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The Verdun Affair

A Novel

Across a continent still reeling from World War I, a “ravishingly beautiful” (Paula McClain) story about a love affair between two Americans and the lie that changes everything.

France, 1921—Tom, a young American orphaned in World War I, is helping comfort the grieving families who travel through Verdun, seeking answers about their loved ones. But nothing in his past—not his rough Chicago childhood nor his experiences driving ambulances across French battlefields—can prepare Tom for the arrival of Sarah Hagen.

From the moment he meets her, a disarmingly magnetic woman looking for news of her missing husband, he knows he will help her in any way he can—even if that means crossing an unforgivable line. As their affair takes them across a fractured Europe careening toward World War 2, Tom and Sarah learn how love can be both a cure for—and a distraction from—the realities of a world turned upside down. But they can only hide from the truth for so long.

When news of an amnesiac soldier in Bologna reaches Tom in Paris, he sets off as a journalist to uncover the story, only to find Sarah at the soldier’s bedside, hopeful as ever. Both are surprised to encounter an Austrian journalist named Paul with his own interest in the amnesiac. As they confront the past, Tom’s actions come back to haunt him, and each is forced to make a choice that will change their lives forever.

A deeply transporting novel about love and identity, truth and consequences, The Verdun Affair is a page-turning and vividly imagined “literary romance… [that] unravels a love triangle and its players’ secrets” (Los Angeles Times).

The Verdun Affair
Santa Monica, 1950

The deceased had been a doctor—a surgeon, renowned in his field—but I knew him only as the neighbor who locked himself out once during a storm. I invited him in and we drank coffee in my living room, watching rain pelt the eucalyptus leaves, sharing comfortable conversation and silence. We’d both grown up in Midwestern cities, we discovered—Chicago in my case, St. Louis in his. We both lived alone. As the locksmith rattled up in his truck we shook hands and promised to get together again. We never did.

He was buried in a beige suit, white hands folded on his chest, looking nothing like himself in life, at least as I had known him. The funeral parlor’s ceiling was frescoed in a mannerist style: rosy light, lean cherubs, clouds, and fountains. No doubt an expensive place to lie dead.

Though one can never think particularly fondly of a wake, I must admit that I preferred those of my childhood. When my mother died, our neighbors downstairs offered their living room for the viewing so the coffin wouldn’t have to be carried up two narrow flights. Mrs. Riley across the hall—who would have taken me in and cared for me as her own if my father hadn’t shocked everyone by cabling from France—swept out our apartment and lit the stove with her own precious coal so that our friends would be warm enough to stay as long as they chose.

Though I knew none of Dr. Kepler’s friends, I resolved to stay as long as I could. I found his daughter, surrounded by three light-eyed children. She said it was kind of me to come, and thanked me for the dahlias, which I’d guessed were a favorite. I’d often seen him in the early morning, watering his dahlias and pulling weeds from his green jewel of a lawn. Beside the casket, I said a few words to his pallid face, then passed between the clusters of mourners, saying appropriate things—appropriately little—until I found myself listening to a man tell a story with the accent of a British actor playing a German in a film.

At first, I was only half-listening. It felt disrespectful to take an interest in such a story—the story of his life, it seemed—at another man’s funeral. But as he continued—blinding headlights, Blackshirts swinging cudgels in an Italian piazza, fires set to the cafés and shops—I realized I knew that in the next sentence he’d be separated from his friends, swallowed by the crowd, beaten badly because the Fascists heard him speaking German, his ribs cracked, his eye nearly gouged out. That is to say, I realized it was not just the story of his life he was telling, but mine.

And, of course, though his back was to me, I knew immediately who the man was. Still, I waited what must have been a full minute on the chance the scene would simply fall apart as dreams do. I touched Paul’s shoulder—that was his name, Paul Weyerhauser—and when he turned his expression was not so much of surprise as awe, as if the story had somehow conjured me. Perhaps it had—how would I know? What does it feel like, I wondered? What does it feel like to be conjured?

