The Year Is '42by Nella Bielski
Wehrmacht officer Karl Bazinger is living the high life in Occupied Paris. But with his glamorous dinner companions and his open disdain for the Nazis, he begins to attract the attention of the SS. He is drawn into further trouble when he receives a suspicious visit from a friend who may be involved in resistance activities. To lower his profile, Karl requests a transfer to Kiev, where he discovers the extent of the Nazi atrocities. He then begins to suffer from a mysterious ailment, and through the ministrations of a beautiful Russian doctor, he finds his vital reconnection to hope. Urbane, subtle, and elegiac, The Year is ’42 is a moving portrait of ordinary lives lived under the extraordinary circumstances of war.
"Absorbing. . . . So realistic that it seems almost impossible that the story and all the characters are entirely fictional."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"A shadowy novel, riddled with doubts and fears and suspicions that blow through the two cities and the village in a ghostly way. And it is full of beauty; fields, rivers, delicious meals and conversations." —Los Angeles Times
“What no resumé can transmit is the luminosity of this work, the magic it works on the reader as it draws one into 1942. . . . This is one of those very rare novels that you want to read again as soon as you’ve got to the end.” —The Guardian (London)
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The Year Is '42
By Nella Bielski
Random HouseNella Bielski
All right reserved.
The war went on and every day Karl Bazinger took a bath. One morning, doubtless because he'd woken up too early, he started to worry about his son Werner who would soon be called up for military service: he would be stationed in Berlin for Air Force training. Karl Bazinger soaped his heels, his stomach and then his carroty pubic hair. He had a delicate skin, not at all hirsute, but the hair on his head, considering he was nearly fifty, was remarkably abundant. 'Like a perfectly tended lawn,' Madeleine once commented. Karl Bazinger smiled. Very young women didn't interest him much, but Madeleine with her interminable legs coiled up on her sofa, chin on her knees, black hair falling over her shoulders, wondering what Nietzsche meant-this touched him. Otherwise he detested lawns. Around his house in Saxony there wasn't one, there was only grass which he cut with a scythe, and on which sheep grazed, munching beneath the windows of the house. When he sat at his work table, he would contemplate their faces. It was one of his foibles. Each sheep for him had a face and they reminded him of somewhere far away and fresh, something to do with childhood. This was odd, because when he was a child, there hadn't been a single sheep on the horizon.
Karl Bazinger had a second son, Peter, who was seven. His stoical wifewho looked after the house in Saxony was called Loremarie. Now, with the invasion of Russia, it seemed unlikely that he'd be given any leave. No matter. Life in Paris was amusing. He was sought after here. From Passy to Malesherbes, with a stopover in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, he went from salon to salon and was received with open arms.
Every Thursday there was a dinner at the Nallets' place. Their dining room, wooden panelled, gave straight on to a garden where birds sang without stop. Noodles served with truffles, a salad with dandelions picked in the Bois de Boulogne, Haut Brion! Apart from the hosts, there were never more than four carefully chosen guests. One week he was sitting at the dinner table opposite Jean Cocteau, another week he met Eloi Bey, his old crony from Cairo, and on another occasion it was Coco Chanel, decked out in jewellery.
There had been only one alarming moment in his Parisian high life, and that was when von Stulpnagel, as they passed each other in a corridor of the Hotel Majestic, which was being used as their military HQ, suddenly came out with: 'It's soon going to be tricky to keep you here, Karl. You can of course talk to people in any language you like-you're a linguist, but be careful they don't start talking about you across the street in Security.' A strange hint. Provoked by what? he asked himself. Then he remembered. Yes, it was at the Nallets'. There had been an antique dealer from the Faubourg Saint-Honore, who always wore a shawl over his shoulders and who was talking about coming across some letters of Rimbaud's in Abyssinia. His own friend, the photographer Feval, had been there too. Karl Bazinger liked to drop in at the Fevals' whenever he was near the Place des Vosges. The conversation that particular evening had turned from Rimbaud to Yeats. Feval was yawning, Madeleine was playing footsie with him under the table and stroking his leg, and he had started to hold forth in English. In fact English was often spoken at the Nallets', it was their first language. Yes, he had forgotten the servants. The servants were always there, observing like ghosts. And there he was, Karl Bazinger, officer in the Wehrmacht, speaking fluent English in war-time Paris! And this was noticed. Things were never simple any more. Even a thousand kilometres away from Prinz-Albrechtstrasse, the SS managed to be present. Karl Bazinger shivered; his bath water had gone cold.
