May 2, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Originally published as The Girl Who Fell From The Sky in the UK, Simon Mawer's novel Trapeze is a thrilling example of literary historical fiction.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Much-lauded British author Mawer vividly describes the deprivations in a war occupied country and its once-vibrant capital and provides testimony to the courage of countless members of the French Resistance. But this is primarily a masterfully crafted homage to the 53 extraordinary women of the French section of the SOE on whose actual exploits the novel is based. With its lyrical yet spare prose and heart-pounding climax, this is a compelling historical thriller of the highest order."
My new novel, called Trapeze, will be published in May and tells the story of a women agent of the British Special Operations Executive who is trained as an agent and parachuted into occupied France to work with the resistance. It is set entirely in 1943, so has wartime music in the background although only one song is mentioned by name. Let's start with that:
"Puisque vous partez en voyage" – Jean Sablon & Mireille
A wonderful bitter-sweet French dialogue between him and her as she leaves on a train journey, their first separation since getting together. First sung by Jean Sablon and Mireille in 1935, it's this recording that is played in Trapeze – while Special Operations Executive agents are awaiting their parachute drop into occupied France in 1943. A more recent version was recorded by Françoise Hardy, along with her husband Jacques Dutronc, in her 2000 album Clair Obscur. Curiously in this recording the man and woman roles are reversed – this time he's leaving. When I was a young teenager I was more passionately in love with Françoise Hardy than it is possible to imagine. These things happen. Eventually you get grown up enough to admit to them.
"Je Tire Ma Révérance" – Jean Sablon
Another French one. Why is it they have all the best songs? It means "I take my leave" or "I bow out" and it was popular among the men and women of the French Section of SOE. In fact it is used in the one piece of film – a short documentary about the training and mission of two SOE agents – that exists from those days. It was also my parents' song when they were courting. Those were the days. What options do you have nowadays?
"Nuages" – Django Reinhardt
The ultimate cool, first recorded in Paris in 1940, with the Quintette du Hot Club de France, Stephane Grapelli on the violin and Django playing guitar in his inimitable fashion. Following an accident at the age of eighteen he only had proper use of the first two fingers of his left hand and yet he played the guitar like an angel – or perhaps a demon.
"J'Attendrais" – by any number of people
One of the great classics coming from just before the war. "I will wait" – and people in France in 1940 had a lot of waiting to do. First sung by Rina Ketty in 1938 and Jean Sablon shortly after, it also got the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grapelli treatment. You can pick this version up on film, on YouTube. Amazing stuff.
"Il n'y a plus d'après" – Juliette Gréco
During the war Juliette Gréco worked for the Resistance and, along with her mother and older sister, was imprisoned at the notorious Fresnes prison outside Paris. Her mother and sister were both deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp but Juliette, a mere 15 years old, was deemed too young to be of significance and was simply released onto the streets of Paris. She gravitated to the Left Bank where this song is set and where much of Trapeze takes place. After the war Gréco became the icon of Left Bank existentialism and a muse of Jean-Paul Satre. She also had an intense love affair with visiting jazzman Miles Davis. Not only did Juliette Gréco survive the Gestapo, she has survived everything else that life could thrown at her and is still recording at the age of 85!
"That Lovely Weekend" – Dorothy Carless with Geraldo and his Orchestra. Also recorded by Vera Lynn.
Sentiment isn't what it used to be. The Second World War was an extraordinary time for redefining social relationships and this song from 1942 seems to sum it all up. Although it was a big hit the BBC banned its broadcast over the radio. Why? Well, she's thanking him for the two days they spent together before he goes off to war. It's pretty clear that they sleep together – "then breakfast next morning, just we two alone" – but there is no indication that they are married. That's what Auntie BBC didn't like. It couldn't possibly be seen conniving at an illicit relationship and so the ban was imposed. Innocent times or hypocrisy? Or just one part of society not yet caught up with another? Of course that kind of thing didn't end with the war – remember that a change in words was required when the Rolling Stones first performed on the Ed Sullivan Show: "Let's Spend The Night Together" had to become "Let's Spend Some Time Together" to Mick Jagger's obvious disgust as he was singing it. That was in 1967.
Personal note – I actually knew the writer of "That Lovely Weekend." Moira Heath was wife of British bandleader Ted Heath and mother of a school friend of mine. I stayed with them when Ted was still alive, although sadly he was very ill at the time having suffered a stroke when he was only 62. I remember talking with Moira about the song, probably at about the same time the Stones were having their argument with Ed Sullivan. The irony was that the words of the song came from a little poem she had written… to her husband. So the two lovers in the song were in fact married after all. Good old BBC.
"In The Mood" – Glen Miller and the American Band of the AEF
Of course the background – and foreground – music to the whole of the war was big band swing. And for British audiences this reached its apogee when Captain Glenn Miller came to Britain in 1944 with his band of the Allied Expeditionary Force (aka the band of the Army Air Force). "In The Mood" was the Glenn Miller signature tune but it was covered by many outfits, including the Royal Air Force's own dance band, the Squadronaires.
"Why Don't You Do Right" – Norma Egstrom with the Benny Goodman Orchestra
My favourite of them all, both as band and singer. The wonderful Peggy Lee, doing it right as only she could. The flavour of the forties distilled into one beautiful woman.
"When the Lights Come on Again" – Vera Lynn
And to finish up, Vera Lynn yearning for the moment when it would all be over. In Trapeze we don't make it through to the moment when the lights come on again, but it was what everyone was living for even though millions never saw it. Dame Vera is still going strong at the age of 94. What is it about women singers of the last war? In 2009 she even made it to number 1 in the British album charts with a "very best of" selection. There are songs of her that still reduce me to tears – the "White Cliffs of Dover," and "We'll Meet Again." Sad, isn't it?
Simon Mawer and Trapeze links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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