An intimate exploration of weak, flawed people doing small, right things
|Cover design by Micaela Alcaino|
We are all familiar with those moments of self-doubt that plague us in the dark of night. Degrees of triviality vary, from Did I have parsley in my teeth all through dinner? to Will the planet be safe for my children? The nature of our worries is as varied as our characters. But for those who have held an academic position—or indeed spent too much time sequestered in the studies of esoterica at college—the moments of self-doubt tend to take a more common form: Does my life mission matter? Does anything I do really matter?
Such concerns are the central theme of Bridget Collins’s novel The Betrayals. It focuses on a school, Montverre, a school whose sole concern is the study, creation, and development of the grand jeu, the national game of an ambiguously French-flavored European country. All the best government officials have a Montverre education; an acceptance at Montverre—either through demonstrated achievement at the grand jeu or family influence—is a ticket to future success. Montverre is a big deal. The grand jeu is a symbol of the nation, and Montverre is the heart of the grand jeu.
Yet the precise nature of the grand jeu is left as vague as the nation’s identity. We don’t learn how to play it, and, indeed, as one Magister at Montverre explains, the first place one goes wrong in playing the grand jeu is in playing it as if it were a game. The truly enlightened know that it is so much more than that. It combines principles of literary analysis, mathematics, and music, in wildly esoteric complexity, such that the Magisters of the school swear oaths of celibacy and dedicate their entire lives to exploring this discipline.
Meanwhile, in the outside world, the nation is turning fascist. Léo Martin is a minister for culture in the government, a loyal Party member, until one day he isn’t—not quite, not enough. A bit too lukewarm in support of Party efforts to maintain cultural purity, it seems, and a bit too zealous in writing memos against them. In short order he is told that he is going to resign his post, effective immediately, and retire to Montverre, to devote himself to the study of the grand jeu, his true passion in life, which he had set aside in a desire to serve his country,1 but to which he now welcomes the opportunity to return. Such are his instructions. Oh, and Léo, while you’re there, would you be willing to keep in touch with us? Send us letters, let us know how you’re getting on, what’s happening inside Montverre, be a good chap.
Within the walls of the school is Claire Dryden, the Magister Ludi, unique in being the only woman who has been hired as a Magister for the school, due to a short-lived experiment with blind hiring. Everyone is a bit weird about it, not least Léo, who has spent 32 years being a full-throated good old boy. Oddly, she has in her possession Léo’s school diary, which relates the sequence of events in his boyhood that led him to win a gold medal for his second-year game assignment. As we learn, her interest in Léo is not a coincidence: Léo became quite close to a fellow student, Carfax, during this period, and Carfax was her brother. This makes things quite awkward between them, because the year Léo won his gold prize, Carfax committed suicide, under circumstances that have led Claire to blame him. And, indeed, Léo to blame himself.
The Betrayals alternates the past and present, showing us through Léo’s diary the past events that led up to the gold medal and Carfax’s suicide, while tracking the present political developments as the country descends further into fascism. Everything is filtered, remote, because the school is so withdrawn, but it’s impossible to miss the signs. Léo’s girlfriend goes missing, and it’s not clear whether she was disappeared or simply fled because she was Christian. Surely he must have known about her religion, a friend says. Wasn’t her name Christina? (No, Léo says, Chryseïs. As if that matters.) The one Christian boy at the school—the one who has to wear a star on his robes--is summoned by the police, ‘just to check some paperwork’.
There are trains.
Through all this, Léo writes letters to his former colleagues at the Ministry for Culture, just to keep his hand in the game, in case it’s possible for him to return from banishment. Although he tries hard not to say too much about the Magister Ludi (whom he feels quite drawn to, given his past history with her brother), he does give an awful lot of details about the entertaining disputes among the other Magisters. Disputes in which they discuss, for example, politics and government policy. As he eventually learns (to no surprise to the reader), the school’s remote isolation from worldly concerns is not enough to protect it from the political developments of the nation. You can’t hide from fascism.
The particular brilliance of this book is the way it avoids easy moral decisions. Yes, it would be a rousing tale of good against evil if Léo stood up to the government, took a stand, joined a resistance, recruiting from the Magisters and students to turn the grand jeu, that noble national game of this country, into a symbol of all that is good and right. We are not fascism; our game represents FREEDOM. And so on.
But this isn’t that book. The alternate history is only very slightly offset from our own, not enough to make it possible for one brave gang of rebels to defeat the not-quite-Nazis on the rise. This timeline is going to follow the same path our own Europe did. Fascists gonna fash.
And even if it were possible for a plucky gang of rebels to turn the tide of history, the people in this book are not those people. Léo is not a strong or a brave man. As a student he willingly took part in some brutal bullying of Carfax, and only changed his ways when forced, grudgingly, to work with him. Their last interaction before Carfax’s suicide can be read as an act of friendship, but it can equally well be read as a betrayal (see title), which more or less directly led to the tragic outcome.
As an adult, Léo is similarly slow and hesitant to do the right thing. Yes, he stands up to the Prime Minister, but only by writing a memo that he didn’t really believe would spell the end of his career. If he had, he would not have written it. When he has the opportunity to shield a Christian boy from being put on a train, he does it in the smallest, easiest way, that inconveniences him the least. When he writes his letters about the internal workings of Montverre, he shields the Magister Ludi, but he doesn’t even consider what his other statements might do. He always wants to keep his options open. He’s eager to return to government, even having seen from the inside the direction it’s going. (He’s also rather a misogynistic dick.)
So, no, this is not a book about heroes. This is a book about flawed, small people because righteous moral heroes are in short supply. We make compromises to survive, since stiff-necked rigidity can deprive us of friends and allies and comrades. We build connections with the people who are there, because in a growing hellscape, we need those to survive.
Heroes do The Right Thing. But in some circumstances there isn’t The Right Thing to do. There is only a lesser, smaller right thing. And sometimes that’s enough, and sometimes it isn’t. You can’t hide from fascism, and the people in The Betrayals are not the sort of people who can beat it. But by doing enough small right things, maybe they can survive it.
——1 Readers of Herman Hesse will recognize a heavy influence of The Glass Bead Game in this novel's conceit.↩
Nerd coefficient: 8/10: Well worth your time and attention.
- Academics being insufferable
- Rising fascism
- Ivory tower angst
Collins, Bridget. The Betrayals. [The Borough Press, 2020].
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and a calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative.