(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Alice Kaplan is a professor of romance studies and literature at Duke University. She is the author of French Lessons: A Memoir (1993), a well-received memoir tracing her vocation as a student and teacher of French and, in particular, a scholar and historian of French literary fascism. The daughter of an American lawyer who took part in the Nuremberg war crimes trials of 1945-1946, Kaplan stumbled upon a file of documents and photos detailing the Holocaust when she was eight years old, in the aftermath of her father’s sudden death; as an adolescent, she discovered the French language and proceeded toward an academic major in French at the University of California at Berkeley and a Ph.D. from Yale University. From her doctoral dissertation onward, Kaplan’s research has dealt primarily with the evolution and prevalence of fascist rhetoric in France since World War I. The work of Robert Brasillach, a brilliant and caustic writer who rose to near celebrity during the years between world wars, figures prominently in Kaplan’sReproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life (1986), along with the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, among others. In The Collaborator, Kaplan proceeds through rhetorical criticism toward cultural and political history, examining both the facts and the symbolism of Brasillach’s apparently singular case.

On the morning of February 6, 1945, with World War II still in progress, Robert Brasillach was put to death by firing squad at the Montrouge fort in Paris, two weeks and four days after his trial and conviction on charges of treason against the French nation. As duly noted at the time, the “nation” that tried, sentenced, and executed him was the provisional government of Charles de Gaulle, quickly assembled from loose parts after the liberation in August, 1944. Unlike most of the collaborators then being rounded up and sentenced, Brasillach was neither official personage nor outlaw, but rather a journalist and “man of letters” in the French tradition with several novels and volumes of literary criticism to his credit. From the early 1930’s onward, however, his writing had hewed increasingly to the extreme right, from nationalism to xenophobia toward fascism; after the fall of France in June, 1940, he wrote without apology as a spokesman and publicist for the Nazi occupation. Well-educated and well-read, writing with verve and wit, Brasillach had seldom kept a low profile; by the end of 1944, with the defeat of his Nazi protectors a probability if not yet a certainty, he had become a highly visible moving target. Unlike other collaborators, however, he had not fled to Germany with the departing Nazis; after a brief period in hiding, he had turned himself in to the authorities after learning that his mother was being held hostage in his place. To the end, he remained firm in his stated convictions, making no attempt to mollify his captors. His last words, recorded for posterity, were “Vive la France, quand même!” (Long live France, anyway!) It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Kaplan has entitled her volume simply The Collaborator; as she will conclude, Brasillach has managed to maintain high visibility even long after death.

The elder child and only son of a career army officer, Robert Brasillach was born on March 31, l909, in Perpignan, not far from the Spanish border. His father was killed in action in 1914, not in World War I itself but during a colonial skirmish in Morocco. After the war, his mother married Dr. Paul Maugis, a physician then stationed in Perpignan; the family then moved to the doctor’s hometown of Sens, in northern Burgundy, upon his return to civilian life and practice. Young Robert began his secondary education at the Lycée of Sens, completing it at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris in preparation for competitive admission to the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, the traditional training ground for French intellectuals and academics. At Louis-le-Grand, young Brasillach began an association with the nationalist, royalist right personified by the writer and speaker Charles Maurras, leader of the Action Française. As Kaplan points out:

The Action Française was at once a political party—the cradle of the right wing in this century—a daily newspaper, and a way of thinking. The Action Française stood for anti-Semitic nationalism, royalism, and Catholicism, and for hatred of foreigners, Germans as much as Jews.

Kaplan concedes, however, that the daily paper itself reached a much wider audience: “It had a reputation as the indispensable newspaper for people who were interested in literature, whatever their politics.” In 1931, while still a student at the Ecole Normale, Brasillach was put in charge of the literary page of the Action Française newspaper, the youngest critic or editor in the paper’s history. He had already written for other periodicals and was about to publish his first book, a critical appreciation of the Roman poet Vergil. Given the quickness of his wit and the vigor of...

(The entire section is 2083 words.)