“Les Années noires avaient été grises”: A Meta-Ethical Examination of Pierre Assouline’s Appropriation of Primo Levi’s Concept of the “Grey Zone”

Helena Duffy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In his debut novel, La Cliente, which focuses on the relatively unexplored aspect of the Occupation, which is the mass phenomenon of denunciation, Pierre Assouline explicitly applies Levi’s notion of “grey zone” to the French context by advancing a theory that the dark years — “les années noires” — were in fact not black but grey. He thus foregrounds the ambiguity of a period which is customarily understood in Manichean terms, the French being divided in popular consciousness into collaborators and resisters. In this article I explore the ethics of Assouline’s appropriation of the notion of “grey zone,” which originally designated those forced into collusion with the Nazis by the horrific circumstances of the Final Solution, and who therefore, in Levi’s mind, must not be judged. As well as discussing the novelist’s use of Levi’s concept in relation to a French informer responsible for the death of a Jewish family, or his use of the figure of the mirror to invert the roles of victim and victimizer, my ambition is to extend the use of the term “grey zone” to the generic hybridity of La Cliente, which self-consciously straddles history and literary invention in order to convey the complexities of “les années grises.” Ultimately, I will argue that by mixing fact and fiction in order to create a character who is simultaneously the agent of Jewish deaths and victim of, first, blackmail by the French police, and then the épuration, Assouline risks manipulating his readers into suspending their moral judgment of collaborators and in particular informers, placing them in the same “ill-defined area of ambiguity and compromise […] born out of political coercion” where Levi situates Jews detained in ghettos and concentration camps, where they faced what Lawrence Langer has called “choiceless choices.”
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-44
Number of pages16
JournalFrench Forum
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 8 Oct 2019


  • Denunciation
  • Holocaust
  • Primo Levi
  • grey zone

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