* * *

Paul suggested a Viennese bakery. It was late afternoon by the time we left the wake, and the tables were empty. His English had always been perfect, but I could hear the American in it now. He’d had his gig at UCLA since ’35, he said. He scribbled his books in English. What were the books on? Nineteenth-century American painting, portraiture of the Gold Rush West in particular. When I told him I wrote for the pictures, he asked what he might have seen. I named a few films, and he pretended for a moment before giving up.

“My wife will know your work,” he said. “And you? Are you married?”

“Yes,” I said, which was true, though my wife and I had not lived together for some time. I wasn’t in the habit of covering up that fact, and something in the way I said it—the eagerness, probably—must have betrayed me, because his only response was a sympathetic smile. A bus passed outside. The register rang, and a boy of about nine walked into the evening with a loaf of bread under his arm.

Outside, palms lined Wilshire, thin in the sunlight. Within blocks, the street of bakeries and banks would become a shoulder of brown beach shrugging off a coat of ocean. And Paul, who had bowed to Franz Joseph at masked balls when there still was such a place as imperial Vienna, looked perfectly at home. One can get used to anything, I suppose, from crumbling empires to crumbling sand.

“I have to admit I’m not sure I would have recognized you,” I said. He’d aged the way people do in California. His long face was lined and tanned, his hair gone silver instead of gray.

“I spend too much time in the sun,” he said. “And perhaps you assumed I had lost the eye?”

He blinked several times, as if to assure us both that, indeed, he hadn’t. “You realize that Dr. Kepler was the one who saved it, don’t you? It was a close thing. I’d had two surgeries in Austria already before I came to him. I was trying to explain that at the wake—explain his near-genius, but also why I’d needed his help—the riot, the rest of it. Frankly, it’s not a story I’m in the habit of telling.”

“He lived next door to me—Dr. Kepler. For almost three years now, I think.”

Paul smiled, amazed, amused. “I should have preferred to meet him your way.” He paused. “I wonder, have you spoken with any Italian doctors recently?”

“I believe he died,” I said. “In a Nazi camp.”

“What, for communists?”

I nodded. We said nothing for a few minutes, eating raisin bread, sipping coffee. Of course, I was wondering how long it would be before one of us mentioned Sarah Hagen. I wanted to prepare myself for what that might feel like.

It would have been a shame, after all that time, to say something about her that I didn’t mean. But I had written about love successfully for the pictures precisely because I’d never set out to say anything true. And if I were to have attempted it, I might have said that our sense of romantic love comes from the Middle Ages, along with bloodlettings and the Black Death. I might have left it at that.

But Paul did not mention Sarah, perhaps because he and I were old enough now to be cautious above all else, or perhaps because we quickly became lost in other conversation, in the pleasure of discovering there was much to talk about besides a past we happened to share. And before long, the woman who’d served us coffee turned the sign on the door and it was time to go.

“I walk here sometimes,” I said. “To this bakery.”

“Do you? I drive from Brentwood once a week. The best raisin bread in California, so far as I know.”

“Brentwood? Three miles from here? Four? It’s extraordinary.”

“Isn’t it?” He reached across the table to squeeze my shoulder. His face was so frankly happy that I almost had to avert my eyes. “Isn’t it?”

* * *

My house was only blocks away, but sometimes the roads seem the least lonely place in Los Angeles, so I kept driving. Past restaurants with men in paper hats carving roast beef in the windows. Past furniture store signs twirling slowly over Lincoln Boulevard. Then out into the farmlands south of Los Angeles, through thickets of trucks heading back to San Pedro. In Torrance, I took a turn into a neighborhood of bungalows and bougainvillea, where two boys wrestled in the street, grudgingly giving way as I approached.

By the time I reached Palos Verdes at the end of the peninsula, it was growing dark, and the road had dipped between hills of chaparral, and I had a long drive back. I didn’t mind. The war had shown me the uses of long drives in the dark. Just after I arrived in France, in fact, my father taught me to drive on the empty roads west of the river Meuse. This was in October or November of 1915. He was pleased—we both were—with how fast I took to it, the clutch, the gas, the brake.

