen, for example, but she was writing at a different time when the novel was in an earlier stage of development. In contemporary novels, I look for something a little challenging, something that suggests that life isn’t neatly wrapped up. Fiction isn’t life, I know, but its role, for me anyhow, is to reflect on, and thus make me think about, life. So, Lemaitre’s The great swindle? How does it end? I’m not going to tell you – it’s not the done thing in reviews – but I will say that it’s satisfying, even though it does have one of those many-years-later wrap-ups that I’m not convinced is needed.

There, that’s an unusual opening for me, isn’t it, to start with the end? Where do I go now? Back to the beginning I think. The novel is divided into sections: 1918, November 1919, March 1920, and Epilogue. It starts in the trenches on 2 November 1918, just days before the First World War ends. One of our two main characters Albert Maillard is there, wanting a quiet, safe time until the war ends, but his commanding officer, Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle, has other ideas, setting off a series of events that reverberates through all their years.

This is, in fact, quite a plot-driven novel, despite having many strings to its bow. And you all probably know how much I hate describing plots, so I’m going to keep it simple. After a devastating opening which leaves soldier Édouard Péricourt with a severely damaged face and Albert, for good reasons, taking responsibility for his care, the novel focuses on life in Paris in the immediate aftermath of war. While our two soldiers struggle to survive, Pradelle has been demobbed a Captain, as he’d orchestrated, married a wealthy young woman, Madeleine, who happens to be Édouard’s sister, and is engaged in the business of providing coffins and burying soldiers in cemeteries around France – focusing more on the money he can make than on whether, say, the right soldier ends up in the right coffin. You getting the picture of this Pradelle by now?

There are several other characters – this is a big story that owes much to the 19th century novel – but I’ll just mention a couple more: Monsieur Péricourt, Madeleine and Édouard’s father, a tough businessman who had never had time for his artisitic, effeminate son, and Merlin, the dogged, bottom-rung, about-to-retire civil servant who is given the job of reporting on the cemetery project.

Finally, just two more things you should know before I leave the plot. One is that Édouard did not want to return home after the war, so in the military hospital Albert manages to swap his identity – in a swindle, you might say – with a dead soldier, resulting in Édouard Péricourt becoming Eugene Lariviere. His father and sister, therefore, do not know he is alive. The other is the war memorial swindle concocted by Édouard (Eugene), which he finally manages to convince the “even when well-intentioned, lying was not in his nature” Albert to support.

The novel, then, has a complex plot with a rather large cast of characters, but Lemaitre, who is apparently known for his crime novels, handles it all very well so you never feel lost. One of the ways he does this is through vivid characterisation. Every character, from the main “cast” (it’s to be filmed I hear) to the supporting characters, is so strikingly portrayed that you feel you are there in postwar France – there in the streets where poor, injured returned soldiers struggle to make a living, there in the houses of the well-to-do where money is king, there in the cemeteries where Pradelle’s exploited Arab, Chinese and Senegalese workers do what they can to survive.

Another is through the clever set pieces which illuminate the characters, such as Edouard/Eugene’s increasingly bizarre masks – from horse-head to budgerigar – which he creates and wears to cover his horrendously disfigured face. Or the more gruesome scenes in which the taciturn, not very agreeable, but diligent public servant Merlin tramps around cemeteries investigating coffins. Using these set pieces, many of which border on farce, alongside controlled doses of satire and irony, Lemaitre creates a tragicomic tone – but to what end?

“will this war never be over?”

Early postwar, concerning Pradelle’s cemetery plans, the (mostly omniscient) narrator says:

To an entrepreneur, war represents significant business opportunities, even after it is over.

War, then, is the over-riding theme – but war is a big canvas. Lemaitre’s focus is war’s aftermath. What does it mean for those who went and those who stayed, and for the new world they must forge, preferably together. At one point Albert, worn down by his cares and responsibilities, and facing yet another hurdle, wonders, “will this war never be over”. But, as ordinary citizens get back to life, the needs of the returned are forgotten:

ex-soldiers were all the same, forever banging about their war, forever giving little homilies, people had had just about enough of heroes. The true heroes were dead!

A ripe environment, in other words, for cemetery and war memorial scandals, for profiteering – particularly when you add that it was a time of great social change in France, one where the nouveau riche (represented by M. Péricourt) were getting the upper hand over the often money-short aristocracy (represented by Pradelle).

Opposing this almost obsessive focus on money is a sense of resignation. It can be seen in Madeleine who marries the execrable Pradelle. “We each settle down as best we can”, comments our narrator. For many, there is a sense of “emptiness”, this word appearing several times in the novel. They were tough times – the time of “the lost generation” or what the French called “the génération au feu” – for which society was not equipped to cope. So, in the end, what Lemaitre has painted is a picture of a society under stress, a picture which is conveyed most directly through our “everyman”, our struggling returned solider Albert who just wants to make a life for himself but who is also loyal to those who need him:

War had been a lonely business, but it was nothing compared to the period since demobilisation that was beginning to seem a veritable descent into hell …

The novel, as you will have gathered, is replete with swindles, but the greatest of all, Lemaitre is saying, was the abominable treatment, upon their return, of the ordinary soldier.

