Wednesday 23 April 2008

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

What an extraordinary book. It took me a little while to get into, because at first almost all the characters are so unsympathetic, looked at with such a clear, cold eye, all their faults and shortcomings exposed, that it was difficult for me to know what I was expected to feel. Was there no character I could like? I enjoyed the details, the drama of the exodus from Paris, so I kept reading. And soon enough, characters to cheer for emerged- the Michauds, then eventually Lucile, and Jean-Marie, and even Bruno the German soldier.

The descriptions in the book, the settings, the people, overtaken by events, and then settling down again - it does feel like music, and that was her aim. She wanted to write the novel in 5 momements or stages, 200 pages each. Suite Francaise contains the first two parts, although she had notes for the other three and an ending in mind. The novel ends, of course, halfway through the story, and in teh story timeline, at the middle of 1942, which is when Nemirovsky was taken to the camps where she died. By writing the book in real time - that is, using real dates of the Occupation, she sets the novel in real time, and this adds an extra dimension to my (at least) reading experience, because side by side with reading the book I found myself thinking, it reads like the novel is happening as the war happens. And indeed, Nemirvosky wrote this novel very quickly, and it is astounding at how good it is for what is really a first draft with major corrections done by the author. It is a fascinating study of people, of historical events shaping lives and how ordinary people cope. This is a haunting and memorable book, and in the back of any one who reads this book are two things: one, this war between these people at this time really happened, and two, the author was killed at Auschwitz, a direct result of this war. It is one of the most stunning accounts of what life under the Occupation was like, in France, in small ways; because the French had their own society feuds that kept on, despite the German requisitioning of everything. The awfulness and pettiness of people is revealed, but also the human capacity to try to survive, and for even fewer people, to survive with dignity.

In the notes to herself, contained in the journal that this novel was discovered in, she writes: "The most important and most interesting thing here is the following: the historical, revolutionary facts etc must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides must be described in detail." This was her goal in writing the book what she hoped to achieve.
These are Irene's own words, written in her journal that her daughters carried around with them when their parents were taken away because they were Jewish. The girls went into hiding until the war ended, and only long after was the journal finally looked at and the novel discovered. Denise, the eldest daughter, grabbed it as they ran from the house because it was a momento of her mother, who was always seen writing in it.

There are places and events in the book that are written with such clarity that I think Nemirovsky must have put in events she had witnessed. There is a horrific scene in the beginning, when a train station is bombed by a German plane : "The glass roof shattered and exploded outwards, wounding and killing the people in the square. Panic-stricken, some of the women threw down their babies as if they were cumbersome packages and ran."
I had to stop and re-read that passage. It is horrifying and awful and terrible to imagine. The whole book for me was like that, filled with images that were reporting the war to the readers through the images in the book. There is a veracity to the events and descriptions that made me realize, that Nemirovsky must have witnessed herself these, or heard first-hand accounts. Her desire, though, wasn't to show the horrors of war; she wanted to write about the affects of war upon ordinary people caught up in the events. In chapter 29, she writes in a paragraph that seems to me to be the heart of the novel: "Important events - whether serious, happy or unfortunate - do not change a man's soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves. Such events highlight what is hidden in the shadows; they nudge the spirit towards a place where it can flourish." When I read that passage, I marked it, which I rarely do in a fiction novel, but I knew I wanted to remember it. War, Nemirovsky is saying, doesn't change people. It brings out what was in them all the time. So the characters we meet at the beginning were always mean and grasping, layered with middle-class bourgeois attitudes, or more rarely, gentle and sweet.

As the novel progresses, we do meet more people, farmers, villagers, and the local gentry, and the effects of the German occupation on the village and people.

