1944 is the latest year selected by Simon and Karen in their biannual reading years club. When I looked at my shelves, I didn’t have much choice from this year – Colette’s Gigi, which as a short novella I’ll try and squeeze in, and my choice below were the only ones immediately to hand (although I think I have a copy of Bellow’s The Dangling Man somewhere)…
Fair Stood the Wind for France by H.E. Bates
This was Bates’s first financially successful novel, published towards the end of WWII. The title comes from the first line of Agincourt, a poem by Michael Drayton (1563–1631). The book was a re-read for me: my mum had urged me to read it when I was a teenager as it was one of her favourite novels. Re-reading it now was akin to returning to it afresh because I couldn’t remember any of the detail, just the general setting. The first lines create an evocative picture:
Sometimes the Alps lying below in the moonlight had the appearance of crisp folds of crumpled cloth. The glacial valleys were alternately shadowy and white as starch in the blank glare of the full moon; and then in the distances, in all directions, as far as it was possible to see, the high now peaks were fluid and glistening as crests of misty water.
John Franklin is an RAF pilot of a Wellington bomber which once over the mountains he has to bring down in an emergency landing in German-occupied France. His crew of four sergeants survive uninjured, but Franklin’s arm is badly hurt. They make their way to an isolated farmhouse, where a French farmer and his family take them in, housing them in their mill. Preparations are made to smuggle them back to England via Vichy-controlled Marseille and thence into Spain, but Franklin’s arm is infected and getting worse. The other four receive papers and go off in pairs, but Franklin must stay, where the farmer’s daughter, Françoise nurses him. They begin to fall in love, of course…
He put his good arm on her shoulder. She did not come towards him. She did not speak either, but presently he felt some of his complicated anger smooth itself out, the moment growing through quietness and hesitation into ease and tenderness, […]
He waited a few seconds and then she turned her body and he kissed her full on the mouth. Her lips were warm and soft and he felt all the former intimacy of the day in the way she let the kiss go on, unprotesting and seriously tender.
Bates balances the romance against the horrors of the war – the Germans round up fifty people from the town and shoot them to show who’s in charge. Françoise’s family suffered during WWI as well as this war, and now there is nothing they wouldn’t do to help their allies. This is mostly a quiet novel, one of those in which much is unsaid, from Franklin’s maturity beyond his years in his leadership and care for his crew and then his internal dilemma of whether to stay or go, to Françoise’s faith and outward calmness and her parents’ stoic assistance – Bates never actually mentions the French resistance, yet papers are obtained. When Françoise and Franklin are together at the farm, it’s as if they live in a bubble, inching towards undying love for each other. The dangerous outside world continues to intrude though, in grim and sad ways, and eventually it is time for Franklin to go.
This is a beautiful novel, sparingly written, achingly tender, yet full of human drama that drew me in again. It is a book to savour. I will be adding it to my Desert Island Library forthwith, and will search out more of Bates’s non-comic novels to read (I have all the Larkins ones which are ‘perfick’ too). (10/10)
See also: Kim’s 2005 review at Reading Matters – here.
Source: Own copy from the TBR.
BUY at Amazon UK below (affiliate link)