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Testimonies from the Margins

Silenced Voices in Sebastian Faulks’s Novel Paris Echo

Les voix silencieuses dans Paris Echo de Sebastian Faulks
Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz


Dans le roman, deux individus issus de milieux spatio-culturels dissemblables alternent dans la narration à la première personne. Les voix sont celles de Hannah, une postdoctorante américaine de trente et un ans, qui vient à Paris pour enquêter sur l'histoire empirique des femmes françaises pendant l'occupation allemande, et celle de Tariq, un fugueur marocain de dix-neuf ans. Hannah engage Tariq pour l’aider à mener les entretiens avec les témoins encore vivants et les traductions des témoignages enregistrés qui n'ont pratiquement jamais été portés à la connaissance du public. Les deux narrateurs partagent une position de départ sans engagement, qui repose, pour l'Américaine, sur son approche érudite de l'étranger et, pour Tariq, sur sa jeunesse aventureuse, comme sur son ignorance de l'Europe et de l'histoire (coloniale) française. La question de la reconnaissance des visibilisés est abordée à plusieurs niveaux narratifs et générationnels : dans les récits enchâssés racontés à différentes époques par les témoins, et dans la réponse des explorateurs aux récits auxquels ils sont confrontés dans leur situation disloquée.

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1In Paris Echo (2018), the writer Sebastian Faulks, who is also an investigative journalist, displays again an interest in the history of France and 20th-century wars. These themes link the novel back to his earlier works Birdsong and especially Charlotte Gray. The motif of the big city as an archetype of merger and obliteration also materialises once more, whereas London was the focus and setting of A Week in December (2009). Its satirical portrayal of the British capital in the times of Neo-Liberalism has elicited considerable critical attention (see Gymnich).

2My contribution to the present volume addresses Paris Echo as a narrative representation of social (in)visibility with its historical conditions and their effects. A major intradiegetic aim of this novel, I contend, is to make the lives of invisible characters audible. In her book Social Invisibility and Diasporas in Anglophone Literature and Culture Françoise Král analyses the invisibility of ethnic minorities and migrants. With her introduction she defines an individual’s or a group’s (in)visibility as ‘the level of social recognition, political validation and the right to participate in the life . . . of a community’ (2). Of these parameters especially the socio-political circumstances reveal themselves as relevant for invisibility in Paris Echo too. Král explicitly mentions literature as one of the disciplines which inquire into invisibility as ‘a polyvalent category’ (41). In Faulks’s narrative about an American historian’s empirical research in Paris, sociological issues such as the distinction between individual and collective recollections, official and private, or personal and historical memory (see Král 2) are also touched upon. The fictional text does not avoid distressing or shameful remembrances that emerge with the visibilisation of marginalised individuals. Rendering unheard voices audible can itself become a harrowing process, which is evident for the narrators of the frame story in Paris Echo. As Vanessa Guignery explains in the opening pages of her collection of essays titled Voices and Silence in Contemporary Novels the fictionalised remembrance of embarrassing, painful or traumatic experiences has produced ‘narratives . . . voicing the unvoicable [sic]. They reflect the difficulties involved in the process of anamnesis, in the exhumation of the past, be it private or public, and in any attempt to reveal, expose or explore the realm of the intimate and the traumatic’ (3). The objective pursued by Hannah, the female first-person narrator of the frame tale of Paris Echo, who does research on women’s lives in Paris during the German Occupation, remains the visibilisation of marginalised women and their unheard voices. Using empirical-sociological methods for her investigation Hannah is expected to apply a high standard of cognitive reflection and emotional restraint. The academic purpose as plot of a fictional narrative involves distinctive intricacies.

3Spatial distance and its traversing strike as the novel’s visible structural feature, including a strong metaphoric connotation. Emotional remoteness and the tension between detachment and commitment mark the perception of both alternating first-person narrators of the frame story, Hannah Kohler and Tariq Zafar. Their mindscapes are challenged by the embedded narratives they listen to and by their own situation as outsiders, with which they need to come to terms. In addition, a cultural and experiential distance between these two narrators shapes the process of receiving, absorbing, and communicating the unfamiliar. Hannah and Tariq only have in common that each comes from a secure, by comparison socially and financially carefree background. They show dissimilarities in every other respect and equally contrast with the lives of women in Paris presented in the embedded narratives, or the life stories told by Tariq’s acquaintances from the Maghreb, whom the student from Tangier meets in the French capital. The novel’s figural constellations emphasise contrasts.