Nemirovsky doesn't play favourites: the French come across as lazy and whose first duty is to pleasure, which is what costs them the war with Germany. She doesn't go on about how awful life was except through the villagers complaining about food shortages, and in casual comments or observations from the characters, the shootings of people who break the laws, but done more as an aside, not the central part of the book at all. The Germans are given, surprisingly, good and bad characteristics also. I say surprisingly because it must have been the novelist winning out over the real-life precarious position she was in the whole time she was writing the book. The German who lodges with Lucile and her mother-in-law is an awesome character - he is close to noble, a musician who can't write his music because the drums of war have beaten the melodies away. He is well-bred, and polite, and thoughtful, and is close to an ideal hero, but not, because he is on the other side of the war. In contrast, one of his comrade in arms, Bonnet, is a sadist: "During the retreat of the French army, when he was in charge of taking the pathetic herd of prisoners back to Germany, during those terrible days when he was under orders to kill anyone who was flagging, anyone who wasn't walking fast enough, he shot the ones he didn't like the look of without remorse, with pleasure even." Again, this is a passage that I marked when I read it, because it is so clearly drawn that I wondered if Nemirovsky had seen someone doing just that, or heard about it. It almost reads as though she is getting revenge on the German occupation by writing the truth, and disguising it in the novel. This is part of what raises this book so high in my esteem. There is a ring of veracity in this book that is rare in fiction.

There is beauty and love in this novel, as well as hatred and seediness and greed and pity. This is a novel about people caught in a terrible situation. And it is gripping reading, and lovely in places, horrifying in others. I love this book, and it is one I will return to again and again.

This should also be required reading in schools - Grade 11 or 12, I would think. There would be much to discuss and learn from reading this book, and history would come alive, for a while. I don't know why the book is banned ( or someone tried to ban it), again the book list for the challenge is from here in Ontario, but it shouldn't be. This is one of the best fiction novels I've ever read.

Links: Marg


Charlotte said...

Beautiful review, Susan, of a beautiful and haunting book. I agree with you that it's one of the best books of fiction I've read. And those scenes of the exodus from Paris were astonishing: I associate occupation with Paris and France but not all-out war. As you say, Nemirovsky writes as a witness of events, but brings so much human detail to those that as a reader you are drawn in and fascinated.

I reviewed it here:

Susan said...

Hi Charlotte - thank you! I went to read your review too (thanks for the link, very much) and I really like your review as well. I love the moment when she (Madame Pericand) realizes she has left her father-in-law behind!! And as I finished the book - and all day today - I have been wishing she was able to finish it. I want it done. But as it is, it is an elegant, horrible tribute to the real cost of war - the lives taken. Like you, I felt the tragedy that war could take away a life like hers, and it does haunt the book, every line of it, the irony of it - and unspeakably horrible that it was simply because she was Jewish -or even worse, not even a practicing Jew, but a Catholic!

Anonymous said...

Lovely review, Susan. I've been avoiding this book because I wasn't certain I wanted to come that close to the horrors of the camps, but it's coming up in September in one of my reading groups. Your comments have helped ease the way in for me.

Emily Barton said...

Well, there goes another book added to the TBR tome!

Bybee said...

She was a beautiful writer...I keep imagining what the whole polished presentation would've been like. It's heartbreaking on so many different levels.

Kim L said...

Off topic but you won The House of the Spirits at my 100th post giveaway. Email me your address at boldblueadventure AT gmail DOT com.

Susan said...

table talk: I'm glad I could help you look forward to reading the book. There isn't anything of the concentration camps in it, mostly because they didn't know much about them, in 1942 - they'd heard about it, but no one knew what was going on yet. I expect, that despite her notes, the books might have ended differently if she had been alive at the end of the war. but while she was alive, at the beginning, she still believed in the end in hope, and art, and God, and it shows in her book.

emily: I ended up giving this book to everyone for Christmas, and my mother enjoyed it so much that she made herself slow down and read it more leisurely, so she could enjoy the writing. I hope you do enjoy it when you get to it!!

bybee: it is heartbreaking, isn't it? I have to confess here that i cried after I finished it, because she wasn't allowed to finish it, and I felt her loss so keenly after seeing what she could do. Not to single her out, because all those 6 million people should have lived, too. It was the loss of them all that I don't think the world has quite recovered from. It must be very different there in Korea, the sense of WW2, it would be more focused on Japan and China and Russia, wouldn't it?

kim: hurray!! this is exciting! I'll email you shortly...thanks!!

Amanda said...

This one's on my upcoming reading list. It sounds really good.