In Éric Vuillard’s award-winning historical novel The Order of the Day, an absurd and tragic encounter seals Austria’s fate.
The hour grows late and Austria’s dictatorial Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg arrives at the Eagle’s Nest, Adolf Hitler’s mountaintop retreat high above Berchtesgaden. It is February 12, 1938, and in a month’s time, German troops will cross the border and Austria will cease to exist. As his car pulled up at Berghof, writes Éric Vuillard in his award-winning novel, The Order of the Day, Schuschnigg “had the awful feeling he’d fallen into a trap.” One of the most “fantastic and grotesque scenes of all time” was about to begin.
The 2017 winner of the Prix Goncourt, one of France’s premier literary prizes, The Order of the Day tells the story of several pivotal meetings that took place between the European powers in the run-up to the Second World War. After establishing the lay of the novel with a meeting between Hitler and German industrialists in early 1933, Vuillard – whose other books, like Sorrow of the Earth, have also been historical re-imaginings – homes in on the Hitler-Schuschnigg encounter.
It’s an unusual structure, told in a narrative encased in Vuillard’s commentary on the unfolding events. On the whole, it works, and ably translated by Mark Polizzotti, the conceit is only occasionally tiresome. (“We know them very well. They are here beside us, among us. … They are here, there, and everywhere, in all sorts of guises.”) As a French postmodern reinvention of the historical novel, The Order of the Day brings to mind Laurent Binet’s thrilling HHhH – at once a novel about the assassination of Nazi bigwig Reinhard Heydrich and a novel about the writing of a novel about that assassination.
In attitude, Vuillard is cutting, making it clear he thinks little of Austria’s little autocrat. Schuschnigg is “nothing,” he writes. “He contributes nothing, is friend to nothing, is the hope of nothing.” Schuschnigg hoped for a savior, “desperate to hold onto his little throne,” while German troops rumbled toward Vienna, noting that “he who dances on freedom’s grave shouldn’t expect it to come rushing to his aid.”
Vuillard also enjoys pointing out the humor in the serious and The Order of the Day is at its best when he plays with the ironies and absurdities of history – that, for example, the Austro-Fascist Schuschnigg could be hired after the war as a professor of political science at Saint Louis University. “It’s true he was well versed in political science,” Vuillard wryly observes, “he who had managed to say no to every public freedom.” And who would have thought that the otherwise- pliant President Wilhelm Miklas, “a man apparently without conviction,” would choose March 11, the day before the German invasion, to stand up for Austria’s independence and constitutional order?
The Hitler-Schuschnigg meeting at the Eagle’s Nest, meanwhile, gets off on the entirely wrong foot when Hitler spews out, “Austria has never done anything that would be of any help to Germany. The whole history of Austria is just one uninterrupted act of high treason.” Schuschnigg then “racks his brains, like a good pupil, for an example of Austria’s famous contributions to history. …But his head is empty.” As Hitler’s eyes “stubbornly bore into him,” he finally finds one: Beethoven! “Beethoven,” Hitler retorts with an unexpected jab, “is not Austrian, he’s German.” “But he’s Austrian by adoption,” is the best Schuschnigg can do in response.
This balance of light and shade, comedy and tragedy, is the very point of The Order of the Day. “Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps,” Vuillard says of a story which, of course, ends with Austrians lining the streets and filling Heldenplatz to joyously greet their German conquerors, and as he concludes at novel’s end: “We never fall twice into the same abyss. But we always fall the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.”
The Order of the Day
Translated by Mark Polizzotti
Picador, January 2019