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The Forests of the Night by Jean-Louis…
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The Forests of the Night (1947)

by Jean-Louis Curtis

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The Forests of the Night won the Prix Goncourt in 1947, probably France's most prestigious literary award. The story takes place during WWII on the homefront of occupied France, set in the small town of Saint-Clar near the Pyrenees. It opens in 1942 when the Resistance began in earnest, concluding in 1946. Stylistically the writing is straightforward and easy to read, Curtis was not a stylist, like Balzac his strength is in depicting society through a multitude of character portraits.

The Forests of the Night is historically important as the first post-war novel to question the myth that France was a nation of resistors, the idea that only a few bad apples were collaborators and that most everyone else resisted or at least objected to the German occupation. This issue wasn't openly resolved in French society until the 1970's, after many of the people involved in the events had passed away, so the novel was ahead of its time by daring to critically show what France was really like under the Germans, the good and the bad. Curtis' paints "acid portraits" of those who were apathetic, self-serving, unpatriotic and merely playing at being resistors. The novel is best read today for its historical content because it brings alive everything we read in history books. As entertainment, it is not bad, but something of a period piece. The story is believable and even exciting at times, but Curtis spends a lot of space atomizing certain French character types and classes that can seem tedious and opaque today. Still, it's an important document written just after the war describing the many faceted and complex French relationships with the Germans - as a social criticism, it's the best type of novel.

It was first published in English in 1950 (1951 US) and has been out of print since, probably very few English readers have heard of it. Curtis wrote dozens of novels over his lifetime and was very popular in France. This is critically his best, according to Martin Seymour-Smith.

--Review by Stephen Balbach, via CoolReading (c) 2008 cc-by-nd ( )
  Stbalbach | Mar 30, 2009 |
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