Third Day Book Club Blogs Suite Francaise, Part 1: A Storm in June
Irene Nemirovsky (image:BBC)
In a day when being a francophile is more unpopular than ever in the US, I admit it, I am one. I really do like many things French. The writers, the cheese, the wine, the country, the culture, the art and yes--even the accent. I've been to Paris three times and never once had anyone be rude to me (except the men--but that's not because I was American). I also have family there--cousins--and French is the only other language besides English that I speak conversationally.
So I was well predisposed toward the idea of Irene Nemirovsky's novel (actually an unfinished novel), Suite Francaise even though I was a little unsure if I had the mettle to stand up to another novel about WWII in the dark and tiresome month of December. I figured this was no novel about idle days lying by the Seine, or sitting around eating a luxurious two-hour meal. And while that's true, in some ways it is. This is a novel about life interrupted, the moments just before and after the interruption. This is a novel about life in the German occupation of France in 1942, about life on the run, life savored in final moments before tragedy.
Two of my favorite French writers are Camus and Rhys (okay, Rhys wasn't actually French-born but she lived there for many years) and in Nemirovsky I felt a familiar texture, a quality that I know comes from being steeped in French culture--a culture of particulars, of refinement, and yes, oppression and snobbery too. (I am all too aware of the racism and hatred that exist in France, too...)
I love the way that Nemirovsky writes about people so non-judgmentally. Her arrogant writer Gabriel Corte-- famous, bourgeois and used to getting things his way--is entirely unmoored when the Germans come to town. He is not at all ready to give up on his comfort or his attitudes about those who are lower class. And yet, rather than despise him, through her exquisite characterization and setting of the scene around him, we simply feel sorry for him. We can actually imagine what it is like to have to give up so much.
I loved the brave young sons who are determined to fight and the mothers who dont' want them to go and yet are still proud when they do. I loved the long-suffering girlfriends and the family cat, who lives in a world where death and cruelty are just part of the way it must survive. It doesn't have a conscience about the birds or moles it kills, and why should it. Such a fantastic, and unsettling juxtaposition with the other cruelty/killing going on that is so unconscionable.
Naturally, I couldn't help but think about the persecution of Jews while reading. It just so happens I'm working on an article about "neo anti-semitism," that is a new kind of anti-semitism that is turning up here in the US on the progressive left, not the conservative right like usual, couched under criticism of Israel. A lot of anti-semitism lumps Jews into one category, as if all Jews are born in one city in one location on earth, stemming from one direct lineage of people. Nemirovsky reminded me how varied and diverse Jews are, how far and wide they have and do live and how complex the issue of a Jewish homeland is and will probably always be.
Yet hers is not so much a book about religion as one about daily life, and what happens when what we take for granted is interrupted, and who becomes corrupt with power and hate, and who winds up being surprisingly brave and honest.
I love well-written books about war because they show us extremes of human behavior--the most cruel, the most humane qualities that just going to work and making meals don't bring out in us. And yet, when people are tested, it is those very mundane things--the work and the meals, the baths and the memories of childhood--they most crave.
It needs to be noted that Nemirovsky had five parts planned for this novel but only managed to write two before she was taken to a concentration camp, where she died at the young age of 39. What an amazing thing she did: to write about this as it was happening to her, in essence. I can't even imagine. Her daughters are responsible for hiding and later revealing her manuscript. I can't help but wonder what she had planned for the other three parts.
I liked this from the point of view of said writer Gabriel Corte, because I imagine that people all over the world, caught in wars and oppressed under various forms of idealism or fundamentalism or consumerism (and yes, I include us, here) must think like this:
"What would become of him? What would become of Gabriel Corte? What was happening to the world? What would be the general mood in future? Either people would think only about being able to survive and there would be no place for Art, or they would become obsessed by a new ideal, as after every crisis before. A new ideal?...it exhausted him just to think about what was to come, what kind of world was about to be born. Who could predict the shape it would take as it emerged from the harsh matrix of this war, as from a bronze mould. It would be magnificent or misshapen (or both), this universe now showing its first signs of life. It was terrible to look at himself, to see himself, and to understand nothing."
Here is a very interesting story from the BBC with the backstory of this novel.