A Fortnightly Review.
by Robert Crawford
with a translation in French by Paul Malgrati
Molecular Press 2021 | 88 pp paperback | £8
By IAN SEED.
CURRICULUM VIOLETTE OFFERS us a fleeting and yet powerful portrait of the life of Violette Szabo (1921-45), a French-born British agent who fought alongside members of the French Resistance and who died in Ravensbrück concentration camp. In a parallel French-English text, Curriculum Violette employs and plays off the basic structure of a CV. This approach could so easily fall into a hagiographic and sentimental commemoration, but avoids doing so by the way it juxtaposes documentary facts with brief yet unforgettable sensory impressions.
Violette Szabo’s life is both ordinary and extraordinary. The first section of the book opens with some bare facts:
Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell
26 6 21
18 Burnley Road
It then moves to offering us its first brushstrokes of a life not untypical of a young woman of that time:
late July 1938 (time for a dance)
A chance of heat but not as good as France
We are given a list of stations that Violette would have known, along with more poetic detail, such as ‘Stockwell (tobacco smell; the tick and whip of skipping ropes)’. The ‘Assessment’ of her at that time is: ‘Lively, pretty girl; sporty; good French; black hair; no highbrow; devil-may-care’. She is awoken by:
starlings whistling in a cloudy sky
a baby crying in the flat below
The ‘flora and fauna’ of her life subtly allude to the birth of a romance:
Pigeons (daintily fat on breadcrumbs, toes missing)
More pigeons (kissing)
Blackbirds (singing pink, pink, pink)
She carries, among other things, a cigarette case and lipstick.
In the second section of the book, we move to 1941, a time when her life, like everyone else’s, is irrevocably affected by the Second World War. She joins the Auxiliary Territorial Service. In the stations now, we have ‘sirens, sandbags’, and a ‘Scottish accent yelling, “March!”’ As well as war, there is love. She marries a sergeant from the Lègion Etrangère, becomes ‘Mrs. Szabo’.
She now has a telephone number: ‘Bayswater 6188’. It is documentary details such as this which can be most poignant of all because they remind us so much of the transitory nature of all our lives.
There is another list of stations, which count amongst their midst: ‘Preston (milkless tea)’, ‘Carstairs Junction (a Polish sergeant’s smile)’, and ‘Crianlarich (red coals on waiting-room fire)’. She is on her way to Scotland for military training.
Violette’s husband is killed near El Alamein, she has a daughter, she joins the Secret Service. More documentary facts, impressionistic details, repeated motifs (‘Address’, ‘Date’, ‘Weather’, ‘Assessment’, ‘Stations’, ‘Things Carried’, ‘Terrain’, and so on), and quotations from prayers and excerpts from literature which will have comforted and inspired Violette, continue to be juxtaposed as we follow her into France (‘swastikas / the Eiffel Tower / the Madeleine’) and eventually to Ravensbrück.
Violette is a unique and ultimately heroic individual but she is also everywoman, showing us what we are all potentially capable of. She did not live to bear witness to her own life, but this haunting and poignant book challenges us to imagine and relive it for ourselves.
Ian Seed’s collections include New York Hotel (2018), nominated by Mark Ford for TLS Book of the Year; Identity Papers (2016), and Makers of Empty Dreams (2014), all from Shearsman. His most recent chapbook is Distances (Red Ceilings, 2018). Translations include Bitter Grass, from the Italian of Gëzim Hajdari (Shearsman, 2020), and The Thief of Talant (Wakefield Press, 2016), the first translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Le voleur de Talan. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Chester.