Tag Archives: Alsace

Verses Nature: Fieldnotes, August – November 2012

Verses Nature is my current novel, which will also be submitted for the Ph.D. in Creative Writing. In a nutshell:

Jean-Joseph, Tatar to his friends, a self-made man in his late fifties and self-proclaimed connoisseur of the opposite sex. Politics, religion, philosophy, culture. And women. Loads to say about life in general and his memorable life in particular. Your loss if you don’t read his life story. Your loss entirely. He’d say.

 

August 2012:

After a year of working on my male protagonist, I find myself in a rut.

repair. destroy. I see a new female character entering the plot, and the whole chemistry changes.

I don’t write in the narrative linear, but sketch scenes, variations, from which I select those that will become the novel. My supervisor (rightly) wishes to see how I am progressing. All I may proffer is a tatter of tales and implore her to trust me.

 

November 2012:

Verses Nature is set in Alsace. And despite my having lived in the region for well over a decade, my interest in local history is genuinely sparked for the very first time as I now begin to think about how I wish to depict the history, the psyche of the place. I’m curious to see how it will be embellished by my personal experience; I have not lived in their Alsace, but in mine…

After a first visit to the local médiathèque, my cloth bag filled with titles in French, German and/or Alsatian, on local legends, war-time Alsace, proverbs, care practices carefully documented by Christian ethnographers (history being everything but neutral…), initial reflections about the politics of language give way to concerns with voice:

How do I bring history into my novel? Whose voices will be heard? How will Voice and Genre interact?

First attempts: http://wp.me/p4NZ58-V

Good old days (2) (Die Wo)

Those who went along with it, those who didn’t

Those who collaborated, being obliged to

Those who thought they were forced to

and gave themselves airs and graces

Those who raised their arms

Those who clenched their fists in their pockets

Those who shouted victory and came out unscathed

Those in it for the business and who made a profit

Those who did it, bowing to orders from above, and who got taken in

Those who did it for their wives

Those who were too young to enter the SS and now begrudge those who were old enough

Those who were big and blonde and dyed their hair brown

Those who were in the party

Those who were angry not to have been able to join the party and who now thank their lucky stars

Those who returned

Those who did not

Those whose return gave us joy

Those who should have stayed where they were

Those who were in the (and thus put up) resistance

Those who were in the FFI: forces françaises de l’intérieur

Those who successfully accomplished a mission

Those who believed themselves to have done so

Those who had to believe they had done so

(…)

Those who have a flag

Those who don’t

Those who have two

Those who have always had two

Those who burn one of them from time to time…

 

 

My translation of a poem by the Alsatian artist Germain Muller, talking about the identity dilemma of the Alsatian during the occupation. In French it’s called Ceux qui (those who). But it’s originally an Alsatian poem and in Alsatian, it’s called Die Wo (which is also German). Notice how it points a finger yet leaves enough room for self-interrogation? It’s easy to say what to do when you don’t have to. Easy to judge. I like to think I’d’ve been one of the nice guys. Guess I’ll never know…

Did you know that one of the devil’s grandmothers is Alsatian? So the saying goes.

 

And here’s another video of Alsace-Lorraine 1871-1918. Couldn’t believe my ears; there’s God Save the Queen in there! For those who speak German, read the comments on YouTube. Seems like the matter of our identity is far from settled? Those who’ve bothered to comment (Deutsches Reich) are mostly shouting for the return of Alsace to Germany. Fabien Kiefer smells a rat:

“you’ve obviously had your brain torn out and replaced by bald head, mustard and cold sweaty socks in ugly Doc Martens. You’ve probably got the face of a pitbull and wear the ugliest gear that reeks of beer. Of course. I know who you are and it makes me want to throw up.”

By the way: in the 1990s 70% of the French avowed to being racist. Does that make being racist a defining characteristic of being French? Course not! It can only be a characteristic of those who were asked, can’t it? But Alsace, my dear Alsace; one of the ‘brownest’ regions in France, I’m told. ‘Browner than your arsehole!’ someone once said to me. And I know a fairly well-known local painter whose name actually only contained one S, but he added another, to show his admiration for that ranting little man with the moustache and only one ball…  Ach, redde m’r nimm devon!

Good old days (1) (if you were lucky enough not to be there)

 

I’m from Alsace in North East France, as you know (meaning: as I’ve told you, even if some of you’ve never heard of the place before). We’ve been pushed around a lot:

A typical citizen in their late 80s at the end of WW2 was born French, became German in 1870, French between the two wars, German again in 1940 and French once more at the end of his life. By the end of WW2 most people didn’t speak French, but were suddenly forced to. Propaganda machine on full blast: c’est chic de parler français. Chic. And Mandatory. The same teachers who had taught in German during the occupation now obliged all the pupils to speak French.  No wonder we’ve got a complex. Many just refuse to talk about it. In Alsatian, we’d say: redde m’r nimm devon. There’s a term for this kind of large-scale cover-up, I read the word somewhere: obscurantism.

I suppose we all develop our own strategies for dealing with a tricky situation, don’t we?

At the end of the war, some used the Nazi flag to make their local costumes. Very nice cotton. Excellent quality…

redde m’r nimm devon…

The good old days? The clogs of our childhood were the poor man’s shoes: village roads were made of dirt and often littered with the manure of the cattle on their way down to the fields. Clogs were robust. Clogs were cheap. The wealthier wore leather shoes. And of course there were still those who had no shoes at all…

Ach, redde m’r nimm devon.

French mums, they’d go to work (still do!) and think there’s something wrong with you if you didn’t. German mums, then and now, tend to stay at home and think you’re a bad mum if you don’t. It’s their Nazi past. Or should I say: nasty? Keeping women in their place, under control and their pockets empty.

Ach, redde m’r nimm devon!