When you get right down to it, I’m a lazy reader. I know that probably sounds bizarre coming from someone who regularly extols the virtues of Victorian doorstoppers, but hear me out: I actually find it easier to stick with a single, lengthy novel than to read a series of shorter novels in rapid succession. It could be inertia, or a sense of obligation kicking in, or the simple fact that continuing with one novel doesn’t require learning about an entirely new set of characters, places, and problems—whatever the explanation is, though, it’s certainly my experience of reading.
I say all this by way of (bad) excuse for my usual disinclination to read collections of short stories. Because I am lazy at heart, the idea of reading through a book that requires a recommitment every few pages is not especially appealing to me, although I do make exceptions for authors I really, truly enjoy.
However (and at the risk of seeming truly boastful), I also occasionally make an effort to read something in French, even though my language skills have definitely deteriorated since they peaked in high school and college. I read novels from time to time, but given my aforementioned laziness, short stories are the safer choice when it comes to reading something that will likely require making several appointments with the dictionary. In any case, about a year ago, I had picked up a copy of some short stories by Vercors at a used bookstore. This edition includes “Le Silence de la mer,” “Ce jour-là,” and “L’Imprimerie de Verdun” (all stories about France under the German occupation), and has the additional advantage of including side-by-side definitions of less familiar words and expressions (in French, of course, so that readers can feel they’re not entirely hopeless cases).
A few weeks ago, I decided to finally take a glance at these stories. My reasons, at the time, were primarily utilitarian; it’s probably a vain hope, but I tell myself that reading the occasional piece of literature will be enough to forestall the further disintegration of my language skills. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to discover that I not only enjoyed Vercors’ stories, but also remembered, while reading them, just how powerful the short story form can be.
Obviously, it’s not saying anything new to say that the stripped-down, compact nature of the short story can pack a punch; there’s something about the speed and sparseness of the experience that can be truly overwhelming. But it had been quite a while since I had felt the full magnitude of that particular sensation myself. Truth be told, Vercors reminds me of no one so much as Hemingway. Vercors’ stories are intimate and realistic (bordering, at times, on mundane) portraits of everyday life in WWII France. His prose is plain in the extreme. His characters are realistic and, occasionally, pathetic. All that said, there is a resonance to these stories that is larger than life. Indeed, it’s tempting to draw an analogy between the force of silence in Vercors’ title story and his writing itself; it’s what goes unstated, rumbling just beneath the surface of his work, that makes it so effective. In short, it’s the Iceberg Theory from start to finish.
So which was my favorite? It’s something of a toss-up between “Le Silence de la mer” and “L’Imprimerie de Verdun.” Objectively speaking, the former is likely the better crafted story; besides raising interesting questions about the role of passive resistance, it’s also notable for its semi-sympathetic portrait of a self-deluded German officer—not what you would expect from a member of the French Resistance. Emotionally, though, I have to say that I gravitate more towards “L’Imprimerie de Verdun.” While it doesn’t have quite the depth of “Le Silence,” it’s a touching and painful look at an exceptionally unheroic (and, again, initially self-deluded) man who nevertheless becomes wholeheartedly involved in the distribution of anti-government pamphlets. While I hesitate to call a story of that kind “uplifiting,” it does have a quasi-redemptive arc to it that’s quite moving.
Really, though, I’d recommend all three stories, and as a self-confessed lazy person, I won’t even judge you if you read them in translation.