Éric Vuillard won the 2017 Goncourt Prize, France’s most prestigious literary honor, for his book L’Ordre du jour. Its 132 small pages form very likely the slenderest volume ever awarded the prize since it was established in 1903. The book’s oddities do not end with brevity. The Goncourt Prize is usually awarded for fiction, but L’Ordre du jour, recently published in an English translation under the title The Order of the Day, comes closer to nonfiction. The author calls it a récit, a term with no exact English equivalent that means a narrative, not necessarily autobiographical, in which we are always aware of the presence of an intervening narrator.
The Order of the Day presents in minute detail two seemingly separate events in the early history of Nazi Germany. The first is a private meeting of twenty-four German industrialists and bankers with Hitler on February 20, 1933, just three weeks after the Nazi leader had become chancellor of Germany. Hermann Goering explains to the assembled men that the Nazi Party needs funds to prepare for forthcoming parliamentary elections that will settle definitively Germany’s social conflicts. He promises that they will be the last elections in Germany for many years, perhaps a century. Then Hitler comes in and harangues his visitors with an account of his worldview and his intention to rid Germany of communism. Addressing their concern about rumors of unorthodox economic ideas among his associates, he reassures them that he will uphold the rights of property and enterprise. When he finishes, the men open their checkbooks.
The second event, more complex and recounted at much greater length, is Hitler’s occupation of Austria in early 1938. The process begins on February 12 at Hitler’s alpine chalet, where the Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg has been summoned only to undergo a notorious bullying from the Führer. The browbeaten Schuschnigg agrees to a number of steps that put Austrian Nazis in control of his country, but when he pushes back with the announcement of a national plebiscite to affirm its independence, German military units enter Austria on March 12. The matter ends with Hitler’s declaration of Anschluss—union of the two countries—before a delirious crowd in Vienna on March 15.
Over the course of eight earlier books Éric Vuillard has developed a personal style of historical narrative. The Actes Sud publishing house brought out four of these récits in rapid succession between 2012 and 2016. Each one recounts in close focus crucial but disparate moments, mostly within some major historical episode, with relatively little attention to the larger circumstances. La Bataille d’Occident (2012) examines the origins and the opening campaign of World War I, turning abruptly at the end to the attempted assassination in 1915 of the financier J.P. Morgan Jr. Congo (2012) recounts the Congress of Berlin in 1884,…
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