In Nazi-occupied Paris, most Frenchmen tread warily, but gay nightclub singer Yves Lacroix puts himself in the spotlight with every performance. As a veteran of France’s doomed defense, a survivor of a prison camp, and a “degenerate,” he knows he’s a target. His comic stage persona disguises a shamed, angry heart and gut-wrenching fear for a sister embedded in the Resistance.
Yet Yves ascends the hierarchy of Parisian nightlife to become a star, attracting the attention—and the protection—of the Nazi Oberst Heinrich von Starck. To complicate matters further, young foot soldier Falk Harfner’s naïve adoration of Yves threatens everything he’s worked for. So does Aryan ideologue von Grimmstein, rival to von Starck, who sees something “a bit like a Jew” in Yves.
When an ill-chosen quip can mean torture at the hands of the Gestapo, being the acclaimed Nightingale of Paris might cost Yves his music and his life
Today is the long awaited release day for Nightingale, and so, in lieu of a gushingly embarrassing review of this wonderful historical novel, Aleks Voinov came to see us and answered some probing questions about his book.
A: Thank you for having me and for these interesting questions!
Yves’ creative process is described in detail in the book, would you say that it resemble yours or do you have a different approach?
A: I think we’re pretty much the same there. That’s a part that’s fairly autobiographical. To give more context, there’s a scene when Yves sits down in the dark hours of the morning to write a song, and he thinks about the two sides of creativity. One is what I’d call “enthusiasm”, in the Greek sense, as a kind of divine inspiration. The other he describes as “drudgery”, that’s all craft, all mechanics. When he does write the song, it’s somewhere in between, mostly worried about whether what he has in his head will translate well (or at all):
“Yet it was tender, gentle, almost ephemeral, so much so that he worried that hearing it in his head so clearly meant it wouldn’t translate into the rough stuff of oxygen and language, would, thanks to the uncouth medium, roughen and suffer as a result.”
I think all those are very familiar faces of the process to any artist. Inspiration is amazing, and most definitely the place where Nightingale came from in the first place, but when inspiration leaves (and I think it’s nearly impossible for a whole novel to be written in the “enthusiastic” state), it’s hard work and all about stringing sentences together. Happily, a state in between is most common for me.
Nightingale is a beautiful historical book which manages to convey a very specific environment – Occupied Paris – in the most minute of details, how much research went into creating Occupied Paris in such detail? I know the book has been in the making for some time, how important is research to you as a writer and to an extent as a reader? And what process do you use, if any, to keep a balance between the historical accuracy and the flow of the story?
A: Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
The answer is: a lot of research. Five years ago, I started with a history of the Parisian entertainment industry under the Nazis, and based on footnotes and further research I read German and French biographies and diaries as well as general histories of Occupied Paris.
Kind of bizarrely, I did a lot of research on how the Nazis stole/smuggled European art – because at the beginning I felt Nightingale would be about paintings and a daring raid on a train carrying away Europe’s heritage to Nazi Germany (including betrayal and espionage and bombs and the Resistance trying to save a train when the Allies bomb it).
Needless to say, that’s not how the book turned out (I might write a version of that at some point), and Heinrich’s paintings are the only thing left of that idea. I realised that this battle was going on inside the head of of of the main characters instead, but it’s not what the novel was about.
But to come back to the question – I read pretty much any modern history of Occupied Paris that a) was recommended, b) available and c) in English (my French simply isn’t good enough). My “method” is to saturate my brain with a setting, with facts, with details, and then let them pour out again as I write.
It’s not really an efficient method when it comes to speed, but as a trained historian, that’s how I wrote my research papers, with less focus on details and scenes and more on the large-scale picture, but overall, it’s the same “accumulate, discriminate, deduce” method.
I feel only confident to write about a setting if I can move around in it freely. I end up inhabiting the place – and it was certainly made easier by having visited Paris. On a very real level, I have to build a fictional Paris in my mind and have to be able to see it from every angle.
I found film material absolutely vital. So I listened to chansonniers on youtube or watched documentaries (“The Sorrow and the Pity”) or films (“Is Paris Burning?”) for nuggets I could borrow.
