Friday, 11 September 2009

Radio silence


When I first heard the extraordinary story of how Suite Francaise came to be published, I knew I would have to read it. The author, Irene Nemirovsky, having hand-written it, had been taken to Auschwitz, where she'd died. Her daughters, who'd been horrifyingly young when their parents were murdered by the Nazis, managed to carry the manuscript around in a suitcase for 50 years or so before finding the courage to even look at it. Originally slated to be kept in a museum, Suite Francaise was so good it had to be published, adding a final laurel to Nemirovsky's short but prodigious career as a highly respected novelist.

The thing is, I read about this book, felt compelled to read it, and then promptly forgot both the book's title and its author several years ago. I foundered in ignorance, asked people about it who didn't know what I was talking about but said that they'd like to read it too, based on what I'd said - until my bibliophilic (Bibliophiliac? that sounds like a disease. Bibliophilial?) mom reminded me, when I was browsing her shelves back when I visited HFX in May, that this was that book.

Woot! If one can properly woot about a book that came to light against all odds and an evil organization's attempts to erase Nemirovsky's entire family. But I must woot, for this is a really damned AMAZING book. Dear gawd, the writing! I'm going to read everything Nemirovsky wrote just for the writing, no matter the subject matter. And to think that she wrote this well in a rough draft, penned in the last two or so years of her life when she knew that her adopted country of France was going to allow the Nazi death machine to consume her. Nemirovsky's use of language often made me pause in awe; the first time it happened was near the beginning when she's describing how the crowds of citizens fleeing Paris react to enemy planes flying overhead:
Young men and women called to one another from the cars and sometimes laughed. Then a dark shape would glide across the star-covered sky, everyone would look up and the laughter would stop. It wasn't exactly what you'd call fear, rather a strange sadness - a sadness that had nothing human about it any more, for it lacked both courage and hope. This was how animals waited to die. It was the way fish caught in a net watch the shadow of the fisherman moving back and forth above them. (p. 46)
I feel claustrophobic and helpless just thinking about this passage, never mind typing it out. And the whole book was this good, no matter what she was describing.

But Suite Francaise actually comprises two novellas, Storm in June and Dolce. Storm in June (which the above quotation is from) focuses on several sets of characters as they try to figure out how safely to leave Paris ahead of the German invasion. Focusing on so many characters, Nemirovsky provides a painful and often cynical look at how compassion and selflessness are so quickly abandoned in favour of self-preservation in times of extreme desperation.

Dolce
, on the other hand, is a close look at the extent to which internal borders can be crossed by and for individuals. It tells the story of Lucile and Bruno, a French woman whose husband is stuck in a German POW camp, and a German officer billeted in her and her mother-in-law's house during the occupation of her town. They fall in love, in spite of everything, and the painful irony of it is that it's only because of the war that they've met and it's also because of the war that it can never work for them.

It's painful, but the scenes in which they allow themselves to enjoy their brief respites of imagined safety from the outside world are so beautiful that it made the inevitability of it ending seem somehow unreal and far, far away - it was not unlike Bel Canto in its dreamy rejection of the inevitable future.

I loved this book. But one thing kept occurring to me and it makes me uncomfortable. Nemirovsky knew she was going to die at the hands of the Germans for being Jewish, even though she and her family had converted to Catholicism. Yet, not one of her characters is Jewish and the issue of what was happening to Jews in France is really not touched upon. I'm baffled by this. Was she trying to erase her heritage via her art? Was her literary radio silence on this topic part of her critique of France's complete lack of comprehension of what was going on? I really can't guess at this; silence can just mean too many things.

I've begun reading Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel, as a sort of antidote to the heaviness of Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. Unfortunately, it's also turning out to be an antidote to good writing and plot construction, but hopefully it'll get better. But more of that anon.

5 comments:

heidenkind said...

Maybe she didn't write about Jews per se because she didn't see herself as being Jewish. Or she thought that first and foremost they were all French.

Aw, I got Ysabel because it sounded fun, and because I love the cathedral in Aix.

Colleen said...

I've just learned that Suite Francaise was written too early in the war for large-scale deportations of Jews from France to have begun. I'm not good at historying. Also, someone else has informed me that Nemirovsky has been accused of anti-semitism, not because of this book but because of earlier ones, like David Golder.

I may be wrong, but isn't all this stuff that generally should be addressed in an introduction? I mean, some of us are dummies and can't history and some would like to say the professionals not avoiding the topic!

JoAnn said...

I loved Suite Francaise. It just made me sad that it was unfinished.. and to think about what might have been. Earlier this year, I read Fire in The Blood and thought that was wonderful, too!

Jules said...

I loved this book, and can't get enough of the author.

I've heard some people label her as anti-semitic or a self hating jew. I think, she didn't write a lot about the Jewish side, because at the time it was were you couldn't broadcast your Jewish faith, or the fact you accepted it.

If you liked this book try All Our Worldly Foods, and Le Bal. Both great books. I've read David Golder too, and it's a good book, but her other books are by far better. Thanks for the review.

Colleen said...

JoAnn and Jules: Thank you for the advice on what Nemirovsky to read next. I really can't wait. I have a weird sort of neuroses though about not reading two things by the same author too close together so it may be a few months...but I'll remember to come back to this post for your recommendations!