He ran in some hot, whilst going over the last few months in his mind. A fortnight after the hint in the Majestic corridor, he was sent for by Colonel Oswer who was on von Schelenberg's staff. It didn't go too badly. In the twenties he and Peter Oswer had been part of the same circle of friends in Gottingen, studying law.
Your social whirl, Bazinger, has become a legend-drawled Peter Oswer, who had just been promoted to colonel. A legend! We won't talk about your success with women. Congratulations, fine! What we will talk about is how your talents might be useful. We don't want the Gestapo moving in with us, do we? I can tell you, they're already knocking at the door. Let's be straightforward, Bazinger. Given your special position in Paris high society, it would be best if you kept an ear open. You follow me? For instance, there's a Russian woman, a certain Dr Trubetskoi, once a princess-yes, I know, all White Russians claim to be princesses. She runs a clinic in Bourg-la-Reine. There may be something going on. Have you by any chance been there? Or do you only meet her in cemeteries? We know, you see. Then there's that exquisite Eloi Bey with whom you take tea in the Place du Palais Bourbon. You're not going to tell me you aren't aware she's still involved with British Intelligence-yes, up to her sweet elbows! For the moment the French are playing quiet, it's true, but the war is bedding down, Bazinger. In enemy territory, one has to be prepared for anything.
Karl Bazinger got out of the bath tub, dried himself quickly with a large, heavy towel and put on his uniform. The door of his wardrobe was a mirror. He looked at himself and poured a glass of Evian water. He had remained slim despite the dinner parties and their succession of delicacies. Was he still visibly a seducer? He could pretend to be. He knew how to listen, he knew how to caress. And whilst doing so, he withdrew into himself. And in that place to which he withdrew, the war didn't count for much.
Today was his day off, Wednesday, 11th April, 1942. The curtain let in a little bar of daylight. He could hear the sound of traffic braking, the roar of a motorbike, and two guttural voices exchanging a Heil Hitler! Every time he heard that greeting in the street, here in Paris, it grated. Yet there was nothing to be done.
In the mirror he saw his perfectly pressed uniform, the Iron Cross, awarded him twenty-six years ago for an action in the trenches near Abbeville, the brown eyes with a fleck of yellow in their irises, the eyes which betrayed no evident pleasure in what they saw. Try and be a little more consequential, Karl, you're going soft in this city of legends, you're becoming too impressionable for an old soldier.
Your absurd speech about Yeats the other evening at the Nallets' was at the level of a first-year scholarship boy at Balliol trying to impress his elders! Personal freedom, respect for the individual and his private life, all those ancient shibboleths you discussed for years, where have they got you-you, who swore to devote your life to the common good of the nation? So you don't get on so well with the chancellor and his aides, what of it? You're still a patriot, Karl, and a son of the fatherland.
Karl Bazinger screwed up his face. He had forgotten to shave. Instantly he decided he wouldn't shave and would go out dressed as a civilian. After all, it was his day off. He would see Madeleine. Her telephone number-Princesse 23-24-was like a jingle of six notes in his head. 9.30 a.m. She'd be on her way to the Sorbonne now. Every Wednesday she went to hear Bachelard. The mystery of the elements-air, fire, earth-were retold every Wednesday by the Professor as if they were a fairy story, and Madeleine loved it. For a second Karl Bazinger became nostalgic. He remembered the time when, opening Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, he himself had felt like an Egyptian priest on the point of being initiated.
