The Order of the Day won 2017’s Prix Goncourt for fiction, and is described by the UK publishers as a “novel”, but it stretches the definition of that word a long way. In French it calls itself a récit – an account – and is really a historical essay with literary flourishes...However you decide to categorise it, this is a thoroughly gripping and mesmerising work of black comedy and political disaster. It seems designed single-mindedly to remind us that, as it says, “Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps.”
In The Order of the Day, Vuillard treats history as nothing but a ‘spectacle’, a postmodern performance in which the participants are little more than floating ‘masks’. We might ask him, why write a historical novel and refuse to recognise properly the fundamental reality of the events you’re describing? And why do so with such a high-handed moral tone? Why care so much about a series of events if you see them as nothing but a tawdry piece of theatre?
Éric Vuillard’s The Order Of The Day is billed as a novel but, like Constellation, it is grounded in reality. The events it describes – a series of meetings which took place in the run-up to the Second World War – all really happened. However, whereas Bosc tries to keep speculation to a minimum, Vuillard seems to revel in it. In his description of a 1937 meeting between Hermann Göring and Lord Halifax, for example, he imagines Göring “probably slapped old Halifax on the back, teased him a little” and then “snowed him with a load of doubletalk, the kind that leaves the interlocutor dazed and vauguely flustered, like an off-colour joke”. You would be hard-pushed to find such imaginative leaps in Constellation.
the novel can still jolt the reader. And anger rises in the final sections when the crowds cheer while Jews are humiliated and we are taken into the future where those companies gloss over their wartime record of employing workers from the concentration camps. But you couldn’t say any of this is new.
So, does Vuillard deliver anything to make this novelisation of events worthwhile? Perhaps only if you have managed to miss any of the other several thousand books, documentaries and dramas that have trawled over this period in the intervening decades. You do have to wonder about French literary tastes sometimes.
...subtle it isn’t. Vuillard is rather too fond of the sound of his own voice for that. He favours overblown allusions over insight, and grandiose statements over character. It reminded me of one of those irritating BBC documentaries that show you far more of the presenter than the historical events described — only fronted by a really angry French Andrew Marr. The result is not quite insightful as history, nor satisfying as fiction.
It captures the bizarre blend of wishful thinking, clownish self-importance, and cold calculation that characterized many of the Nazis’ powerful enablers. In the final section, the full weight of reality descends, earning Vuillard his conclusion. “We never fall twice into the same abyss,” he writes. “But we always fall in the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.”