A friend of mine described research as an iceberg. You only see 10% of it, but the 90% that you don’t see can be felt underneath and have a very real impact. Even though I know enough about the setting to write a PhD thesis on it, my job as an artist is to only show the bits that the reader needs to understand – to feel – what’s going on. I wasn’t going to write another non-fiction book on the Occupation, so I cut out back everything that didn’t serve the story.
As a reader, I’m allergic to authors writing for pages and pages about their *research* and not the story. I think it’s rude – like a cook in a restaurant placing the raw meat and unwashed vegetables on your plate instead of serving you a dish.
An often conditioned response to WWII stories is that you are either in the Resistance or you are a collaborator – Yves is really neither, he makes choices – some possibly not very wise – based on his innermost need to keep making music and singing and keeping himself and his friends safe – which to me seemed quite the mirror of Occupied Paris: how much of this comparison, this grey area between survival of the city itself and Yves as a person play in the writing of Nightingale?
A: One thing struck me in “The Sorrow and the Pity”, which asks hard questions about resistance and collaboration. There’s an old Resistant, and he says something along the lines of: “Of course, once it was over, everybody was a Resistant”.
And that mirrors my experience with another oppressive regime – Eastern Germany under the “Socialists”. When people emerge from such regimes, they begin re-interpreting what they did, why they did it, and suddenly everybody was a Resister, because the truth is often painful.
One of the questions I asked myself was – how would I have responded to an oppressive regime, say the Nazis? I kept asking that question, over and over. My hope is that I’d have left the country and gone into exile – like in fact many German intellectuals did. Barring that, there’s “inner exile” – you entomb yourself and try to survive. Would I have resisted? That’s a question that people should try to answer honestly. Most of us wouldn’t. Most of them didn’t.
A very astute observation about the first Resistants was that they were “people who had nothing to lose” – people already on the Nazis’ death lists: Communists, Jews, petty criminals. But Yves’ tragedy in many ways is that, he, in fact, has plenty to lose. So do most other characters. Leaves the uncomfortable grey zone that, I think, most of us would choose and I think that’s a constant through history.
We’re concerned with our day-to-day lives and it takes an extremist, an outcast, to stand up to oppression, even inviting death and torture. I wanted to look at those issues and observe how my characters would respond.
Continuing in the Yves theme, did you worry that making Yves not traditionally heroic would have an impact on how people viewed Nightingale?
A: Absolutely. I had some feedback on the early idea where readers would say, “oh, awesome, it’s about the Resistance! Count me in!” And that might have been an easier book to write – we all have ideas of how that would be, and it’s adventure and heroics and such. Few things are as clear-cut as “Freedom Fighter versus Evil Nazi”. But I realised fairly quickly that that is not what Nightingale is about. It’s a lot more uncomfortable.
But yeah, despair over Yves as the main character almost led to the book being abandoned a few times. I really wanted him to stand up and fight, but then I just let him be and watch how he’d respond.
The three German characters all seem to represent the different sides of the German army – Heinrich with his almost Prussian sense of honour, Grimmstein with his fanatic Gestapo views and Falk as the SS common soldier possibly initially very taken with the symbolism of the National Socialist ideals but after years at the front ready to go back to normal. Was this intentional as well?
A: Pretty much. I did want as strong a contrast as possible between Falk and Heinrich. Heinrich is cultured, speaks French, is a seasoned warrior, a closet case, and has very real power due to being a high-ranking officer in the Wehrmacht. He’s also sympathetic to French values and culture, and is an almost unwitting, possibly even accidental, oppressor.
Falk is none of those things – he’s an ingenue who is so young that the Nazi regime is pretty much the only thing he knows. His redeeming feature is his enthusiasm and a certain poetic bend (Heinrich is a consumer of art, while Falk is budding creator of art) that gets cultured in Paris and that he quickly realises is much more important than war or power. He becomes fully adult when he chooses one over the other.