Madeleine lived in a large flat belonging to her parents, Rue des Belles-Feuilles. Her mother and her younger sister were in the country on their property in the Gers. Her father, who was in the textile business, had left for California at the beginning of 1940 and had then decided, all things considered, that it was better not to return. He was an impetuous man and some said that Madeleine had inherited his impetuousness. She had an aunt, Simone, who was her father's sister. Madeleine was the apple of her aunt's eye. When Madeleine had left for Paris, the aunt had followed. No daughter of a good family could be left alone in a city under foreign occupation.
She was careful about appearances: a pigtail, schoolgirl shoes and socks, and a bicycle to go to her lectures by the Professor on the other side of the Seine. She had about her something of Garbo perhaps: the same very big feet, a thin pale face, the famous arched eyebrows, only her eyes, unlike Garbo's, were dark and burning-like those of a nordic Carmen. Her recklessness somewhat worried him. She needed to be checked a little, so that what she called 'their friendship' became a little less blatant.
Princesse 23-24 was the number, not of her parents' flat, but of a loft in the Rue du Dragon that a cousin had lent her. There was a little courtyard. There were toilets on the landing, no concierge, and an architect used the lower floors as an office. In Karl's eyes the nest could not have been more Parisian. A rustic table, polished floorboards, a little chimney, a sofa, the walls covered with bookshelves, and above them, a row of gouache paintings of rooftops. The first, going from left to right, was easily recognisable; then they became more simplified and the last was almost abstract.
Edith's brother did them, Madeleine said. I like them. It's the painting of the future.
She spoke rather sharply: little phrases that came in bursts. And certain words were not in her vocabulary: words like thank you, au revoir, hello, good morning.
You are my favourite, my dream, she said to Karl, welcoming him to the loft. She was wearing a sweater and men's trousers. You're my homme fatal.
Fatal? he replied with a smile that he knew was disarming. Why fatal? I thought it was only women who could be called femmes fatales.
One day, she said, and I suppose it will be very soon, you will disappear from my life and I will never be the same again.
You always forget, he said, kissing her lips, that I'm an enemy.
To which she replied: There are others, many others, who are more so.
She had the cheek of a delinquent. For Karl Bazinger who, on occasion, could almost admit to himself that he was suffocating in the uniform he wore, she was like a breath of fresh air. At times this sense of suffocation was acute, yet he had to be sure no one else saw it. It was on New Year's Eve, the year before, that he had first set eyes on Madeleine and, like so much else in his new Parisian life, this had occurred at the Nallets', Boulevard Malesherbes.
Madeleine had turned up at midnight, with her mother who was still young and who wore something black, chic as only Parisiennes knew how. The guests were wandering from salon to salon. The mother started to play bridge in the library. Madeleine danced a little but without enthusiasm. Then he saw her standing by a fireplace-the fire had gone out-fingering the glove she had taken off. He saw other couples half-heartedly dancing.
She wore a cream-coloured dress, very tight, which left her shoulders bare. She had put her hair up and had pinned a red camellia to her chignon. In the light from the candles on the mantelpiece, her face looked tired. Yet the fullness of her lips and her knowing expression, which nevertheless betrayed a delight in being alive, showed how young she was. He approached her.
You're not drinking anything?
No, certainly not. Are you the famous Karl Bazinger who spends his time in China and India and the Sahara? She asked this without looking at him. I've been dying to meet you.
I'm honoured, he said, touching the hand which still had a glove on it. Perhaps she was talking about somebody else.
You were looking at me. Don't say no. I noticed immediately. You were looking at me.
For good reason. And I wouldn't say no, not even under torture.
Flatterer! I expected better of you.
For the first time, she looked him in the eye. And he felt himself a prey in the claws of this teenager, who was reviving him, bringing him back to life.
Have you got anything to write with?
Yes, he had. She took off the second glove and wrote on a scrap of paper. Princesse 23-24.
You'll find me at this number.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Year Is '42 by Nella Bielski Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Nella Bielski was born in the Ukraine and studied philosophy at Moscow University. Living in Paris, she writes in French and is the author of several novels including Oranges for the Son of Alexander Levy and After Arkadia. She has written scripts for the cinema–Isabelle (published by Arcadia Press)–and plays for the theater. A Question of Geography was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
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