In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Tara Ison’s At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf is a poignant and compelling novel about a young Jewish woman coming of age in the Vichy France of World War II.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“A Jewish girl comes of age in Vichy France, relentlessly deformed by the spiritual rot of her era…Ison is unflinching in her depiction of the self-inflicted corruption that replaces the character’s moral core with a twisted version of Christianity, brilliantly illustrating the epigraph from Solzhenitsyn: ‘To do evil, a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good.’…Free of sentiment but not without hope of redemption, this is a suspenseful and chilling story.”
In her own words, here is Tara Ison’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf:
I don’t listen to music when I write; I find it distracting. The exception – paradoxically – is when I’m out in the world, writing in a coffee house or bar or restaurant, my preferred places to write. Writing in my own quiet home offers a different kind of distraction: the dishwasher to be emptied, the load of laundry waiting to be done, the too-quietness of the house itself, and adding music to that mix just feels intrusive, one more excuse not to devote my full attention to my work. But the ambient noise of people talking or milk being steamed actually forces me to focus, to concentrate on the words (or blank screen) in front of me. And the public-space music, whether it be Classic Rock or New Age or Girl With a Guitar, is part of that white noise, all of it blending into an ignorable auditory texture.
That said, music is often an inspiration to me as a writer, one more form of research to help slip into the lives of my characters; I want to listen to the music they would be hearing, just as I want to see the colors of their twilight sky or feel their cobblestones under my feet, all the sensory details that help immerse me (and, I hope, the reader), into my characters’ experiences of their world.
My new novel, At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf, is the story of a young Jewish girl living in hiding as a Catholic orphan in WWII Vichy France, a time when music took on deep meaning, and significant stakes. In the Occupied Zone of France, the Germans made dancing and most forms of music verboten, especially any kind of music celebrating French culture or history, the French commitment to democratic or patriotic principles; the penalty for defiance could be imprisonment, or even deportation. Or worse.
But the French are toujours the French, and the music was always still there. Here are some French songs I often listened to while going about my day, as an ongoing form of creative inspiration or simply to feel connected to my story and people:
Marechal, Nous Voila!
1941, lyrics by Andre Montagard, music attributed to Montagard and Charles Courtioux (although plagiarized from an earlier musical theater song by Jewish composer Kazimierz Oberfeld, who was murdered in Auschwitz.)
After the German occupation of France began in 1940, the collaborative Vichy government was formed, led by a former WWI hero, Marshal Phillipe Petain. Essentially fascist in nature – and increasingly so as the war went on – Vichy relied on the usual bag of propaganda tricks to manipulate the French people into blind, even self-sacrificing devotion. Creating the Cult of Petain, Our Beloved Leader, our Hero of France, made his face omnipresent in French life, and a critical target of the Vichy campaign was the nation’s children, whose vulnerability made them easily indoctrinated.
And so, schoolchildren were required to begin each day with an enthusiastic rendition of the song Marechal, Nous Voila: “Marshal, we are here for you!”, to emphasis their utter submission to their leader:
A sacred flame rises from our native soil,
And enraptured France
Salutes you, Marshal!
All your children, who love you,
And honor your years,
Have answered your supreme call
By saying Here!
Marshal, here we are!
Before you, the savior of France.
We, your children, all swear
To serve you and follow your path.
You have given us back the hope
That our homeland will be reborn!
Marshal, Marshal, here we are!
What clearer difference could there be between patriotism and nationalism than this besotted anthem?
Chant des Partisans
1943 lyrics by Anna Marly, with music inspired by a song from her Russian childhood.
Created and recorded by Anna Marly after fleeing the Occupation to London, “The Partisans’ Song” became an unofficial and completely forbidden hymn for the Free French Forces and French Resistance:
Friend, do you hear the dark flight of the crows over our plains?
Friend, do you hear the muffled clamor of enchained countries?
Hey, partisans, workers and peasants this is the signal
Tonight the enemy will know the price of blood and tears…
Join the sabotage, get off the hills, comrades!
Take the rifles, the machine gun, the grenades out of the straws.
Hey, killers, with a bullet or by knife, kill swiftly!
Hey, saboteur, take care of your charge: dynamite…
It’s us smashing the prison bars for our brothers,
The hatred on our backs and the hunger that drives us, the misery…
I get a slight Les Miserables “Do You Hear the People Sing?” vibe from the lyrics, but hearing Anna Marly sing this is incredibly moving; a steadily increasing beat amps up your heart, her impassioned contralto sweeps you up and along – you can understand why Resistance forces themselves would repeatedly listen to keep their spirits up:
Zazou-Zazou Orchestre Swing
1942, Joseph Reinhardt
“French Swing” was huge during the war – another decadent, sybaritic, Western-influenced, anti-nationalist music strictly off-limits. So, of course it flourished underground during the Occupation, for a people famished for fun as well as for food. (The 1993 film Swing Kids depicted this repressed culture in Nazi Germany.) Listening to this, bopping in my chair, I can see the kids in an underground club swinging their hearts out, taste the cheap red wine, smell the Gauloises cigarette smoke:
La Vie en Rose
1947; lyrics by Edith Piaf, music by Louiguy/Robert Chauvigny
A slight cheat – this song wasn’t officially recorded by Edith Piaf until 1946, although it began floating around clubs a few years earlier. But there is no song to make you feel more passionately French, no chanteuse more viscerally Gallic than Edith Piaf. The plaintive longing, the hope – “Life Through Rose-Colored Glasses” – breaks your wanna-be-French heart:
Eyes that gaze into mine,
A smile that is lost on his lips—
That is the true portrait
Of the man to whom I belong.