4The trajectories of the nineteen-year-old Moroccan Tariq and the American postdoctoral researcher Hannah, who becomes his landlady in Paris, accidentally cross. He is penniless and without shelter, but curious to find out more about the environment and culture where his long-dead French-Algerian mother grew up. At the end of his dangerous voyage to France he only states, ‘Europe was strange’ (Faulks 14). In Paris, Tariq, who could consider himself privileged at home, enters the social invisibility of the ‘shadow class’ (Král 11) of illegal North African Muslim immigrants, whose lives and occupations unfold in a parallel world supposedly based on ethnic and religious, but doubtless on economic differences. Despite her more secure status Hannah feels invisible upon her arrival in a city associated for her with personal unhappiness and a foreign language. She tries to organise her assignment of a sponsored academic project while she is uncertain how to make it successful. Regardless of their inequality and respective worries, Hannah and Tariq in a surprisingly united effort unravel the recorded testimonies of a sample of Parisian women during the Occupation of 1940 to ’44, of their connections and experiences with the French environment and the German occupants.

5The transnational features of Faulks’s book are enlarged by the perspective of the Briton Julian, Hannah’s ephemeral acquaintance in Paris. The situatedness of ‘dehors’ rather than ‘dedans’ (a reference to Le Blanc’s title) emerges as significant for the narrators of the frame story and their response to the nested narratives. The agitation and loneliness of a temporary displacement suffered by Hannah and Tariq reflect the position of the stranger holding an outsider’s gaze on an alien past and present. Their inner distance to the embedded life stories and their female authors is eventually reduced. But in contrast to the narratives from the 1940s, Tariq remains an alien to the tales about the French-Algerian war of the early 1960s told by the North Africans he meets. At his workplace he learns for the first time about the invisibilised ‘Pieds Noirs’ and the ‘Harkis’—French settlers and the native soldiers belonging to the French army who protected them—after the war for independence of Algeria (Faulks 78–79). Tariq’s abstract summary of an Algerian immigrant’s retrospect shows the boy’s detachment: ‘It was a bit of a long story and I may have not got all the details down exactly, but the gist of it was this’ (78). He is shocked at the condition of the other man’s socio-political invisibility, who answers Tariq’s question if he is illegal with ‘It’s more that I don’t exist’ (79), since his Algerian parents never got French citizenship. Social invisibility ‘which amounts to a symbolic death’ because of the denial of any form of recognition (Král 40) thus reveals itself here as a recurring condition.

  • 1 The institution in Paris, called Centre Jean Molland Mémorial Franco-Allemand (Faulks 67), is ficti (...)

6Only two of the women who have testified to their lives during the German Occupation are given a voice, preserved on audiotapes, while many others, on whom Hannah does research at a centre of documentation, remain anonymous and obscure to the reader.1 The first of the singularised women, Juliette Lemaire, has been dead for several years; with the second one, Mathilde Masson who is still alive, the American Hannah and the Moroccan runaway eventually get in touch. The reasons for the French women’s social invisibility and the very limited public interest regarding their stories are twofold: the perceived peripetie of political history in 1943 to ’45 seems the most obvious one. The second reason, a general precariousness of individuals during the time of WWII, emerges in the novel as an interplay of powerlessness with power. This had enhanced the disregard and oblivion long extended to the personal experiences of the women. Their histories were not told and are of no consequence, since they were female, poor, and uneducated. Class and gender thus account for their social invisibility; in addition, reasons of state had invisibilised years of their lives. Step by step, their narratives also disclose obvious divergences from the expectations and generally accepted views of the enlightened American researcher. The fate of a third Parisian woman from the lower classes, Andrée Borrel, who had joined the Resistance, has almost sunk into oblivion. Andrée could not tell her own life story.

7Faulks’s construction of a frame narrative with diverse embedded stories is demanding as well as distracting because of the frequent interruptions and resumptions of the different storylines. Juliette Lemaire’s narrative on the tape recorder (68–72, 131–34) recalls her experience as a 22-year-old shop assistant, the only child of a conservative working-class family. Her decision to go out with a German officer causes controversies and conflicts which she relates in detail. The American historian, who thought she had arrived well prepared by history books and university seminars in the United States, completes Juliette’s confessional narrative by explanatory details of the historical background. The novelistic representation, using a remarkable discursive variety, also inserts a statement in third-person narration. It clarifies that for an ingenuous girl such as Juliette ‘life became even more morally uncertain’ on account of the publicly perceived frictions between the Wehrmacht and the SS (71). Together with other particulars, this is communicated as a neutral report distinct from first-person narration. Such brief interjections from an unfocused viewpoint admit no doubt about the factuality presented, but the absence of omniscience becomes evident. Pieces of historical information are soon qualified by the embedded voice of the narrative subject speaking from a personal situation revealed as insecure. The precarious state of an individual in Paris during the Occupation could not only compromise the subject’s integrity but also the crucial question how to adequately speak about this plight. As criticism addressing precariousness concedes: ‘But such lives do not only pose an ethical challenge—they are just as often a challenge to representation’ (Korte and Regard 7, see also Guignery 3). In Paris Echo, diversity of discourse and perspective is the answer to this challenge.

