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November 25, 2013 by

The Courage and Criticism of a War Correspondent

w481662There is a remarkable visual clarity in Michele Zackheim’s “Last Train to Paris,” set predominantly in Paris and Berlin during the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Perhaps reflecting Zackheim’s background as a visual artist, the novel is as adept at crystallizing small moments as it is at portraying the sweep of action during the darkest time in 20th century Europe. The story is told by Rose (R.B.) Manon, an old woman looking back at her career as a political reporter and war correspondent for The Paris Courier.

“With soaring lyricism, Zackheim limns an exquisitely haunting portrait of an indelibly scarred, yet deeply passionate, woman.” – Booklist

 

Rose’s cousin is kidnapped and then killed in Paris. In real life, the kidnapper was Eugene Weidmann, and the abductee was a distant cousin of yours. Was this a story you were familiar with as a child?

No, I learned about this story by accident when I was an adult.  I was fascinated by Janet Flanner and had checked out her book Paris Was Yesterday, 1925 –1939.  In it was an essay she wrote for The New Yorker that spoke about the murder.

The appearance of Colette and Janet Flanner in this novel is both natural and fun to read. Were their parts fun to write?

I loved making friends with Colette and Janet Flanner.  Their involvement in my distant cousin’s murder makes them more life-like, less mysterious.  When Flanner calls my cousin, “a grabby little American,” I’m upset. How dare she call my cousin, ‘grabby”!  My response brings me a step closer to Flanner as a real human being, rather than an icon.

What first drew you to writing about the experience of a female war correspondent in 1930-40s Europe?

I wanted to create a character to narrate the story about the murder of a distant cousin and how the murder was metaphorically woven into the anxiety of the time, right before World War II.  At first, the correspondent was a man; his name was Jimmy Corso.  Indeed, I wrote the entire book in his voice and submitted it to my publisher.  They agreed to publish it.  And then for two weeks I worried.  It wasn’t right and I asked them to return it. 

What’s interesting to me is that I’ve always written about shy, introverted women.  As an exercise, when I transcribed Jimmy Corso’s voice to that of Rose Manon, I blundered into the voice of an extroverted woman.  This woman is filled with vocal passion and energy for her work and the people she loves.  I like her.

Rose Manon is from a small town in Nevada a state not known for its large Jewish population. What role does internalized anti-Semitism play in Rose’s life?

Rose internalizes a Jewish coat of armor.  She is outwardly courageous, but also easily hurt by criticism, and prone to self-loathing.  Cleverly, she uses the emotional values of being an outsider to her advantage.  Slight paranoia becomes a gauge for not always accepting what she sees at face value.  Criticism forces her to evaluate what she is thinking.  Over time, her self-loathing shifts, and she uneasily begins to accept herself. 

At 85, Rose Manon says this about her garden after the first frost: “I’ve learned that I can revive a plant that’s on the brink—but it’s a fragile moment.” Rose may as well be describing her own hard-won strength. Can you speak about this strength—and what it cost her?

As with most strong women, the culture makes iron-handed attempts to dampen and diminish Rose.  And she pays the price.  Like her mother, Rose is an angry woman who doesn’t have a lot of patience for stupidity.  On the other hand, she has a poetic streak that becomes more apparent as she ages.  Rose tends her garden as she tends her friends . . . with great care.  Yet the one relationship she cares the most about, the one relationship where she learns to love is lost . . . and there’s nothing she can do about it.

Manon went to great lengths to help friends in danger escape. Why did she, half Jewish, participate so actively in protecting others while never acknowledging she was in great jeopardy?

Rose sincerely believes that being half-Jewish will protect her from danger.  She thinks of herself as an observer of the world, assigned to write the truth about what is happening.  But, her feelings change with time. It takes several unpleasant incidents in her life for her to finally become aware of her own precariousness. 

I haven’t encountered such an intense portrayal of the treacherous turns in a mother-daughter relationship since Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments. Over and again, Miriam seems out to get Rose. Yet even in the wake of the worst of Miriam’s behavior, Rose is loyal to her. Why?

Rose’s mother is an intelligent and curious woman whose talents do not have a chance to manifest until she’s well into her sixties.  While Rose is growing up, her mother turns her rage toward the safest people, her family.  This makes her both hateful and a coward.  And the more hateful and cowardly she becomes, the more uncontrollable is her bitter anger.

But Rose will never abandon her mother.  Every time there’s a catastrophe between the two of them, it is Rose who is the appeaser.  When Rose’s father dies, she knows that her mother has no one else.  This evokes compassion, along with the primordial dream that her mother will finally love her.

Rose Manon resists romantic entanglements for her entire youth, yet later falls deeply and lastingly in love with Leon, a German Jew. Why Leon?

Although she will never admit it, Leon reminds Rose of her father.  Quiet, contained.  Leon is confused about his feelings for Rose for a long time.  Once they are threatened together on the train, they both realize that this relationship is more than they have bargained for.

Your evocation of time and place could not have sprung from nowhere. How did you manage to make your setting so true and immersive?

I started my adult life as a visual artist.  Thirty years later, I began to write.  My eyes are trained to see details and nuances and shadows of both light and dark.  When I’m writing a book, I do a lot of traveling.  I love walking down a street and taking notes about the colors and the smells and the noises.  I’m a bit of a peeping tom . . . shameless about looking through windows, listening to other people’s conversations. 

  

Patricia Grossman‘s latest novel, Radiant Daughter, will be available as an e-book early this spring.