But on the way back to Bar-le-Duc we found ourselves on foot. The ambulance had stalled in the cold, then died completely just outside a village. “I don’t see us walking the rest of the way,” my father said as I followed him over the moonlit grass. “Not in this weather. We’ll have to find a floor to sleep on here.”

He said the name of the place, but I wasn’t sure what he meant. Not because the word was French, but because all I saw were a few stone houses along a low hill, a narrow road of wet ruts. Stars on the sky like a rind of frost. Nothing that needed a name.

It seemed the kind of village left untouched by the war, by the sentiment that outsiders had a place in France. I think my father sensed this, as, almost cheerfully, he said, “Don’t worry. They can’t turn us away with you here.” And he yanked my cap down, playfully. Well, he meant to be playful, I’m sure, but my ears were cold, so it hurt quite a lot.

A woman came to the door in a black shawl, white hair undone on her shoulders. My father spoke to her in French; he gestured to me and then to himself and then down the road in the direction of the ambulance, or maybe that wasn’t the direction. I couldn’t tell anymore.

There were five other women inside. All pale and thin, though everyone was pale and thin then. The woman with white hair nodded to them, and said something that made my father smile. This is a celebration for her birthday, he translated, but we’re invited to stay. The room smelled of onions. The woman began to ladle soup and pointed to a place by the hearth where we could make a bed. The stone floor was warm. Aside from a few candles, the fire was the only light.

She served us the soup, then returned to a round table at the other end of the room. They were stitching needlepoint, the six of them together; a dim blue thread through canvas on a scroll frame, taking turns, the needle looping out and doubling back. I had neither the language nor the strength to ask what they were doing, and soon fell asleep.

I awoke to voices in darkness. From the irregular breathing to my left I could tell my father was awake too. My French was almost useless, and names of places were easiest to catch. Reims, Amiens, Ypres, the women whispered, trying not to wake us.

“What is it?” I asked my father. “What are they saying?”

“They’re arguing,” he said, and I could hear the laugh in his voice, a sly ironic laugh that was perhaps typical of him, though I never got to learn what was typical.

“About us?”

“They’re arguing about where I’m going to die.”

They were wrong, though; he didn’t die in Reims or Ypres. He died of typhus not far from where we slept that night, just north of Verdun in December of 1915. He was a doctor too—a surgeon with the American Field Service. I sat with him as he lay sweating through three nights of incoherent fever.

I was scared, but not sad, exactly. It was difficult to fully appreciate that the man dying before me was my father. He seemed decent enough, and I was grateful for the time I spent with him, but months later I could remember only that his hair was a metallic gray at the temples, though he wasn’t yet forty.

I never lost the image of those women, though. In eastern France in 1915 it was no difficult thing to select a young man for death; it took no special powers. But, for the same reason, perhaps, it seemed like a world in which such powers were possible. In the years after, I thought of trying to find that village, that house. But, that night, I was too turned around in the dark, and the French name was lost to me almost at once, before I knew I needed to remember it.
This reading group guide for The Verdun Affair includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

France, 1921—Tom, a young American orphaned in World War I, is helping comfort the grieving families who travel through Verdun, seeking answers about their loved ones. But nothing in his past—not his rough Chicago childhood nor his experiences driving ambulances across French battlefields—can prepare Tom for the arrival of Sarah Hagen.

From the moment he meets her, a disarmingly magnetic woman looking for news of her missing husband, he knows he will help her in any way he can—even if that means crossing an unforgivable line. As their affair takes them across a fractured Europe careening toward World War 2, Tom and Sarah learn how love can be both a cure for—and a distraction from—the realities of a world turned upside down. But they can only hide from the truth for so long.

When news of an amnesiac soldier in Bologna reaches Tom in Paris, he sets off as a journalist to uncover the story, only to find Sarah at the soldier’s bedside, hopeful as ever. Both are surprised to encounter an Austrian journalist named Paul with his own interest in the amnesiac. As they confront the past, Tom’s actions come back to haunt him, and each is forced to make a choice that will change their lives forever.