8With the polyphony of voices Faulks creates a discontinuous narrative which comprises collected and fragmented memories originating from different time levels up to the narrative present. The multiperspectivisation of the novel visibilises individuals and their predicaments without immediately offering an evaluation of the told, the telling, or the teller; one opinion contrasts with another estimation, self-characterisation alternates with characterisation through other narrators. The evaluative restraint pertains to the women’s tales about the Occupation; but their listeners, the first-person narrators of the frame story, reveal that they also try to cope with a condition which leaves them powerless and vulnerable. Irrespective of Hannah’s reserve to moralise about her witnesses, certain places in the city give rise to the historian’s ponderings. Spatial history inspires her reflection when she passes the Place des Ternes, which stands seemingly unchanged and oblivious of the past:

How many years did it take to forget? How small was the failing of a school or teacher that its pupils might somehow never learn? The human drive to ignorance, as Professor Putnam had once told her seminar group, is a force as powerful as its opposite—as strong as curiosity itself. (Faulks 122)

9Such abstract thoughts are rare in the novel compared to the share of subjective tales. Hannah and her friend Julian interrupt the tapes’ playing back to discuss details over dinner, then resume their listening to the recorded account. Young Tariq, who has his own peculiar encounters with Parisians mainly on the Métro, experiences ‘the shame of not knowing’, but gradually learns more about European history, which causes him to suffer from homesickness in places burdened with the past (142).

10Resulting from the discontinuity in telling with its frequent cutups, each story of the four protagonists—Hannah and Tariq, Juliette and Mathilde—is interfered with or augmented by other stories, so that the framing and the embedded narratives are broken up and their parts entangled. This pattern of a fragmented mise-en-abîme obstructs a continually focused perception for the recipients inside and beyond the fictional text. The different narrative levels of the mise-en-abyme in Paris Echo are, starting from the periphery, firstly the narratee’s or reader’s, secondly that of the frame story’s narrators, thirdly the embedded testimonies of Hannah’s female witnesses or Tariq’s work mates, and finally the statements and stories of diverse individuals which the embedded narrators retell. On each level the ethical position of the respective subjects towards the telling and the told is or asks to be negotiated. Moreover, recipients cannot long concentrate on one and the same story. Readerly attention swerves to the self-awareness of the frame narrators, to the problems which Hannah has with love or friendship and Tariq with the Algerians or his own historical ignorance. The American researcher’s conversations with Julian the Englishman, who starts researching the documentation of the Resistance, gain in importance when Hannah finds her work upsetting. Their exchange precludes any discussion of the ideological stances of Nazism, but especially Julian reflects about the Vichy regime and its influence on the inhabitants of Paris during the different stages of the war as well as after its end. Hannah emphasises her ethical point-of-view: that she is most interested in understanding the attitude of women (144–145) and aims at finding out more about the thoughts and emotions of ordinary citizens.

11Different voices also accumulate in Juliette’s embedded life story, so that a network of points of view is created. Her bewilderment at her experience with a polite German officer are accentuated on the background of diverse opinions on the Occupation: those of her father and mother in 1940/41, of a couple of girlfriends at the time, and finally Hannah’s, the historian’s, in 2005. Juliette herself never utters political views. The question how to behave when meeting German soldiers in Paris is controversially debated in 1940/41. Eventually, ‘everyone went along to some extent. You couldn’t be a hermit’, Juliette says (133). She remembers that her father

was a bit more easy-going than my mother. He said everyone was making up the rules as they went along, so there were no rules. Like most people then, he thought the war would soon be over. The Germans were sure to win and it was up to us to make sure we were their second-in-command in Europe afterwards. He’d had no problems with any of the Germans he’d had dealings with and he saw nothing wrong in planning ahead. (133)

12The reason Juliette gives in 1998 for her acceptance of two stylish invitations from the friendly German major despite her social embarrassment is that she was young, wanted to be independent, and that there was hardly any dissipation in the city at the time.

13Insecurity and ambivalence, however, remain Juliette’s dominant feelings in the days of the Liberation (197–202) because of the opportunism she observes and her own ambiguous personal experience. She is denounced by the manager of Maxim’s restaurant where she had dinner with the German officer, is briefly arrested, interrogated by the police, set free, then hunted down by a crowd and seized. She has her head shorn but can escape. What in many others causes euphoria seems mere chaos for Juliette, who feels torn by the war of consecutive narratives. In 1944, the divisive conflict ends with the public condemnation of ‘the now-defeated Occupier. But, she said, everyone had collaborated. “Collaboration”, after all, had been the official national policy, announced by marshal Pétain . . . . How could it now be treason?’ (198) The weeks following the Liberation are partly summarised by the American Hannah, whose respect for this contemporary witness and her credibility increases. She detects in Juliette ‘an ability to live with contradictions—a willingness just to report experience and leave the judgment to others’ (197). This abstinence is ethically approved by the historian.

  • 2 Rieff (116) defines collective memory as essentially metaphorical and a social construct.

14Juliette’s account of the early stage of the Liberation recalls especially those who had supported Marshal Pétain and resented the British and Americans until a few weeks before de Gaulle arrived in Paris and was celebrated. The audible narrating self looks back onto the long-time invisible and silenced narrated self with mixed feelings. In the recorded statement Juliette expresses her relief of finally having had an opportunity to speak about herself at the documentary centre where the reminiscences are collected. She feels unburdened because ‘so much was never said’ in the 50s and 60s. Collective memory as a social agreement had invisibilised the testimonies together with the witnesses.2 Juliette concludes in 1998: ‘I have no shame. I feel only sorrow that my one life turned out like this. My youth came at the wrong time. . . . I was never again that girl tripping down the steps from the raised platform of the Métro with my coat flying open and the whole world in front of me’ (202). It was the moment when she was first noticed by the German officer.

  • 3 Julian mentions François Mitterand as a politician with a history of changing attitudes and affilia (...)

15Through Hannah’s perspective, Juliette emerges as an ethically appreciated, reliable narrator because of the honestly depicted failure to recognise her ignorance due to a lack of orientation in her circumscribed environment. As the Briton Julian, always composed, concludes, wartime precariousness had primarily required accommodation to a given situation. In his opinion, informed by contemporary witnesses’ narratives, most people wanted above all the war to be over. ‘And they passively supported whatever means would bring that end about most quickly. First the Germans and Vichy. Then, when that wasn’t working out, the Allies and the Resistance’ (144). Julian’s analytical résumé of such policy sounds sarcastic and indifferent towards ethical concerns: ‘Change horses, back the winner noisily and cover up your false start. Then deny you changed and keep on denying it until the clamour dies down’ (145).3 Whereas he expounds on the ubiquity of gullible opportunism Hannah insists on her intention to understand ordinary—especially female—individuals. Thereby, however, she starts conjuring up her own dilemma as a supposedly impartial researcher.

  • 4 Guignery’s volume of case studies also includes discussions of verbosity in narratives of traumatic (...)

16In the case of Mathilde Masson, the visibility of the teller and the told is significantly increased when Hannah and Tariq meet her in person and once more listen to her story, related for the second time in 2005. The distance shrinks between the narrating and the narrated self, compared to Juliette. Mathilde has retained unchanged the attitudes she adopted 60 years ago, whereas Juliette acknowledged that she underwent a development which contained painful moments when she realised her former lack of interest in public issues. Her guilt, in hindsight, consists in having placed herself outside the moral community, whose contours were blurred. Mathilde’s testimony seems reliable for a different reason: it is authentic regardless of consequences. She clearly hated the German Occupation and especially other women for collaborating (153). Yet for personal reasons she shamefully enmeshes herself in Collaboration when she denunciates a young woman who has joined the Resistance. Mathilde gives a detailed description of her wretched childhood in Belleville, which developed in an atmosphere coined by disregard, poverty, and vengefulness. Her loathing dominates the impression left by her life story. Yet Tariq criticises the interview, because Hannah could not really communicate with the interviewee, who appears dim and therefore unable to take over responsibility for the conversation. To her visitors’ dismay, Mathilde simply goes on talking despite interruptions. It is Hannah who seems to assume responsibility for the telling, so that Tariq comments: ‘Hannah kept trying to bring her back to the point, but it didn’t work. She was begging for some sort of big judgement on the past, but Mathilde didn’t see beyond what she’d done day by day’ (185).4 Tariq continues: ‘I had the impression that Hannah felt protective of Mathilde, that she really liked her for some reason. Not because she was a nice person, but because she was her special find. Or maybe just because she was a woman and she thought women always had a bad time’ (187). Despite the startling impression of this meeting, reliability and frankness of the interviewee make it singular for Hannah, who sees her feminist position (see 204), however, remains cloudy for Tariq.

