Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

You could smell the suffering in the air, in the silence. Even people who were normally calm and controlled were overwhelmed by anxiety and fear...And, on that night, only people - the living and the breathing, the crying and the loving - were precious. Rare was the person who cared about their possessions; everyone wrapped their arms tightly round their wife or child and nothing else mattered; the rest could go up in flames.

War...yes, everyone knows what war is like. But occupation is more terrible in a way, because people get used to one another. We tell ourselves, 'They're just like us after all,' but they're not at all the same. We're two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever.

What's more, she said to herself, there's a world of difference between the young man I'm looking at now and the warrior of tomorrow. It's a truism that people are complicated, multifaceted, contradictory, surprising, but it takes the advent of war or other momentous events to be bale to see it. It is the most fascinating and the most dreadful of can never pride yourself on truly knowing the sea unless you've seen it both calm and in a storm. Only the person who has observed men and women at times like this, she thought, can be said to know them. And to know themselves.

Suite Francaise (which I have asked my French majors to pronounce for me several times and yet I am still too shy to say it aloud myself) is one of the best novels I have read in a while (it definitely would have been on my top ten of 2013) and the story of its existence makes it more remarkably so.

Nemirovsky was born in Russia to a Jewish family, but was living in France (as a Roman Catholic) when WWII broke out. She had to stop publishing because she was still recognized as a Jew by the law. She left Paris, but continued to write in a notebook. At age 39 she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she died. Her husband soon followed her to Auschwitz and also died. Her children went into hiding with their governess, and one of her daughters picked her mom's notebook to keep as a momento. She never read it, not even as an adult, because she thought it was her mom's journal and would be too painful. Fifty years later, before donating it to an archive, she decided to transcribe and type whatever it contained, finding the first two books in what was supposed to be a five-book massive novel. What was found was a meticulous draft, but unfinished and still rough, and the books were published together as Suite Francaise.

It is a book that has been on my radar for years because it was so critically acclaimed, but I would pick it up and put it down because the back cover - while capturing the book very well - makes it sound really lame. "Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940, Suite Francaise tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control..."

It is a beautifully written book, it is a remarkable story, and it captures so much of the human experience. Her cast of characters is immense and the first book, Storm in June, is short anecdotes about a handful of families who are fleeing Paris. The anecdotes occur chronologically and characters from one family will sometimes interact with another, but it feels completely natural rather than heavy-handed and contrived. Her cast features a huge variety of socioeconomic situations which is fascinating and she has some biting remarks about how the very wealthy and privileged suffer on a scale so much less than the working class who suffer even less than the servants and farmers - the text is filled with humorous scenes where the rich bemoan ridiculous problems that aren't problems (oh no! I have to look at poor dirty bloody people who are WALKING after being bombed while I am being life is so hard. #1%problems) From people who eat caviar as they are driven with their precious art collection out of the city to the people who walk, leaving everything behind. The second book, Dolce, is a bit more tightly knit and focuse, but references characters from Storm in June and makes it obvious that in the grand scheme, Nemirovsky would have had them appear again in later books. Dolce captures an aspect of war I hadn't spent very much time thinking about: the lack of men and the utter boredom, sadness, pointlessness of existence that the women left behind felt. A whole generation of women came into young adulthood without any appropriate men for them to flirt with and eventually marry. On the flip side, their houses are filled with young German soldiers...who could blame a few for fraternizing with the enemy? The only drawback of this novel is that it is unfinished. It ends where a chapter should end, not where a book should end, and it is so frustrating to know that that is all we will ever have of this story. Randy asked me if I would read the other three books if they existed (the first two are 431 pages total), and early on I wasn't sure. Now that I know and love and loathe the characters, I absolutely would.

Since I can't have any more of this book, I plan to seek out more from Nemirovsky. Outside of the subject matter, which is interesting by itself, I like her sauciness:

She paused and nodded curtly to the teacher who had just come in: she was a woman who did not attend Mass...As this person's conduct was irreproachable, the Viscountess hated her all the more: "because," she explained to the Viscount, "if she drank or had lovers, you could understand her lack of religion, but just imagine, Amaury, the confusion that can be caused in people's minds when they see virtue practiced by people who are not religious."


Christopher said...

I heard great things about this book. Also I made you an admin so you can fix your book list and sidebar tally. Welcome!

billy said...

Welcome to the project!

Brent Waggoner said...

Welcome, welcome!