A deeply transporting novel about love and identity, truth and consequences, The Verdun Affair is a page-turning and vividly imagined literary romance.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. At the beginning of the novel, Tom is working in an ossuary in Verdun, sorting bones. How does this impact his understanding of the war? How does it affect his feelings toward the women he meets, searching for their husbands and sons?

2. When Tom first meets Sarah, she’s just caught a koi fish from the church’s pond in her purse. How does this set the tone for their relationship?

3. Why do you think Tom tells Sarah that he met Lee Hagen?

4. One day, collecting bones, Tom imagines the war experience of a man named Martin, whose mother once came to the ossuary to ask Father Perrin if her son, then dead, had ever received her letter. Tom imagines Martin’s childhood, swimming in the village lake; his adulthood as a stone mason; and then his time as a soldier, finally deciding that it “couldn’t be” (p. 36) that this man he imagined had died—that he must have been taken prisoner instead. What might be the purpose of Tom’s thought experiment?

5. Tom, reflecting on his experiences in World War I, quotes a famous line from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers. Finally, only the names of places had dignity.” Why would these words (p. 41) resonate with Tom?

6. When Tom and Sarah visit a medium together, the woman conjures up a spirit—but not the one that they’re looking for. How do the themes of miraculous connection and false hope play out further in the narrative?

7. Before Tom, Sarah, and Paul meet Douglas Fairbanks, Tom hears of another famous soldier-turned-amnesiac, a man called Anthelme Mangin. The publisher of the newspaper where Tom works writes that this man rejects his identity because “in the age of industrial war, an identity can be stolen on the whims of strangers and at a moment’s notice” (p. 120). Do you agree or disagree, and why?

8. Why do so many mothers wait to see Douglas Fairbanks, knowing that he is almost certainly not their son?

9. Sarah believes men prefer a frightened woman. Paul believes men prefer a happy woman. Dr. Bianchi believes that women don’t have the freedom to express illness. How have women’s roles shifted since the 1921 portrayed in The Verdun Affair, and how have they stayed the same?

10. When Tom and Sarah travel together, they call themselves Mr. and Mrs. Tom Morrow. Do you see irony in this choice, or is it an expression of optimism?

11. In Los Angeles in the 1950s, why doesn’t Tom want “his” song to be written into a movie?

12. In a world where everyone is grieving, why do Paul and Sarah hold on to the specific hope of finding a single man—respectively, the man that wronged Paul and the man that Sarah married? What’s the relationship between forgiveness and vengeance in this novel?

13. After the riot in Bologna, Tom and Sarah find a group of boys whipping a cadaver with their belts (p. 257). What symbolic value does this action have?

14. The song Tom hears a soldier sing in Aix-les-Bains—the song he tells Sarah that Lee Hagen sang—ends with, “the perfect end to a perfect year.” How do the lyrics reflect the situation in Europe in 1921, as well as the three main characters’ experiences?

15. What do you make of Dr. Bianchi’s final treatment with Douglas Fairbanks? Why are Paul, Sarah, and Tom willing to see Douglas Fairbanks suffer?

16. At the very end of The Verdun Affair, with the glimmer of a new life before him, Tom remembers what it was like to drive an ambulance in combat during World War I (p. 291). Can you imagine why that image might come to him at that time?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Further research World War I by reading one of the books the author mentions inhis acknowledgments, such as A World Undone by G. J. Meyer or The Price of Glory by Alistair Horne.

2. Check out Nick Dybek’s first novel, When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Photograph by Melissa Blackall

Nick Dybek is a recipient of a Granta New Voices selection, a Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award, and a Maytag Fellowship. He received a BA from the University of Michigan and an MFA from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He teaches at Oregon State University. He is the author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man and The Verdun Affair.