17The American can barely veil her wish to have Mathilde show remorse about her discreditable act while the Occupation lasted: the fatal denunciation of another woman she considered her sexual rival. Mathilde accepted her boyfriend’s affiliation with the Resistance and his rebuke not to refer to Parisians wearing the Star of David as ‘Sunflowers’—an order which underlines the situational ambiguity of (in)visibility. Yet the girl Simone is accused by the vindictive Mathilde irrespective of her hate for the Occupier: ‘The next day I went to the prefect of police in Belleville and reported an enemy of the French state living on the second floor, at number 12, rue Milton, Ninth arrondissement’ (156). Paid a bounty by the police she declares in the interview that she should have asked for a larger sum, which she says she did when she denounced someone else the next time (188): ‘They didn’t give me enough money, the police. They were supposed to give me more than that. Marshal Pétain had asked everyone, every schoolchild in the country, to inform. I didn’t even know you got money for reporting an enemy of the state’ (187). By her verdict, her compatriot is banished from the ‘imagined community’ (Benedict Anderson), whose conceptualisation has been destabilised. I want to argue that for very personal reasons Simone is rendered ungrievable by Mathilde, who in the given situation saw herself empowered at first to take revenge and thereafter to briefly emerge from precariousness. The questions rising in the narratee, ‘Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life?’ cruelly take shape ‘in the light of global violence’ that also characterises a world war (Butler 20, original emphasis). The same questions will surface again shortly and again remain unanswered. After having listened to Mathilde live Hannah wordlessly locks herself in her room. Her withdrawal into lonely grief affects her flatmate as a speechless, inscrutable distancing.

18The social invisibility of the two old women and their stories has been alleviated by their narration. The producing of another person’s literal invisibility—disappearance from view—is enacted in Mathilde’s case as an individual condemnation fuelled by the desire for revenge. In 2005, she does not fail to add that in the early 60s she had accidentally seen her former boyfriend in a street, where both ignored—or denied seeing—each other in an act of private invisibilisation. Françoise Král’s study, which focuses on the diasporic condition regarding groups of migrants and immigrants, maintains that visibility is performative and situational (56). The women’s narratives in Paris Echo are also a case in point. In addition, they reveal visibility as potentially dangerous because of the war during the rule of Nazism, and as conditional on political propitiousness at any time. As the author of a publication on (in)visibility as a field of social theory contends, social visibilities underlie two different and possibly opposing perspectives, firstly that of the political process ‘most often enigmatically referred to as “power”’, and secondly a more democratic point of view (Mubi Brighenti 168). The latter facilitated the attentiveness recently paid to the women. Only after power dynamics regarding the Occupation had changed twice—during the years 1944/45 and the 1990ies in a breakthrough of democratising visibilisation—could the silenced voices be retrieved as collected memories.

  • 5 Andrée’s story shows a connection to Charlotte Gray.

19The narrative evidence about a third Parisian woman from the working class, Andrée Borrel, is indirect; it has been produced through the recorded testimonies of long-dead British agents secretly operating in France during the war. They include her death in an Alsatian concentration camp as a member of the Resistance.5 For the American, her visit at this site is a shaking experiential confrontation with Andrée’s end, while Tariq has already returned home to Tangier. His trajectory results in a journey of initiation with numerous stations and provides a peculiar coming-of-age story completing the frame narrative. Irrespective of his association with the American for her sponsored research project, the boy had magically got involved—losing his virginity—with a Parisian woman whom he accidentally met and followed around until she agreed to talk to him in her home. While the Algerians’ account at the fast-food stall about France’s colonial wars and the ensuing frictions and forms of deprecating exclusion seem remote for him, her narration about the fate of the Jewish community under the Occupation has a strong impact (Faulks 115). Tariq’s subsequent visit at the site of the Vélodrome leads to his act of empathy. It is achieved by imagining what the entrance to this place signified for the Jews:

I was with them, just for a moment, right behind them, as they climbed [the stairs]. And I hoped that maybe it would have meant something to them to know that many years later, someone, even just a nobody from Africa like me, would come to listen to their voices (241).

20Separately from his host Hannah, who had not shared her thoughts with him, he wants to believe that ‘an act of remembering’ is all he can do (241). His mourning at the place of anguish and suffering responds to narratives he received from persons who could affect him psychologically.