When he takes me in his arms
And speaks softly to me,
I see life in rosy hues.
He tells me words of love,
Words of every day,
And in them I become something.
He has entered my heart,
A part of happiness
Whereof I understand the reason.
It’s him for me and I for him, throughout life,
He has told me, he has sworn to me, for life.
And from the things that I sense,
Now I can feel within me
My heart that beats.
Tomorrow Belongs to Me
1966, words and music by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Another cheat – this song isn’t French, isn’t from WWII, isn’t actually a “real” song, in that it was created for the Broadway-then-film score of the musical Cabaret, set in 1930s Berlin; ever since, the song has often been assumed to be an actual Nazi anthem.
In the 1972 film, two of our main characters are having a beer in an idyllic countryside café. One of them has often expressed his concerns about the rise of Naziism, the other has brushed it off – those goons are too ridiculous, no one can take them seriously. Suddenly, the dulcet tones of a singing angel; the camera turns to show us a beautiful blond boy singing:
The sun on the meadow is summery warm.
The stag in the forest runs free.
But gather together to greet the storm.
Tomorrow belongs to me.
How nice. People listen, casually. But as he continues to sing, the camera creeps downward to show us the swastika on his arm. A Hitler Youth.
The branch of the linden is leafy and green,
The Rhine gives its gold to the sea.
But somewhere a glory awaits unseen.
Tomorrow belongs to me.
The babe in his cradle is closing his eyes
The blossom embraces the bee.
But soon, says a whisper;
People are really listening now, moved, entranced.
Now Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign
Your children have waited to see
The morning will come
When the world is mine
Tomorrow belongs to me
He has them in the palm of his little Aryan hand. People leap to their feet, joining in the chorus, as the boy raises his arm in a Hitler salute:
Our Characters get the hell out of there; “You still think you can control them?” our Concerned Character asks.
A three-minute microcosm of how Fascism can mesmerize a people. That hypnotic chorus gets under your skin – I would listen to feel the power of how music can inflame the savage beast.
And this song isn’t going anywhere. It has been adopted as a real-life Neo-Nazi anthem.
1792, by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, after France’s declaration of war against Austria.
You know this song, even if you think you don’t – or perhaps you know it as the instrumental opening bars to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.”
This is the French national anthem, with a long history of being banned by monarchs and despots, then celebrated under Republican rule; the song was absolutely forbidden by the Nazis and the Vichy government at the beginning of the Occupation – liberty, egality, and brotherhood not really their thing – but was sung anyway as a show of defiance, as a reminder of what the fight was all about.
It isn’t pretty:
Let us go, children of the fatherland,
Our day of glory has arrived.
Against us the bloody flag of tyranny
is raised; the bloody
flag is raised.
Do you hear in the countryside
The roar of those savage soldiers?
They come right into our arms
To cut the throats of our sons, our comrades.
To arms, citizens!
Liberty, beloved liberty,
Fight with your defenders; fight
with your defenders
Under our flags, so that victory
Will rush to your manly strains;
That your dying enemies
Should see your triumph and glory!
To arms, citizens! To arms!
but it has an eternal and inspiring power in its message of a democratic, people-owned-and-operated liberty. A while back I was in a small French village on November 11’s annual Armistice Day, in honor of those who died in the Great War; the assembled villagers all sang “Le Marseillaise,” in tears, with pride. I did, too.
At a pivotal moment in Casablanca (1942), the Germans in Rick’s Club begin singing a song of German nationalism; the French in the club drown the Germans out with an impromptu version of “Le Marseillaise,” followed by shouts of Vive la France!
But this next interpretation wipes me out: from the Edith Piaf bio-film La Vie en Rose (2007), the moment a very young Piaf is busking on the streets of Paris, and offers up this a capella version:
The wisdom of the world already in her young girl’s voice, the moral opposite of a “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” the reminder that liberty, beloved liberty, must be fought for – but is our right, as human beings.
Tara Ison is an award-winning novelist, essayist, and short story writer. She is the author of three novels: The List (Scribner), A Child out of Alcatraz (Faber & Faber), a Finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Rockaway (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), featured as one of the “Best Books of Summer” in O, The Oprah Magazine, July 2013. Ball, a short story collection, was published in 2015, and her collection of essays, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, was winner of the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her short fiction, essays, poetry and book reviews have appeared in Tin House, BOMB, Salon, Electric Literature, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Nerve.com, Black Clock, TriQuarterly, The Mississippi Review, The Santa Monica Review, Publishers Weekly, The Week, LA Weekly, O, the Oprah Magazine, and numerous anthologies.
Ison received her MFA in fiction and literature from Bennington College. She is currently professor of fiction in Arizona State University’s creative writing program. In another life, she was the co-writer of the cult classic film Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991).