One thing leads to another : Vercors’ Le silence de la mer

Prominent amongst the exhibits in the Liberation Collection exhibition are two editions of Vercors’ novella Le silence de la mer. The story is of a German officer billeted with a French family. A Francophile disillusioned with Nazi propaganda, he is eventually sent to the Eastern Front. Set between November 1940 and July 1941, the novella was completed in September or October 1941, and first published clandestinely by Éditions de Minuit in February 1942. The text was in wide circulation by the summer of 1943.

Jahan's 1944 photograph

Jahan’s 1944 photograph

The exhibition copy of the 1942 edition is inscribed and dedicated by Vercors to Gilberte Chapuis, who as a young girl cycled round Paris distributing copies of the novella. The University Library’s copy of this edition is a later printing, which stands at 1994.7.597. Also displayed is a 1944 photograph by Pierre Jahan showing Le silence de la mer concealed behind another row of books in his apartment. On the back of the picture he writes

Aucune cachette ne survit à une bonne perquisition … il était pourtant plus prudent de glisser les “Éditions de Minuit” dans la seconde rangée de sa bibliothèque!

Between 1944 and 1948 the story was translated into 17 languages and reportedly sold more than a million copies. The Library has a luxury edition published as early as 1945 with lithographs by Luc-Albert Moreau and paid for by friends of the artist. It is copy 14 of 25 copies produced for the artist’s collaborators, printed specially for Maurice Lecole of the Papeterie de Lana.

Put out the light, an English translation by Cyril Connolly, was published in 1944 (1944.7.1032). Tracking down the UL’s copy was not straightforward, since no entry appeared in the on-line catalogue. It appeared as an entry in the secondary card catalogue, not under the pseudonym Vercors but under Silence, the first word of the original French title – catalogued 70 years ago according to a cataloguing code with which no one nowadays is fully familiar. Retrospective conversion of the record has now taken place, of course, but it is an important reminder of the wealth of material published between 1920 and 1977 which still lurks in the Library’s secondary card catalogue.

A feature film of Le silence de la mer appeared in 1947, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. The main University Library does not collect film, but there are copies at MML, Jesus, St John’s, Selwyn and Trinity. These can be easily identified by searching LibrarySearch under “Silence de la mer” and restricting the search by “video DVD”. Three books on Melville were added to the collections with the arrival of Glynne Parker’s library.

2014-07-25 08.50.51

Vercors / Alain Riffaud

In 1949 Jean Mercure wrote a play based on the novella, and in 1978 Vercors published his own theatrical version. In 2004 there was a television film written by Anne Giafferi and directed by Pierre Boutron. Some of these are not currently in Cambridge, but the European Collections and Cataloguing team is working to rectify that situation. Having received a wonderful donation such as the Liberation Collection, our collection focus shifts slightly, as we look for new opportunities to build on existing strength. A new biography of Vercors, by Alain Riffaud, was purchased on July 8 2014. One thing leads to another.


If interested in a more detailed discussion of the evolution of the text, and very differing interpretations by figures such as Maurice Druon, Cyril Connolly, Arthur Koestler and Ilya Ehrenbourg, please consult a stimulating article by Brett Bowles, entitled Résistance oblige? Historiography, memory, and the evolution of Le silence de la mer, 1942-2012, which is published in the journal French politics, culture & society, (vol. 32, no. 1, Spring 2014). The Library does not currently have an on-line subscription to this journal, but the print issue is kept in pigeonhole T209 in the West Room. Back issues stand at L560.c.170.

David Lowe

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s