Grimmstein is your typical “fanatical Nazi” , and most definitely a sadist. I had to dig the deepest to still give him a new spin, because it’s easy to just dismiss him as pure evil. He’s certainly a fanatic – a black-and-white man. To make him believable and bring him to life, I had to read actual Nazi/SS propaganda – Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and so on. The things he says are the things you read in those sources. Writing him was horrible because to tap into the menace of that character, I had to inhabit his skin while writing him, and not judge him from the outside.
Why a book set in WWII in Occupied Paris? Not the easiest of subjects and one that would possibly come with controversial opinions, especially with Yves love life.
A: Gods, yeah. When the idea came, my first response was, “oh gods, I know nothing about French history!” It all got triggered when I read that history on entertainment in Paris under the Nazis. The British writer talks at length about some artists (writers, dancers, singers, actors) who were both homosexual and collaborators, and then ends with “So what is is about homosexuals and collaboration?”, heavily implying that they collaborated because they were gay.
That sentence shocked me and made me angry, and basically Yves came out of my “what the hell did I just read?” response. I wanted to write about a gay man who makes the decisions he makes for certain reasons. Above all, I wanted to understand that “grey zone” halfway between inner resistance and “finding an arrangement” – why people and especially artists would do that.
I was conscious throughout that some readers might find the book hard to stomach – which contributed to it taking so long. I had to verify what can be verified or inferred from the actual facts, and I wanted to do justice to the people who were alive then (and some of them still are). I wanted to write without judgment, so yeah, I struggled pretty hard with the material and the implications.
Above all, I have a new appreciation for the French and what it took for civilians to survive. And how complex things can get romantically – one history I read estimates that hundreds of thousands of children were born from French/German parents during or right after the Occupation. Human beings are messy like that. Every one of those children poses a question mark to national identity and the well-worn cliches about the Occupation.
You choose to set a love story in a very difficult setting amongst three very – at least superficially – different people Yves an artist, an unconventional figure, Falk the SS soldier and Heinrich the very correct officer– did this happen as you were writing or was it planned from the very beginning?
A: The book grew from those three characters. I had Yves first, then Falk, and then Heinrich – we meet them all in the first few chapters, which I wrote quickly, into the dark (read: no outline). And then I just let them loose. I didn’t really plan the book – it happened to me and I stopped a few times because I got stuck or inspiration just wasn’t coming or I had to write about something I needed to research first.
The oppression of the creative process in Nightingale is a very dominant theme, did this come about because of the setting, or was the desire to explore it present before ?
A: It came from the setting after I’d abandoned my whole “Nazis stealing paintings” original idea. During the research it became clear that the Nazis were keeping French art and culture in a real stranglehold – books they didn’t like didn’t get printed, artists had to submit their scripts/texts to a German censor, and some artists were outright killed/imprisoned or forbidden to work. That’s one of the things that every totalitarian system tries to do – control arts and the artists.
For me, the most terrifying scene in the book is when Grimmstein threatens to crush Yves’ throat. The attempt to silence/kill artists is an absolute horror to me. I believe absolutely in creative freedom and the right of the artist to speak truth to power.
You’ve said on social media that you’ve been tempted to rework Nightingale with a female MC, how serious are you about writing a female protagonist?
It’s one of those ideas that came to me when I stepped back from the book and looked at its sexual and gender politics. For example, many women who “slept with the enemy” were humiliated, publically shorn, even whipped (and I assume many were killed and/or raped, though I have no numbers) by their own side as a an act of vengeance once the Germans were gone. Many, especially men, felt that their “horizontal collaboration” had insulted French honour and that embarrassment and rage was then acted out on those women’s’ bodies. Strikingly, I don’t know of homosexual men who were treated the same way by the after-Occupation mob vengeance. In many ways, Yves had it easier than a woman would have had it, so he’s getting off very lightly.
I’d definitely be interested to tell the same (or a very similar) story with a female main character (in my mind I call her “Yvette”) and look at what would have been different. She’d have to worry about slightly different issues (ie, pregnancy) and would have been treated differently by French and Germans alike. I mean, what happens, say, if she had a husband or lover in one of the German POW camps and then falls for an enemy? Different story, and in my view compelling enough to look at it. It’s pretty clear that women were much, much worse off there.
We don’t really have much to add, except you can buy Nightingale here, and you should so very definitely buy it and read it !