Sarah Maza


On her book Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris

Cover Interview of July 18, 2011

The wide angle

There is only one previous book about this case, an account of the bare facts of the matter published in French in 1975.  I happened to read it a few years ago and was instantly hooked.  I decided that I would tell the story again—but document it more fully and give it as much historical context as possible.

The story of Violette’s crime and what happened to her subsequently is a gripping one, but I also use the case as a microcosm for explaining how different classes of people in Paris lived and interacted in those years.

The crime hit a nerve with contemporaries because Violette’s parents were typical of a widespread social experience: immigrants from the countryside who came to the capital to make a good life for themselves, had an only child by choice, and lived, as so many others did in a tiny two-room apartment with no bathroom and no privacy.

To many newspaper readers they were “people like us.”  How and why had they failed so spectacularly with their daughter?

Violette’s parents came under criticism for sending their daughter to a high school (lycée), which was considered inappropriately ambitious: people of their class typically sent their children to school only until their early teens, and out in the workforce as soon as possible.  Had Baptiste and Germaine somehow brought this on themselves?  And how could they not know that their teenage daughter was seeing men?

These questions allow me to explore the educational and sexual norms for girls of different classes at the time—for instance by comparing Violette’s experiences with those of an upper-class contemporary, the future philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir.

Another “wide angle” of the book is the question of social class in Paris at the time.  When Violette ventured out into the city and met people—men especially—she told lies about her background.  She pretended to be an upper-class girl, told people that her father was an engineer, that her mother worked for the fashion designer Paquin, that she had a rich aunt who lived in a hotel.  When she was on the lam she invented for herself a aristocratic identity as “Christian d’Arfeuil.”

She evidently looked the part, since she wore elegant clothes she bought at the Galeries Lafayette and other ready-to-wear emporia.  But did she really fool people?  In order to answer that question I explore the nature of class identities at the time.  What were the real differences between working class and “bourgeois” people?  In what circumstances was it possible to cross that barrier?  Was it easier for women than for men?

One of the book’s sections is about women and fashion: what women of different classes wore, and how class differences in fashion were blurring for the first time in this period.

Other themes in the book have to do with crime and the avant-garde in this period.  1933 was a year of extraordinary crimes in France.  The other most famous case of that year was the crime of the Papin sisters, a pair of maids in a provincial town who suddenly, for no apparent reason, slaughtered their mistress and her daughter in a spectacularly savage way.  Another big case involved the murder of a prominent gay nightclub owner, Oscar Dufrenne, by a young man wearing a sailor costume whom the police took months to track down.  What was the meaning of the “culture of crime” in this period?  Why were contemporaries apparently more interested in these kinds of seedy tales than in alarming developments on the international scene?

One group of people who had a special interest in crime was the Surrealists.  Some of the most prominent Surrealists working in France—Paul Éluard, Salvador Dalì, Man Ray, and others, headed by André Breton—put together a volume of poems and art-work in her honor.  It was published in Belgium and banned in France—no doubt because they were the only group to proclaim their belief in her story of incest.

The poems in the volume are a cry of outrage at what they saw as the metaphorical “gang rape” of this young girl by her father, the judges and officials, and ultimately by the state.  This coterie of artists and writers, had come to the defense of female criminals in the past, and they were gripped by Violette’s story.  Their involvement allows me to draw connections between the lives of ordinary people and the avant-garde in interwar Paris.

My book is powered by the story of the case, and I weave all of these contextual matters into the twists and turns of the affair.