Curiously Flat Restraint Eventually Becomes Absorbing
This book, an account written after Rosemary Say’s death, was completed by her daughter and son-in-law. Say was a young woman working as an au-pair in France at the time of the German invasion. This is the story of her left-it-too-late-didn’t-really see-it-coming 2 year attempt to keep her head down, and stay in France – and, when it-had-already-come and she was interned, to survive and escape. The subject matter was of interest to me, as I hadn’t really given much thought before to non-Jewish foreign nationals, living in France once Great Britain and Germany were at war.
The preface, by Rosemary Say’s daughter, talks about how getting her mother to express how she FELT while the events were happening, or how she FELT after the reflections of decades, was a little like drawing teeth. I guess part of it was the time itself, when emotional baring of the soul was far less common, when keeping a stiff upper lip and just getting on with things was the modus operandi, but, coupled with this, I surmise was Say’s own character. She does not seem to be a person particularly overburdened with imagination, which can be a good thing as well as a bad thing! It was possibly that lack of imagination – and a political naivite and disinterest which led to her not leaving France at an earlier time in the first place.
Initially, I struggled a little with the book, as that very absence of emotion in the writing meant it was harder to be drawn in to imagining what it must have been like. She doesn’t paint the pictures, there’s a fairly dry recounting, but as I got further into the book, I became more and more absorbed by her very economy of words, her brisk, rather self-effacing personality and style of writing, and her very lack of emotionalism. This is not a shock-and-weep-fest. She continues to hide more than she reveals, and is pretty brisk and terse about the various love affairs. Ms Say was clearly no prude, and recounts without emotion both encounters in which she used her sex to bargain for favours with officials, as well as relationships with lovers for pure pleasure. She seems to have been pretty pragmatic about the former, and there is no suggestion that rape or coercion was involved (however much the inequality between her and the man offering something she needed in return for sex, is obvious) Much more emotion accrues to her sense of injustice involved in the pecuniary transactions she and her family had, with the British Government, over the financial cost of her eventual return to the UK, following her escape. Although she chose to ignore the original advice to get out, the fact remained that when she eventually set out to leave France, the Embassy official gave her some rather extraordinarily bad advice, telling her to go back to Paris as part of the route, when everyone was fleeing in the opposite direction as the Germans invaded.
In the end, I concluded Say’s at times irritating reserve and refusal to ‘spill her soul’ was a real and positive advantage, giving me more of an insight to how times have changed, and how sometimes our over-readiness to emote can be too much. Less can be more