Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

This is an incredible book. Powerful, absorbing, interesting, smooth – all those clichéd words that we apply to books live in this novel. I could hardly put it down.
The story of the author is sad. Némirovsky was born in Russia in 1903 and emigrated to Paris during the October revolution, studied at the Sorbonne, and began to write. She was an immediate success. She was working on Suite when she was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942.
Suite was hidden and completely unknown for 65 years. She originally intended to include five books, according to the appendices. The appendices include extensive notes for the two books here and her plans for the other three. They also include correspondence with her husband and daughters the day she was arrested. His pathetic, hopeless attempts to rescue her were tragic. He begged and groveled before every friend and official he could button hole. His desperation and sense of panic comes through – even in the telegrams.
The first book involves the braided stories of a group of people fleeing Paris ahead of the advancing German army in 1940. They include a snooty aristocrat, a bank auditor and his secretary wife, the bank president, who is trying to rescue his wife and his mistress without them meeting, an obnoxious writer who cares only about his manuscripts, and saddest of all, an effeminate man who collects fine porcelain which he quietly and tenderly packs for the journey.
The second book shifts to a small village in the occupied zone near the demarcation line with Vichy France. The Germans have occupied the town and the class consciousness of both sides comes to the surface. The tone of this book is serene and placid. Only the occasional abrasive interactions threaten to upset the peacefulness of the narrative.
The characters are subtly and finely drawn. They move the story, which leaves the plot in the background, probably because it would have been as well known to her readers then as it is today. I recently finished watching Ken Burn’s brilliant documentary on World War II, which also focused on ordinary families and soldiers. The book ends with the German invasion of Russia in 1941 – the last scene is the German army marching out of the village.
When I got to the end of the second book I was devastated that there was no more. What could Némirovsky have planned, what wonderful insights into war and the psyche of invaders and conquerors might she have revealed. This is probably the first time I have been so directly affected by the unspeakable tragedy of the holocaust. God surely was asleep at the wheel from 1932 to 1945. A second novel, Fire in the Blood, has recently been published.
--Chiron, 11/7/07

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