This is one of those novels which uses a light touch to tell a heavy story. No wonder it won France’s main literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed this book.

Pierre Lemaitre
The great swindle
(trans. by Frank Wynne)
London: MacLehose Press, 2015
ISBN (eBook): 9781848665804

17 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2016 5:48 pm

    Thanks for the mention! It’s a hugely enjoyable book, I think, and I hope we get to see the film here in Australia in due course. (#FrenchFilmFestival, are you paying attention?)

    • December 2, 2016 6:29 pm

      Yes, I hope we see it here too – though some of us at reading group wondered if we’d rather just leave it at reading the book. Still, if it came, I’d want to see it, I know.

  2. John Clanchy permalink
    December 2, 2016 7:06 pm

    Thanks for this really intriguing/ enticing review – I’m ordering Lemaitre’s book as soon as I’ve tapped out this short comment – not so much about the review which is complete, but two side-notes: 1. as a writer, I find your comment “even though it does have one of those many-years-later wrap-ups that I’m not convinced is needed” really interesting – and vital for me right now, trying to decide whether I add an ‘Epilog’ to a novel I’ve just finished. It gives an ironic and painful retrospective glimpse at some things that the novel itself leaves open – I’m all for the ‘un-locked-down’ ending which leaves the reader free to participate in constructing the narrative as they see it; and 2. yesterday saw the film “The Fencer” – great film re war and its after-effects (Germany, Estonia and Russia) focussed within the lives of a small cast of adults and schoolchildren of European War, and this film has does have “one of those many-years-later wrap-ups “, and while it’s a bit sentimental (though “based on a true story”) I was moved by it, and in the end thought it was just, less because of the romance between the male and female leads than because of the joy of the children at the post-gulag reunion of the adult ‘father and mother’ figures they love. So, great to read about lemaitre’s book, but nice too to find that it connects with my own issues in wnat are both substantive and technical questions in my own current writing.

    • December 2, 2016 7:43 pm

      Thanks John, this is interesting isn’t it? It’s a shame we can’t discuss endings in more detail. I’ll be interested in what you think. Anthony Doerr’s All the light we cannot see also has a much-later ending, and I wasn’t sure about it either. I’d like to see The fencer – it’s on my list but I may not get to it. I did see The light between oceans recently – but haven’t read the book. It also has one of these endings, and I didn’t like it at all. There was a point in the film where it could have ended with our “knowing” how it would essentially pan out without having it played out. There was no ironic or painful reflection on what had happened, just sentiment.

      I didn’t hate it in Lemaitre’s book. It’s not sentimental, but I’m not sure it was essential. I guess it’s about what you really want the book to be about isn’t it and there are arguments I could make for his Epilog.

      Do let me know what you think, when you get to it.

  3. ian darling permalink
    December 2, 2016 9:33 pm

    A literary page turner is something that is difficult to resist. 1914-18 and aftermath continues to generate memorable fiction.

    • December 2, 2016 10:46 pm

      It sure does Ian. A bookgroup member asked whether we should keep telling them? Most of us thought yes, but her concern was that by talking about war so much we encourage it. Somehow, I think it would happen anyhow.

      • ian darling permalink
        December 3, 2016 12:48 am

        There is a part of me that rather agrees with your bookgroup member. So many novels and histories of the world wars suggest a sort of unhealthy fixation while acknowledging that many of these books are excellent in themselves. Three or four years ago there appeared at least three one volume histories of the Second World War in just one year!

        • December 3, 2016 8:29 am

          Yes, I agree that it’s not hard to see the point. You are certainly right about books on the two world wars just keeping on coming.

  4. December 3, 2016 3:10 am

    In another of those pieces of sychronicity, Sue, I was introduced to this author just an hour before reading your post, by a link to French mysteries listed on Goodread, submitted in a reader comment on my most recent blog post. Double reason, now, to add M. LeMaitre to my TBR list!

    • December 3, 2016 8:30 am

      Haha, there’s clearly something in the air between your place and mine Debbie. What will it be next?

  5. December 3, 2016 3:20 am

    Covers are deceiving because I thought from the image you had read a graphic novel and I was really excited about that! Even though it was not what i expected, I still enjoyed your review of what sounds like a really enjoyable book. 🙂

    • December 3, 2016 8:32 am

      Yes Stefanie, I can see that. I certainly saw it as having a noir look which I now realise from your comment does also point to graphic novels as well as to the crime mysteries it reminded me of.

  6. December 3, 2016 3:12 pm

    I think war books are popular at the moment because we’ve been at war almost constantly for decades now and we need stories to teach us how to deal with glory hungry politicians and money hungry “defence” industries.

    • December 3, 2016 4:50 pm

      That’s a good point about “needing” them Bill. It could be that writers, as you say, are responding to this ongoing issue confronting the world. It may also be because of the big WWI centenary. I’m not sure a lot of novel writers are quite so easily swayed to a topic but the subject is in the air isn’t it and I’m sure they channel the things we are all thinking about?

  7. January 6, 2017 12:45 am

    I followed this from your end of year review. This sounds very good. I’ll look out for a copy.

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