21Young Tariq leaves the city and its echoes enlightened and more mature; keeping a certain distance to the American’s research project he has found his own sources of wisdom. He evinces consternation at the instruction from the Algerians but enjoys his encounters with his Parisian mentors, whose tales prove more stirring for him. Especially the talks with the strange French woman called Clémence and an old puppet master, named ‘Victor Hugo’, who plays sketches on the Métro, can move him experientially. Reviewers of the novel agree that these touches of magic realism are unconvincing for readers (Bari; Boyne n.p.). Julian, the British intellectual, tries to persuade his interlocuters by arguments. He repeats the lesson Hannah had already heard in her American history professor’s seminar on WWII: ‘And there’s another reason [for silencing]. The urge to forget. The desire not to know’ (237). Hannah, whose task it was to disclose historical female experience, is like Tariq emotionally affected when imagining the views and fate of concrete individuals. As an academic trusted with scientific research, however, she desperately tries to maintain sophisticated differentiations: ‘The historical, the real, the possible . . . I knew I needed to cling on hard to these ghostly distinctions’ (254). But her detachment is temporarily annulled by her imagination, which proves so overwhelming that she can at a crucial moment only refer to herself in the third person as ‘Hannah Kohler’. She becomes a stranger to herself during her visit at the place in the Vosges where Andrée Borrel was deported (261). My argument implies that to the continuously re-emerging question ‘how to connect distances?’ from the beginning of this essay an answer is emerging here: for Hannah as for Tariq imagination bridges temporal and sociocultural gaps, because it enables these narrators to obtain a glimpse of the individual past with the eyes of an Other; this is reflected in the imagination of the fiction reader, as it was, originally, created in the writer’s. Place with its merging force inspires the imagination in the chronotope of the novel.

22Hannah shows an increasing affective disquiet about the tellers and the told, caused by a vulnerability which obliquely mirrors that of the interviewees. She admits having underrated Juliette Lemaire’s ability of a retrospective reconsideration. After the interview with Mathilde Masson, she retreats into silence. Through an inner turmoil following her visit at the place where Andrée Borrel was murdered Hannah is psychologically devastated. Upon her return to Paris from a journey into a distressing past she loses her companionship with Tariq, who has returned to Tangier, not without directing her to Julian by a note. It is her sober British friend who can restore Hannah’s equilibrium despite her declared aversion against happy endings. His advice to analyse the results of her research in a scholarly article and put down her empirical involvement with this project in an independent publication appears as the logical solution to her inner conflict between reason and affect (203). According to Julian, the detached argumentative content of her assignment must be separated from the subjective response to it, if she wants to observe those “ghostly distinctions” (254) between the historical and the possible. In employing diverse discursive approaches, Paris Echo itself realises different ways of ethical participation, stimulating attentive cognition and empathetic imagination.

23The novel’s closure abandons several ideas and grave issues as loose ends to be dealt with by the reader, a feature which a reviewer of the novel criticises as a weak point (Scholes). The open questions call for an indubitable commitment: ‘If those who narrate precarious lives have an ethical obligation, so have the addressees of these narratives’, Korte and Regard state (10-11). Intradiegetically, this request is prompted by Tariq’s thoughts. His response to the live interview with Mathilde Masson criticises Hannah, whose ambivalent reaction forsakes (the professionally required) disinterested self-reflexiveness. The interviewee’s unmitigated hatred and the failing of their dialogue are perplexing for the American; only the disengaged observer Tariq realises Hannah’s secret wish when facing the lack of regret. He seems uncertain about her motivations to elicit a trace of grief from Mathilde in 2005. The ethics of attentiveness, which are also relevant for the American’s research project, demand the consideration of a life story irrespective of the awareness that the disclosed matter reveals itself as malevolent and damaging. Tariq suspected Hannah’s inclination to push the interviewee to a revaluation resembling the one Juliette had expressed—a turn apparently more satisfactory, not only for Hannah. The young Moroccan’s recognition that Mathilde ‘didn’t see beyond what she’d done day by day’ even after more than 60 years highlights Hannah’s dissatisfaction about the absence of a moral judgment. While Mathilde’s obstinate limitedness regarding her failure to mourn can be representative of other contemporaries Hannah’s role as an authentic listener/narrator is itself questioned. If she only wants to hear morally enlightened or publication-stimulating testimonies she offends ethical objectives such as making suppressed voices heard or unveiling forgotten historical facets. These inspire, critics maintain, various contemporary writers who show a renewed social and ethical commitment through their literary works (see Korthals 9).

