The Prix Goncourt is France’s highest award for fiction, and the most recent recipient was Éric Vuillard for The Order of the Day. It’s an interesting choice for at least three reasons. First, it’s really good, like prize-winning good, written in crystalline sentences ably translated by Mark Polizzotti. Second, it’s not a bog-standard war story about generals and infantrymen or even suffering civilians. Instead it focuses on the bureaucrats and businessmen who quietly and cravenly capitulated to a Fascist regime that in the 1930s didn’t yet have a stranglehold on power. Over and over again in Vuillard’s account, civility outweighs principle, as in the chilling scene where Chamberlain and Ribbentrop linger over a diplomatic dinner while Nazi forces drive unopposed across the German-Austrian border. Every detail marshaled here is devastatingly accurate, which brings us to a final point of interest: this isn’t really fiction. Sure, there’s creative description on every page, but at its heart, The Order of the Day is history as it was made. As fact-based as it is, it probably wouldn’t be eligible for an American fiction prize, but the French don’t worry about categories, just beautiful writing. In this case, I’m on their side.
—James Crossley, Phinney Books, Seattle, WA