Wednesday, January 03, 2007
For this month’s book club, we read Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. If not for the club, I probably wouldn’t have read this book, at least not for a while. Not because of the setting. I have always drifted toward books written about the Second World War. Instead, I avoided it because the book is unfinished which made me reluctant to invest in it. I also tend to be wary of much-touted novels. Too often they turn out to be impenetrable works of literature that are a chore to read, or, like toys advertised on children’s television, they are not as good as the ads would make them out to be. Headlines that read, “If you read one novel in 2007, let it be ____” tend to put me off. Fortunately for me, I joined a book club and so was convinced to read this lovely book.
Suite Francaise is a novel haunted by a ghost, the ghost of its author. It vaguely reminds me of another book I read about the French countryside during the German occupation, Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris. One difference which was impossible for me to forget was that the Ms. Nemirovsky was writing her novel as the events actually unfolded in time. This novel and the author’s life were to be tragically unfinished. In 1942, Ms. Nemirovsky was transported to a concentration camp and perished there.
Fortunately for the modern reader, the first two “movements” of Suite Francaise survived as did Ms. Nemirovsky’s two daughters and we are now able to read her work. Ms. Nemirovsky anticipated that Suite would run to 1000 pages so even the fragment we have here is substantial. There is plenty of room for character development and plot. Due to fine commentary at the end of the book, we know that Ms. Nemirovsky was a master craftsman and planned her characters and locations carefully. This means the book reads as if it has already passed multiple editors.
Suite Francaise follows the lives of a number of inconsequential people as the Germans march into and occupy France. I call them inconsequential for these are not the heroic figures of too many war novels, nor are they the demonic conquerors of other books. They are peasants, aristocrats, authors, middle class men and women, and German soldiers. There is the rich banker who abandons his employees to transport his mistress and her dog. There are the country folk who care more for their comforts than for their countrymen or even their country. In a comical scene, a woman fleeing Paris forgets the family patriarch in a small town.
Ms. Nemirovsky is not kind to her characters. Her novel is not flattering of France or the French. In a chapter reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, a group of adolescents murder their adult protector. In another vignette a woman fixes her make-up after accidentally running over a man. These are the evils of the novel. Amazingly, the greatest evil of the war, the plight of the Jews and others who were sent to the concentration camps is largely ignored.
It seems clear Ms. Nemirovsky was not ignorant of her peril. In her notebooks, she refers to “the threat of a concentration camp, the status of the Jews etc.” In a poem, she writes, “I do not lack the courage to complete the task
But the end is far and time is short.”
I must believe that her choice to focus on other aspects of the war and the occupation is intentional. I doubt it is a rejection of her Jewish ancestry, even though she had converted to Catholicism. Anti-Jewish laws of the time, made it clear to her that the Nazis considered her Jewish. In another citation in the Appendix, she writes: "My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it is losing its honor and its life.” Her novel is a dispassionate assessment of her country and its people.
And yet at times it is also lovely. There is hope, love and beauty amidst chaos and lurking horror. There is tragic love between people separated by social class and between a German soldier and Frenchwoman. Of the latter, Nemirovsky writes: “In the heart of every man and every woman a kind of Garden of Eden endures, where there is no war, no death, where wild animals and deer live together in peace.” In her notebook, Ms. Nemirovsky wrote on June 28, 1941, “I swear here and now never again to take out my bitterness, no matter how justifiable, on a group of people, whatever their race, religion, convictions, prejudices, errors. . . . But I cannot forgive certain individuals, those who reject me, those who coldly abandon us. . . .” In this way she explains both the anger and the kindness she expressed in her novel.
Suite Francaise is not a pretty, or a happy novel. It is a masterful one. It is our loss that we never will know how it was meant to end. But the story we do have is well worth reading.