  • 6 Král corroborates her argument with reference to postcolonial studies as well as to Guillaume Le Bl (...)

24During the procedure of visibilisation by narration, the ambiguity of invisibilities emerges. That visibility is neither good nor bad in itself has been emphasised with respect to the surreptitious existence of illegal immigrants who initially desire social invisibility.6 For readers, the wish that Juliette and Mathilde had remained silent (or their confessions unpublished) might be an involuntary response. The recognition may transpire that the invisibility of an embarrassing attitude or disgraceful action reveals itself as a burden for the subject and possible blessing for society. A valuation of attentiveness, yet also of oblivion—‘according to Butler a serious ethical issue’ (see Král 91, Rieff)—remains inconclusive. The American narrator’s research project in Paris Echo had been assigned as a cognitive enterprise aiming at rendering female experience in a historic situation visible for a restricted academic readership. Yet Hannah Kohler’s conflict and despairing about the ethically arduous task is equally addressed by the fiction.

  • 7 I quote terms Le Blanc used in his oral presentation at the digital conference Invisible Lives on 1 (...)

25The demand for a ‘recognition of all lives’ (Le Blanc)7—good or evil, innocent or guilty, afflicted or failing—strikes as alarming inside the ‘frames of war’ (Butler). To perceive human living within these ‘frames’ as a ‘day by day’ process, which can be a careless, self-centred, and morally indifferent business, appears as a pivotal test for the acknowledgement of every life’s value and its story. To maintain a ‘frame of values’ (Le Blanc) under the conditions of divided communities of solidarity presents itself as an ethical trial. The recipients on every narrative level of Paris Echo can even in retrospect be strained by such a challenge.

  • 8 In the PMLA special issue Buell and Attridge refer to the theories of Emmanuel Levinas as part of t (...)
  • 9 At the end of Paris Echo, Faulks lists among his mostly Anglophone sources David Rieff’s nonfiction (...)

26The aim to visibilise minorities and individuals who for socio-cultural or political reasons had stayed invisible appeared as an ethical goal. Yet Hannah the researcher suffers a growing unease “that the academic form seemed a bad fit for my task; there was so much I’d have to leave out” (203). There is no room in a learned article for her ruminations about the life stories of around twenty women (144) and her emotive experience with Juliette’s or Mathilde’s telling. Paris Echo avoids the germination of doubts whether it is meaningful to disseminate their disclosures; the publication as fiction, which dedicates itself to the possible, implies that the embedded tales are deemed worth hearing or reading even if they are disturbing. The responsible-minded recipient becomes aware that the realisation of attentiveness comprises divisive ironies. Resentful sceptics run the risk of the censorious judgment ‘that reader resistance is unethical (a symptom of obtuseness, of insensitivity, of ethical underdevelopment)’ (Buell 13).8 Ambivalence thus accompanies the receiving process, counting the metanarrative controversy about how we wish to live—with raised awareness or oblivion? (see Faulks 202).9 While about 50 years after the end of the Occupation a documentation of female experiences had started Paris Echo now represents its hybrid repercussion. It can evoke misgivings about the claim that remembrance, regardless, is a compelling and lasting moral obligation. The narrative visibilisation of socially invisible bodies includes an exposure of their verbalised past and present feelings, attitudes, and motivations. Notwithstanding a conflicting feedback the reader will admit that ‘the novel has retained its function, laid down in the eighteenth century, of making private individual experience and practice publicly accessible’ (Reinfandt 2018, 65, trans. and qtd Rennhak 223). The documentation centre in Paris Echo attended to historians; Hannah’s planned scholarly contribution to an edited volume directs itself to the scientific community, but with ‘the truth of fiction’, which Virginia Woolf proclaimed (1978, 9), the novelistic representation reaches a wider audience. Each of the actants in this communicative process multiplied by the fragmented mise-en-abyme faces a responsibility towards the unexpected Other in asking, telling, listening, or reading. The Other may be a person or a narrative content, disclosing the best or the worst (see Attridge 27).

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Attridge, Derek, ‘Innovation, Literature, Ethics: Relating to the Other’. PMLA 114.1 (1999): 20–31.

Bari, Shahidha, ‘Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks review-in the shadow of history’, The Guardian 3 October 2018, last accessed at on 18 April 2021.

Boyne, John, ‘Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks: A return to France and a return to form’, Review, Irish Times 8 September 2018, last accessed at on18 April 2021.

