An Infinity of Mirrors, by Richard Condon

This 1964 novel has been on my shelves for many decades. I think I originally bought it because of an interest in how the Nazis built their control of Germany in the 1930s. And I may have left it unread because I considered it more a commercial work than a literary work.

But it is an easy novel to get into. It is about a beautiful Parisienne, Paule Bernheim, who is Jewish. Her father, Paul-Alain Bernheim, is a famous actor also famous for his love affairs. And who also makes a point of instructing his daughter in Jewish history, in order to make her proud of her heritage. The daughter then meets a handsome German officer, Willi Von Rhode, whom she pronounces as Veelee, when he is stationed in Paris. Her father is distraught when she falls in love with this Prussian officer. But he does seem to be a good man, and she loves him so much that she follows him back to Germany when he is re-assigned in 1932, and marries him there.

Whereupon, the author spends a number of chapters recapitulating the growth of Nazi power in Germany, including the campaign against the Jews. This dip into history explains why this novel began with an Author’s Note that thanks the scores of people who enabled him to capture that era of German history. This recapitulation is very easy reading, however—colorful history as a novelist would tell it rather than the dry recitation an historian might make. Indeed, this recital of German history is so vivid that one never regrets leaving the adventures of Paule and Veelee, since one knows that this history is setting up the danger Paule faces in Nazi Germany, as well as a potential conflict in her marriage to a German officer.

Paule herself does not recognize this danger, believing her husband will protect her. But her friends do realize it, and recommend she move from Berlin into the countryside, where hatred of the Jews is less prominent. This, they say, will enable Veelee to take on a more important job and not remain in his dead-end assignment at a training school because it enables him to be close to his wife.

But Hitler then turns over in the army’s leadership, and Paule, becoming concerned about the future of her husband, returns to Berlin. Her rational is that her son Paul-Alain is now of school age, and she wants to find a good school for him. Back in Berlin, however, Paule is assaulted by a German officer, Colonel Drayst, and then is caught in an anti-Jewish riot, which she barely escapes. This makes her realize that she is no longer safe in Germany and that she must leave. Which means that she must also give up Veelee, whom she loves. This is in 1938. There is then a break in the novel, which jumps two years.

Before focusing on Paule back in Paris in 1940, the author again becomes the historian, and explains how the Germans are using local French institutions to administer Paris and much of France. Then we return to a restless Paule, who begins various affairs, much as her father also did in Paris years earlier. One of her affairs is with a Spaniard, Count Miral, with whom she shares a deep devotion. The title of the novel, in fact, comes from their relationship. “He and Paule,” the Count thinks,” were like figures facing and reflecting each other endlessly in an infinity of mirrors, which were the past and the future.”

Their companionship appears to settle her down, but it becomes significantly unsettled again when Colonel Drayst re-enters her life. He is intent on possessing this beautiful woman to revenge himself on all Jews. This threat also makes her more protective of her young son. Then, to complicate the story, Condon introduces a black market businessman named Piocher, who is in league with the British.

Plus, to complicate the story even further, Condon returns to Veelee, now the chief of staff of a large panzer army. We learn he has been horrified by Nazi atrocities in Poland, and yet his career advances until he is badly wounded in Africa, losing one eye and one arm. He also discovers others who believe Hitler has betrayed the German army and the German people and must be eliminated. He then manages a new assignment in Paris, where he has a cordial reunion with Paule and rediscovers his love of his son. And so, there is further intrigue, regarding both Paule’s future and Veelee’s involvement with the rebellious officers. Which raises the issue: is this a commercial work or a literary one? For the plotting is commercial; but the substance, such as the opposing cultures, approaches that of a literary work.

The tension grows as the novel races to its conclusion. Drayst begins his plot to possess Paule. There is an extended heart-rending scene in which Jews in Paris are rounded up and confined to an old arena with little food and water, no sanitation, and spreading illness. This is followed by with Paule intent on protecting her son and deciding where her true commitment lies, and with Veelee joining the army’s plot to end the war.

The climax of the novel is dramatic, but relies a little too much on history, first on the sabotage that helped to disrupt the German reaction to the Normandy invasion, then on Stauffenberg’s failed attempt of July 20, 1944 to kill Hitler, and finally on the plotters’ failure to use the army to take over their country. Paule and Veelee then emerge to play only a subsidiary role as, with the help of Piocher, they plan their own revenge on Colonel Drayst. But they do re-enforce Condon’s theme of the horrors of war, for he has Paule realize at the end that in their revenge, “We have become the monster.”

The result is a suspenseful novel that carries a message. It is a worthy message. As Condon writes, “evil must be opposed, [but] when it is fought with evil’s ways it must ultimately corrupt and strangle the opposer.” But an emphasis on such a message negates the novel’s literary pretensions. For after our long exposure to Paule and her loves, her final cry turns her fate into a symbol, whereas it should lead to a deeper understanding of her humanity. Of the tension in the life of this Jewish woman who falls for a German officer serving a Nazi regime he abhors, and her struggles with issues of love, patriotism, and survival. It focuses, instead, on this heroine’s failure to combat such evil—leaving us with a cynical reminder of what war and violence can bring to the human condition. (November, 2019)

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