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the complete review - fiction / history
The Order of the Day
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- French title: L'ordre du jour
- Translated by Mark Polizzotti
- Prix Goncourt, 2017
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B+ : fine take on historical events; interesting approach
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The NY Rev. of Books
||Robert O. Paxton
|Wall St. Journal
|World Lit. Today
From the Reviews:
lim, wordy and curious (.....) (N)ot a novel but a dramatised historical essay. The Order of the Day is executed with arch style and theatrical swagger, consolidated by self-regarding glee.
(...) The enthusiastic reaction to The Order of the Day tells us more about ourselves than Vuillard can hope to smugly unveil about history through satirising well-known events." - Eileen Battersby, Financial Times
- "(T)his obsidian gemstone of a book (.....) In Mark Polizzotti’s translation, the prose has an aphoristic gleam. (...) However you decide to categorise it, this is a thoroughly gripping and mesmerising work of black comedy and political disaster." - Steven Poole, The Guardian
- "Ainsi déconstruite et recomposée, « sa » guerre ne ressemble pas à une superproduction hollywoodienne, mais à une terrible pièce de théâtre, une succession de saynètes absurdes ou grotesques. (...) Purement anecdotique ? « Tel est l’art du récit que rien n’est innocent », rétorque Eric Vuillard, dont l’écriture, merveille d’orfèvrerie, débusque les détails où, chacun le sait, est censé se cacher le diable." - Elisabeth Philippe, Le Monde
- "Vuillard's swarming details are gritty and physical. (...) Vuillard has done some homework and his narratives are generally accurate, but he likes to heighten the impression of absurdity. (...) Vuillard's prose -- muscular, concrete, richly inventive, sardonic, opinionated -- is no doubt the feature of The Order of the Day that most appealed to the Goncourt jury." - Robert O. Paxton, The New York Review of Books
- "Vuillard tells his version of the story with the delicate craftmanship of a miniaturist (.....) Although the book has been described as nonfiction it is not straightforward (which is why it won the Goncourt, which is a prize for fiction). Instead it takes the form of a récit -- a type of essay where the author is always present, zooming in and out on facts, details and marshalling arguments. (...) Vuillard has written a magnificently entertaining account that manages to capture the wild and uneven emotional climate of the 1930s and speaks too to our own era of liars, demagogues and politics as farce, which, as Vuillard deftly shows us, can slide all too quickly into tragedy." - Andrew Hussey, The Observer
- "It is held together by a strong narrative voice whose willingness to cast moral judgment on its characters seems to revive the intrusive narrator of 19th-century fiction. (...) In 129 pages, Vuillard, complacent of his moral superiority, does nothing more than recoil from these ‘puny’ and ‘pathetic’ characters. This is typical not of the more engaged literary writers that are emerging in France, but rather of their predecessors." - Max Fletcher, The Spectator
- "Dans L’Ordre du jour, à la manière d’un scénariste, Eric Vuillard construit ses chapitres comme autant d’images et de séquences fortes. (...) Il le fait avec art. (...) Parfois, le doute affleure et on se dit qu’il est aisé de rendre compte de façon piquante d’épisodes historiques, confortablement installé quelques décennies plus tard. Mais l’écriture est impeccable, brillante même, maniant la métonymie, l’ellipse et l’ironie avec maîtrise." - Eléonore Sulser, Le Temps
- "It is a hybrid of literature and history, and hence could be regarded as experimental. It needs to convince in both genres, but it does so in neither. (...) Vuillard is not very interested in individuals, it seems. He gives us a puppet show of stereotypes (.....) This is not enlightening as history. At best it tells us what we already know in somewhat caricatural form. Nor is it memorable as literature, except perhaps to someone who knows nothing about the 1930s. But it did win the Prix Goncourt." - Robert Tombs, Times Literary Supplement
- "The method of this unusual work, which was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 2017, is to peel away the veils of dissimulation, disguise and self-justification that conspire to make historical disasters appear as just the way things happen. While The Order of the Day has the rhythm and tenor of fiction, it is really a historical essay. (...) The Vuillard tone, ironic, persistent, aggressive -- at times merciless -- is well caught in English by the translator Mark Polizzotti." - James Campbell, Wall Street Journal
- "The result of painstaking research, it is related to "fiction" in the sense that real historical events are arranged and narrated in ways that are somewhat similar to the suspenseful, dramatic storytelling techniques of traditional historical novels. (...) In Vuillard’s tightly constructed narrative, the worst tragedies of the century are preceded or accompanied by the ludicrous activities of mediocre individuals. The apparently trivial anecdotes in fact shed light on the enormous destruction of people and civilization." - Edward Ousselin, World Literature Today
- "Vuillard vermeidet das unkalkulierbare Risiko, sich in Mutmaßungen über das Innenleben der Herren Ribbentrop, Hitler oder Chamberlain zu ergehen. Er hält sich an die historisch dokumentierten Oberflächen und überzieht sie lediglich mit einer sehr französischen Chromlackierung aus Pathos (...), Ironie (...), Pointen (...) und oberschlauen weltanschaulichen Aperçus (...) -- und macht aus der Machtergreifung der Nationalsozialisten auf diese Weise eine von devoten deutschen Industrie-Idioten finanzierte Politsatire." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Order of the Day is not a work of fiction, but it's not quite a work of history, much less an essay, either.