“Grief looms, shadowlike, over this beautifully calibrated novel, which recalls the work of Anthony Doerr and Michael Ondaatje.”
—O Magazine

“Striking… a story of operatic complexity, narrated in many voices, rich in imagery... Dybek finds the perfect conclusion for a novel so much about the mutability of time.”
—New York Times Book Review

“As evocative as it is unflinching in its verisimilitude, Dybek’s novel begins shortly after the First World War in an ossuary, a makeshift memorial of sorts where unidentified remains of soldiers are gathered. Into this metaphor-rich setting a young American wife arrives seeking answers, and a precarious romance ensues…capturing the fragmented textures of war’s afterlife, and the private desires that seem to glow with even greater intensity in memory, is Dybek’s true ambition.”
Vogue

“For a literary romance, try The Verdun Affair by Nick Dybek, a historical fiction that begins in 1950 in Los Angeles, where a Hollywood screenwriter runs into someone from his past. Their story stretches back to Europe in the years following the First World War, and the novel unravels a love triangle and its players’ secrets.” 
LA Times

"Dybek has a knack for creating a cinematic, wistfully noirish atmosphere of romance, in a world where love now seems beside the point."
Seattle Times

"Nick Dybek’s pensive new novel centers on a man, a woman and a lie in World War I Europe and 1950s California. Dybek’s protagonist is an orphan without ties, free to project his life in any direction he chooses – but he can’t choose where the lie takes him."
Portland Oregonian

"The perfect escape."
First For Women

“While there are obvious comparisons to The English Patient, this book seems to be an extended metaphor showing how relationships, loves even, can be shattered beyond all recognition, just as a human body can be obliterated. The author effectively communicates the spirit of place and time. He also has a knack for sharing the feelings and intentions behind quite ordinary conversations.”
Historical Novels Review

"Dybek is a master at creating an atmosphere of war, of decadence amid the rubble, and at dipping in and out of history, teasing the reader with beguiling clues concerning the secrets each character harbors ... Dybek's novel is a complex tale of memory, choice, and the sacrifices one sometimes makes by doing the right thing."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Dybek has created a carefully constructed, deeply inquisitive, and broodingly romantic tale of mourning resonant with judicious echoes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and spiked with piquant insights into the loss, longing, and delusion rampant in the haunting aftermath of war."
Booklist, starred review

“An absorbing tale ... in delicate, evocative prose, Dybek captures the grim devastation of scarred battlefields, bombed villages, and fetid soil and conveys with sensitivity his characters' unabated desire to see in the shellshocked soldier an answer to their deepest desire.”
Kirkus Reviews

The Verdun Affair is ravishingly beautiful, and as much about love as about war. Nick Dybek is a storyteller of great power. I found myself drawn in immediately, believing the place, the characters, everything in his magnificently woven story. If there’s any justice, this novel will be widely read and recognized. I absolutely adored it.”
—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun

“Sometimes the true battle begins only after the fighting is over. In this case, it’s the struggle to regain feeling, memory, and love in a landscape where verdancy can flourish again over graves and trenches and bones, but not over the craters of a wounded spirit. In the end, only a story can do that, but it must be as rich and poignant and compelling as Nick Dybek’s immersive and atmospheric The Verdun Affair. The meaning in life often goes AWOL, and we look to our great writers—writers like Nick Dybek—to bring it back.”
—Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son and Fortune Smiles

“The Verdun Affair is an intensely gripping story set in the immediate aftermath of war. From a still-smoldering battlefield, Nick Dybek conjures a sweeping saga of secrets, lies, mistaken identity, love and betrayal. This is the kind of book you can’t put down.”
Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus and Battleborn

The Verdun Affair is a masterful, sweeping novel of love and war and the way we reconstruct ourselves and our stories after everything has come apart. Nick Dybek is a vivid storyteller, and this is a beautiful and exciting book.”
Ramona Ausubel, author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty and No One is Here Except all of Us

“I am still haunted by the images of war so deftly conjured in the midst of an elegiac love story.  Dybek writes with a commanding sense of story and language. This novel will not let you go.”
—Helen Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Summer Before The War

"Love, war, the mysteries of who we are — it's all in The Verdun Affair. A masterful novel that will fizz your brain and enchant your heart."
David Ebershoff, author of The Danish Girl and The 19th Wife

“A haunting, beautiful, and wholly absorbing book, that is at once a gripping story of war, a poignant coming of age, and a bittersweet romance. Dybek conjures the time period with elegance and visceral detail. I didn’t want it to end!”
—Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles and Circe

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