The Paris Architect
by Charles Belfoure
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2013
In the title story of Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, a group of Jewish friends play a morbid game in which they imagine who among their Gentile friends would hide them if there were a second Holocaust. That weird scene came to mind as I started reading The Paris Architect, which tells the story of a few non-Jewish Frenchmen who devise ingenious hiding spots for Jews throughout Paris during the Nazi occupation. In an epilogue, Belfoure writes that the book isn’t necessarily based on true events during the Holocaust that he knew of, but instead that he drew his inspiration from “priest holes” that were designed for Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth I. He then turned “the Elizabethan-age carpenter into a gentile architect who designs temporary hiding places for Jews escaping the Nazis.”
The main character, Lucien, is a non-Jewish Parisian architect who is hired by a wealthy businessman (also non-Jewish) to create these hiding spaces. The wealthy patron is driven to do this because he wants to honor the memory of his beloved childhood nanny who was Jewish. While initially Lucien takes on the project for the money, eventually he does it (and continues to risk his life) because of combined hatred of Nazis and developing sense of altruism.
Belfoure was an architect before he was a writer. His interest in and experience with architecture is evident by his inclusion of characters discussing Bauhaus, modernism, Le Corbusier, and Speer. The fact that he was an architect before he was a writer is also evident in the awkward and stilted prose. This kind of writing is, I think, pretty usual for this particular genre that is known as “Holocaust fiction” (it’s an actual category on Amazon). I don’t think “Holocaust fiction” applies to books like Primo Levi’s If This is A Man or Elie Wiesel’s Night. Technically those might even be called memoirs instead, but they are also of a different genre because of the masterful writing. “Holocaust fiction” is a sort of a blend between historical fiction and chick lit and sometimes reminds me of the “young adult” category of teen fiction. Instead of relying on action or nuance to get the point across, Belfoure hits his readers over the head like this:
“The Serraults’ death had made Lucien see things in a different light. The sight of the frail elderly couple dead with handkerchiefs in their mouth had jolted him. They’d died saving him, when he was supposed to save them. He realized that the sheer hatred and brutality heaped upon the Jews was something he now couldn’t ignore.”
“…Bette was bowled over the revelation. She’d never had a man willing to die for something. This single act of courage was very attractive to her, more enticing than a man with a villa or a Bugatti. Lucien stirred something in her heart that none of the scores of others ever had. As Bette got older, she had a keener sense of what was love and what was not. She knew she was falling in love with Lucien.”
Ok, well, one doesn’t buy Kraft singles and then complain that it doesn’t hold up to French brie. Everything has its place, including [processed] cheesiness. * (the best cheese for grilled cheese is kraft singles) But if the purpose of this style is an easy read that gives a delicious tug at the sentimental heartstrings, a maudlin emotional fantasy with a satisfyingly bittersweet ending, then is it appropriate to have the Holocaust act as a means to those ends?
Other “Holocaust fiction” books have done very well – The Storyteller, Sarah’s Key, The Baker’s Daughter – and this one, too, is on the “popular new release” shelf at Barnes and Noble. I’ve been seeing movie previews for The Book Thief, which is based on a novel of this genre as well. With any of these books or the movie, which combine a sentimental schmaltz story with the Holocuast,, I think it’s interesting to consider, among other questions:
• Does the use of the Holocaust in a chick-lit setting trivialize the Holocaust?
• Or does it serve a useful purpose by bringing the events of the Holocaust to a wider audience, not just Jews schooled in it since Hebrew School?
• What is the difference between having a schlocky Holocaust novel and something of this same genre/style that is set during the Civil War or the London Bubonic Plague or any other terrible event?
I have a few responses, though by no means am I taking sides on any of these questions. I just think they should be up for discussion.
In regards to #1, it really does depend on each book. Some are better than others. I hated Picoult’s novel The Storyteller because it seemed to endorse the idea that the Germans were “just following orders” and most of them were pretty innocent. The Baker’s Daughter wasn’t much better. Sarah’s Key was pretty tough to get through just in terms of readability, and I think does the most egregious job of “using” the Holocaust to wring reader’s tears, but it did bring to light a part of Holocaust history that really doesn’t get much attention, anywhere. The Paris Architect was interesting in that, though it seems to be written in a style like these others that is geared toward women, includes some pretty graphic torture and violence. This is a “good” thing, in that I think it highlights how vicious the Nazis were, and it helps demolish that argument about just following orders.
In regards to #2, I’ve seen this shocking video going around the inter webs lately, so I guess Holocaust fiction could be very helpful in general exposure to the topic.
I think #3 is a much larger and longer discussion than I want to do here, but I think the Holocaust was qualitatively different from almost any other event in that it was part of a purposeful, evil plan aimed at complete and total destruction. The modernity of it, too, is something I think that makes it charged, as well as the dread that Jews have often been targeted so it wasn’t a completely singular event. From my point of view, it is also still too close in memory.
But, as I said before, these aren’t definite answers, just initial thoughts that might be good to take up if ever these books came up for a turn in a synagogue book club. There certainly have been dissertations and articles written about this phenomenon, as well as related ones: I mean, does it “trivialize” the Holocaust to have the Nazis be generic bad guys in every other war movie? Or is it actually a good thing?