Buell, Lawrence, ‘In Pursuit of Ethics’, PMLA 114.1 (1999): 7–19.

Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso, 2004.

Faulks, Sebastian, Paris Echo, London: Hutchinson, 2018.

Guignery, Vanessa, ‘Introduction’, Voices and Silence in Contemporary Novels in English, ed. Vanessa Guignery, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2009, 1–8.

Gymnich, Marion, ‘Elements of Satire and Romantic Comedy in a Portrayal of British Society at the Beginning of the Millennium: Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December’, Anglistik: International Journal of English Studies 27.1 (2016): 137–148.

Korte, Barbara and Frédéric Regard, ‘Introduction’, Narrating “Precariousness”: Modes, Media, Ethics, eds. Barbara Korte and Frédéric Regard, Heidelberg: Winter, 2014, 7–15.

Korthals Altes, Liesbeth, Ethos and Narrative Interpretation: The Negotiation of Values in Fiction, Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 2014.

Král, Françoise, Social Invisibility and Diasporas in Anglophone Literature and Culture: The Fractal Gaze, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, Dedans, dehors; la condition d’étranger, Paris: Seuil, 2010.

Mubi Brighenti, Andrea, Visibility in Social Theory and Social Research, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Puschmann-Nalenz, Barbara, ‘Reconceptualisation of Frame Story and Nested Narrative in 21st-Century Novels: The Fall of Troy and Ragnarok’, Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 46.2 (2016): 49–72.

Rennhak, Katharina, ‘Learning from Best Practice. Reality, Truth, and the Novel as a Vehicle of the “Liberal Narrative”’, Postfaktisches Erzählen: Post-Truth, Fake News, Narration, eds Antonius Weixler et al. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2021, 215–233.

Rieff, David, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, New Haven/London: Yale UP, 2016.

Scholes, Lucy, ‘Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks review: Legendary storytelling disappointingly swamped by ideas’, Independent 16 September 2018, last accessed at on 18 April 2021.

Woolf, Virginia, The Pargiters, The Novel-Essay Portion of The Years, ed. and with an introduction by Mitchell A. Leaska, London: Hogarth, 1978.

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1 The institution in Paris, called Centre Jean Molland Mémorial Franco-Allemand (Faulks 67), is fictive.

2 Rieff (116) defines collective memory as essentially metaphorical and a social construct.

3 Julian mentions François Mitterand as a politician with a history of changing attitudes and affiliations before he joined Charles de Gaulle in his exile in London. Later he became the leader of the Socialist party.

4 Guignery’s volume of case studies also includes discussions of verbosity in narratives of traumatic or hurtful experiences.

5 Andrée’s story shows a connection to Charlotte Gray.

6 Král corroborates her argument with reference to postcolonial studies as well as to Guillaume Le Blanc’s call for the visibilisation of precarious lives to prevent ‘the political death of certain social groups and discourses’ (Král 37, see 40).

7 I quote terms Le Blanc used in his oral presentation at the digital conference Invisible Lives on 15 October 2020.

8 In the PMLA special issue Buell and Attridge refer to the theories of Emmanuel Levinas as part of the basis for their explorations on Ethics and Literary Study.

9 At the end of Paris Echo, Faulks lists among his mostly Anglophone sources David Rieff’s nonfiction study, which argues that memorising is a moral option, not a moral imperative, even though this is often maintained today. Not to remember can also be an ethical challenge, the author claims: ‘And what if [. . .] a decent measure of communal forgetting is actually the sine qua non of a peaceful and decent society, while remembering is the politically, socially, and morally risky pursuit?’ (57) This debatable question is briefly insinuated but then subdued in the novel (Faulks 202, 122).

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Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz, « Silenced Voices in Sebastian Faulks’s Novel Paris Echo »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 61 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2021, consulté le 30 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz

Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz taught English and American literature and Cultural Studies as Senior Lecturer in the English Department of Ruhr-Universitaet Bochum (Germany) until 2011. Her monographs are Concepts of Love and Friendship in Shakespeare’sSonnets’ (in German), Science Fiction and Postmodern Fiction: A Genre Study (1992), and Failure: The Humble Tale of Unsuccessfulness. British, Irish and Postcolonial Stories (2020). In 2018 she co-authored The Orphan in Fiction and Comics Since the 19th Century (with Marion Gymnich, Gerold Sedlmayr and Dirk Vanderbeke). She edited and co-edited several collections of critical essays on 20th- and 21st-century literature and contributed articles published in scholarly journals and edited volumes, mostly on Contemporary British and Irish Fiction and on Shakespeare’s plays.

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