Article published on July 1, 2016.
Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s is not just Anne Sebba’s inspired idea for a book but also perhaps, unconsciously, a lesson to novelists in the art of fascinating your readers because this book has everything you might want in a novel: intrigue, drama, extraordinary characters the rise and swell of cataclysmic events. Its charm is best summed up by that great Parisian émigré, Edmund White who said “Anne Sebba knows everything about Paris during the war and she relates the end of all the whispered stories I’ve been hearing all my life. She understands everything about the chic, loathsome collaborators and the Holocaust victims, and their stories are told in an irresistible narrative flood.”
What did it feel like to be a woman living in Paris from 1939 to 1949? These were years of fear, power, aggression, courage, deprivation and secrets. Yet, even at the darkest moments of Occupation, with the Swastika flying from the Eiffel Tower and pet dogs abandoned howling on the streets, glamour was ever present. It was women, more than men, who came face to face with the German conquerors on a daily basis. How did these women react to their subjugators? What made them collaborate or resist? And did they have any choice? By looking at a wide range of individuals from collaborators to resisters, actresses and prostitutes to teachers and writers, Anne Sebba shows that women made life-and-death decisions every day, and often did whatever they needed to survive.
Some women, like the heiress Béatrice de Camondo or novelist Irène Némirovsky, converted to Catholicism; others like racing driver Violette Morris embraced the Nazi philosophy; only a handful, like Coco Chanel, retreated to the Ritz with a German lover. A young medical student, Anne Spoerry, gave lethal injections to camp inmates one minute but was also known to have saved the lives of Jews.
But this is not just a book about wartime. Although politics lies at its heart, Les Parisiennes is a fascinating account of the lives of people of the city and, most specifically, its women and young girls.
Bert Wright, Editor – The Nudge List
Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson as a £10.99 hbk on 14th July
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