It's a sort of creative, interpretive take on history.
It is factual, and carefully researched, but essentially reference-less, without either foot/end-notes or a bibliography.
It doesn't take liberties with the record -- not more so than a strictly historical work would -- yet is also a very personal take, colored by the author's voice and vision.
The work focuses on two pivotal events: the 20 February 1933 gathering where Hitler met some two dozen of the leading German industrialists and got them to contribute large sums of money to the Nazi Party's election campaign, and the events immediately leading up to the March 1938 Anschluss of Austria.
Vuillard goes into some detail in describing some of the scenes and confrontations, but it is more a zooming in on just a few moments -- parts of Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg's 12 February 1938 meeting with Hitler in Berchtesgaden, for example -- than any attempt at exhaustive documentation.
The very short book is all gist and observation (that part of it close to -- but not fully -- commentary); there's an almost casual sense to the presentation -- reflecting also the events themselves, as Vuillard can describe:
That meeting of February 20, which might seem to us a unique moment in corporate history, an unprecedented compromise with the Nazis, was in fact nothing ore for the Krupps, Opels, and Siemenses than a perfectly ordinary business transaction, your basic fund-raising.
The 20 February 'Secret Meeting' was, more or less, business as usual; the Austrian catastrophe a tragi-comedy of errors with Schuschnigg completely outplayed by a man and approach that he was unequipped, in every way, to deal with.
Vuillard notes: "Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps", and he maps those leading to the Anschluss out effectively, personal failures and inadequacies, domestic and international, contributing so much to allowing Hitler to get his way -- even as the triumphant advance into the country then had more than its share of farcical elements, as Vuillard recounts.
Among Vuillard's points is not only the familiar complicity of the industrial complex in the rise of Nazism, but also the extent to which it was and is considered unexceptional: business as usual.
For the businesses, the long-term costs were limited: the firms took a hit but little more.
There was little accountability, and certainly no lesson learned: of the two dozen corporate representatives at the Secret Meeting:
All would survive the regime and go on to finance many other parties, commensurate with their level of performance.
(The similarities to the present-day -- or rather, the historical continuity through the present day --, where major corporations continue to deal with (and, in various ways, fund and support) corrupt (in the broadest sense of the word) regimes and administrations, regardless of the cost to society, and get off, again and again, essentially scot-free, is particularly disturbing.
Meanwhile, Schuschnigg's after-story -- some two decades spent as a professor of political science (!) at Saint Louis University -- is, in its own way, no less preposterous or telling, even as it is, by comparison (and by itself ...), on an essentially trivial scale.)
Vuillard also considers our sense of history, and how how we see and imagine events is shaped by what records remain or are accessible or dominant.
So he points to (and describes) a photograph of Schuschnigg which: "few people know this version of" ("In order to see it, you have to go to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Prints and Photographs Department"), or notes:
The films of that time have become our memories, as if through a horrible magic spell.
The world war and its preamble are swept along in this endless movie, leaving us unable to distinguish between true and false.
History unspools before our eyes, like a film by Joseph Goebbels.
German newsreels become an exemplary fiction.
The Order of the Day isn't meant as corrective, but at least places awareness of the issue nearer the forefront.
Today's manufactured, orchestrated 'fake news', in all its variations, is merely a technologically (usually) more advanced variation on this age-old phenomenon.
As to Vuillard's own account, he also indulges in some creative framing, presentation, and embellishment:
Suddenly the doors creaked, the floorboards groaned; sounds of talking in the anteroom.
The twenty-four lizards rose to their hind legs and stood stiffly.
Hjalmar Schacht swallowed his saliva; Gustav adjusted his monocle.
While not writing pure fiction, Vuillard clearly doesn't feel constrained by academic or scholarly writing-norms and expectations; a filmmaker, he wants -- and manages quite well -- to create vivid tableaux.
It's a seductive text -- Vuillard presents his material well and confidently, with a sly wink but also sufficient distance, and a good eye for absurdities.
The Order of the Day is also a warning text, with Vuillard suggesting:
We never fall twice into the same abyss.
But we always fall the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.
And, indeed, with today's tinpot heads of state, from Putin to Trump, their sycophantic courtiers, and the many commercial and media powers appeasing them in the belief that it will be to their advantage, The Order of the Day should indeed serve as warning.
(Of course, it's more likely simply read as a clever bit about what many already choose to see as a very distant past.)
A fine, sharp little work.
- M.A.Orthofer, 14 May 2018
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The Order of the Day:
Other books by Éric Vuillard under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Author and filmmaker Éric Vuillard was born in 1968.
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© 2018-2021 the complete review
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