In 1991, Adam Nossiter resigned from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to move to New Orleans and write a book loosely based on the reopening of the Medgar Evers murder case in Mississippi. As the prosecution moved toward trial, Nossiter immersed himself in Mississippi history, writing in a house in the Garden District with research forays across the border.
Of Long Memory, published in 1994 to stellar reviews, was much more than a journalist's account of a Southern state delivering belated justice. The book probes the nature of collective memory, and how attitudes toward race and society have changed or not changed a generation after Mississippi made headlines as the most violent state in the South.
This summer, Houghton-Mifflin is publishing The Algeria Hotel: France, Memory and the Second World War, Nossiter's brilliant account of the convenient amnesia that afflicts certain parts of French society toward collaboration in war-time atrocities. As in his book on Mississippi, Nossiter's insistence on history as a form of conscience shines through this excavation like a silver light.
Nossiter grew up in Paris, where his father was stationed as a correspondent. He studied French history at Harvard; after graduation, he spent nearly a decade covering the South as a journalist. In Of Long Memory, he wrote of being "captivated by Mississippi ... following a Southern reporter's habitual round of racial disputes in small towns, labor fights in low-wage factories, and racially divided politics in the state capital. The past kept intruding into these stories. Mississippi came to seem like a laboratory, a continuous experiment in which people were forced to learn how to live with their past."
Of Long Memory helped Nossiter land a job with The New York Times, a move many journalists would envy. But after two years on the metro desk, he grew restless and more curious about the land where he spent his formative years. In 1997, he quit the Times to begin work on The Algeria Hotel, a book that over the next three years would take him to Bordeaux, Vichy and Paris.
The politics of memory links his two books. As the South moved beyond segregation, France tried to put the Nazi occupation behind it. Yet the two societies, defeated in war, have psychological debts yet unpaid.
"Southerners are in general a good deal more myopic," says Nossiter, who recently moved back to New Orleans. "There's very little shame, covert or otherwise, attached to revering the Confederacy -- and this I obviously find scandalous. It has to do probably with deficiencies in education. People are ignorant of the facts, willfully or otherwise.
"Whereas in France," he continues, "if you revere Vichy [the city synonymous with France's collaborationist government with the Nazis] you have to be pretty careful about the audience in which you choose to do so. This isn't the same thing as being 'normally' anti-Semitic, an inclination that can play out in a surprisingly varied set of scenarios. You can be anti-Semitic and anti-Vichy, as so many in the Resistance were."
Living in Vichy allowed Nossiter to probe "the notion of a continuing past." As he writes in The Algeria Hotel: "The Holocaust imposes itself, its shock waves felt all the more strongly in my generation's adulthood for having been muted earlier on. ... If the past had resurfaced for the French, it had done so largely through the portal of the Jewish experience."
The Algeria Hotel draws devastating portraits of French citizens who evade any sense of historical complicity in the deportation of some 75,000 French Jews to death camps. This mentality is crystallized in the first section, an account of the trial of Maurice Papon, a high-level bureaucrat in Vichy who was indicted some 40 years after World War II for crimes against humanity. Nossiter took offense at the apathy of some French journalists for whom the trial of an 87-year old man was boring, a waste of time.
"They didn't seem to recognize that some of what was occurring in the courtroom was generally new, revelatory, and therefore interesting," he says. "I do think it comes back to a certain self-denigration that is present in France today -- the feeling that 'We are a poor little country and nothing we do is of any great significance.' I encountered this as a kind of subtext in conversations around the courthouse."
In Papon, Nossiter writes, he found a man whose strategy "consisted of thoroughly removing himself from the court's logic by calling into question the notion of memory itself. Papon needed to talk. But he didn't, for his own purposes, need to remember. He had his own relationship to the past, but it could not be comprehensive. So there could be no concrete reconstruction of those long-ago times."
The last and most powerful part of The Algeria Hotel centers on the town of Tulle, where upwards of 80 men were hung on the same day as the Nazis retreated. Husbands, fathers, brothers, grandsons and nephews were wiped out in full view, with a searing psychic scar left behind. Memory registers a trauma that is still harsh, still freshly alive. One man tells the author: "We didn't know what we were seeing. We were completely ... I don't know how to say it. We were in a trance. We didn't understand why it was them and not us."
Writes Nossiter: "A man who had just recounted his experiences of being held hostage said: 'It unfolded like a film. The images remain in my head.' Mme. Raze's sister began: 'It's the same film. I almost see the faces passing in front of my eyes.' It was as though I were being allowed a glimpse of a series of images that were continually present."
A key source in his reconstruction of events in Tulle was the account of Jean Espinasse, a Catholic priest who walked with the men to the gallows and became the messenger and bearer of final personal effects to the families.
"I admire him a great deal," Nossiter says of Espinasse. "He showed great courage and also devotion to his faith at the very moment of the massacre, and also for all the years afterwards. I think he did try very earnestly to fulfill his mission. And I think he felt a kind of responsibility for keeping that moment alive -- to say over and over that the men did on the whole die with dignity. And whether or not you are Christian, I think you have to recognize that he contributed to this."
The word "trauma" does not appear often in The Algeria Hotel. In the 1990s, a bitter debate raged between schools of therapists over the way trauma shapes -- or, as some argue, misshapes -- the nature of memory, the reliability of personal recall of terrible events from years earlier.
"Trauma is a sort of catalyst for memory," Nossiter asserts. "The remembered experience of trauma helps bring back what happened in the past. It will distort memory, but then so does everything else. Memory is by definition a distortion. We don't have any choice about this. But it was my wager in the book that within those distortions, you can pick out fragments that might help to understand how a past event was lived, at the moment of its unfolding." .