For the first time since it was founded, the Prix Goncourt has been awarded to a historical account instead of a novel. The winner is none other than The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard, a staggering work of some 130 pages which was recently translated and published in the U.S.
After the initial surprise, readers will be firmly on the jury’s side. The genre matters little; what grips the most is the drama of the preparation, events, and consequences of Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938. With flair, insolence, and breathtaking indignation, Vuillard portrays Nazi leaders, officers, executioners, Austrian, English, and French politicians, and, of course, the titans of industry. The author shines a stark, bitter light on the roles played by Krupp, Bayer, Siemens, and IG Farben, among others.
This is not a chronological account per se, but rather numerous series of often striking, almost cinematic scenes that can be expected from the writer and filmmaker. These interruptions, in the form of flashforwards and flashbacks, lend his portrayals a surprising depth. Readers will see Ribbentrop in London at his embassy telling “stories of his athletic prowess,” then six years later in Nuremburg, “in the makeshift structure where gallows had been set up,” walking towards the scaffolding, “overwhelmed by his approaching death. A limping old man.”
Another series follows the abject resignation of the Austrian government, the Chancellor Schuschnigg, his face limp as he stutters and struggles, in vain, against Hitler’s madness. He does however have a fleeting moment of dignity, “a drowning man’s last gasp,” when suggesting a vote on the independence of Austria. A gasp as short-lived as meaningless that merely enraged Hitler further. The German troops advanced unrelentingly and Schuschnigg was thrown in prison. He spent seven years there, survived the war, and lived out the rest of his days in peace. After the war he moved to the United States and became “a model American, a model Catholic, a model professor at the very Catholic Saint Louis University,” teaching — most ironically — political science.
While Vuillard has mastered the art of presenting events with a grotesquely comical slant such as the breakdown of the Panzers at the Austrian frontier or Lord Halifax mistaking Hitler for a valet and handing him his overcoat, he never lets up on the tension. Quite the opposite, in fact.
He gives detailed descriptions of the cruel treatment of prisoners working in the German factories in order to highlight, with open rage, that these same bosses were barely affected by the Nazis’ defeat. He also pays homage to the people of Vienna who chose to take their own lives instead of accepting the horror of the annexation. Perhaps they “saw the Jews down on all fours amid the bellowing crowds, forced to scrub the sidewalks under the mocking eyes of passersby.” And Vuillard, through his precise writing, even offers exact figures: “There were more than one thousand seven hundred suicides in a single week. Soon reporting a suicide in the press would become an act of resistance.” But in the face of reprisals, silence soon reigned once again.
This is a deeply moving book. Don’t miss it.
Eric Vuillard, The Order of the Day, Other Press, 2018.