counter on blogger

Pickle Me This

December 5, 2007

Villa Air-Bel by Rosemary Sullivan

Full disclosure requires a note that I know Rosemary Sullivan, and like and admire her very much. But it is just as essential to point out also that no amount of affection and admiration alone could have sustained my interest as indeed it was sustained as I read Villa Air-Bel.

Of course the subject matter only helped. Human nature at its most base and then such courage in contrast. And set in France during the early 1940s, which other books like Suite Francaise and April in Paris have so recently brought to life for me. I had never managed to get a real handle on occupied France until encountering these books, which showed that France during WW2 was more than a place on a map upon whose coasts boys died in droves. That there was life going on there all the while, however bizarrely and this France had the very same Paris we know so well from 1920s’ lore– just one example of incongruity. This France, that France; how can we be expected to reconcile this?

Which was just the trouble as Fascism’s grip took hold during the 1930s. It was perhaps the reason why Fascism took hold at all and nobody noticed, because it certainly couldn’t happen there. The very same reason Soviet dissidents flocked to France under Stalin, and others escaped there from the Nazis in the 1930s. France was an oasis of freedom on a continent where totalitarianism was steadily creeping. That the creeping could pervade France as well seemed unfathomable.

All of this leads to the fact that when northern France fell to the Germans in 1940 and Petain et al took up their puppet regime in the south, the country was full of people who would be persecuted under the new regime. Socialists, former Communists, anti-Nazis, intellectuals, bohemians, artists of a leftist sort (ie most), and Jews as anti-semitism became more blatant (the first round-up of French and foreign Jewish residents of Marseille, Sullivan writes, took place in April1941).

The villa itself– that “house in Marseille”– is not as central to the book as the title would suggest. For in order to tell the story of this house which provided refuge for those looking to escape France (the escape no easy trick, by the way, requiring exit visas, transit visas, a country willing to receive them) Sullivan must go back to the early 1930s to explain how these people got to France at all, how France got to France at all, and where the nerve of their rescuers had come from.

At the centre of the story as much as the house is Varian Fry, an American inspired to anti-Fascism after seeing 2 Nazi stormtroopers impale a man’s hand upon a table in a Berlin cafe in 1935. He is sent to Merseille by an American relief organization to facilitate the removal of refugees from France, but soon finds that he is quite powerless under the law. American authorities are willing to do very little to assist his efforts, eager to comply with the Vichy government instead. Fry must resort to illegal means, obtaining fraudulent visas, smuggling refugees over mountains, black market dealings. With his committee he rents Villa Air-Bel, which becomes home to refugees awaiting their departures– artists and writers including Victor Serge, Andre Breton, Max Ernst and Wilfredo Lam.

Truly the idea of these people living together in a French villa while hell was creeping on all sides around them is compelling. Stories of the surrealist games they played to pass the time, the outdoor art shows they held to raise funds, the dinner party upon which the whole book hinges–this is fascinating stuff, particularly when one acknowledges that these people were perpetually under threat. But as the house was a stopgap, of course, there is so much more to the story.

All of this Sullivan, a poet and a skilled and experienced biographer, is well aware of, as she traces the trajectory of these artists’ lives once they’ve left Villa Air-Bel, following their meandering routes towards safe haven. With suspense and such fine detail, she also illustrates the risks Fry and his associates take to help these refugees, eventually, it is said, enabling the escape of 1500 of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Order my Latest Novel


Sign up for Pickle Me This: The Digest

Best of the blog delivered to your inbox each month! The Digest also includes news and updates about my creative projects and opportunities for you to work with me.

Stop Wondering about Blogging, and Build a Blog That’s Wonder-Full:

Get My New Free Download: 5 MORE Prompts to Bring Back Your Blogging Spark!

Photo Kerry Clare with her Laptop

My Books

The Doors
Twitter Pinterest Pinterest Good Reads RSS Post