Thursday, December 17, 2009

Great Book #70: Suite Française

I remember the literary hubbub surrounding the English-language publication of Suite Française in the summer of 2006: the trade paperback was stacked on the front table of every bookstore I walked into, with that melancholy tinted black-and- white cover photo of a couple —in a crowded city square, a single suitcase at their feet—who clearly have no idea where they'll lay their heads tonight.

Irène Némirovsky was a Parisian Catholic (of Russian-Jewish extraction) who died at Auschwitz in August 1942 at the age of 39, and this unfinished novel wasn't discovered until the author's daughter started going through her notebooks in the 1990s. I've been listening to the audiobook while I knit, and I understand why the critics have called it a masterpiece: the prose is beautiful, clear and unaffected, and it's remarkable that Némirovsky could cast such cool, keen eye on something so horrible that was happening in real time—the story reads like it was written with the benefit of many years' hindsight.

Most of the characters are intensely unlikable, and in their flight from Paris they resemble rats on a sinking ship. Only the Michauds—humble, hardworking, and sick with worry over the fate of their son—are characters we can get behind. The Michauds are the only men in the book who don’t trample on others to save their own skins; unlike the other men, Maurice Michaud doesn’t consider himself irreplaceable.

Yet there are occasional moments of grace: a refugee crouching in a ditch during an air raid notices a white butterfly flitting among the wildflowers; a mother holds her child so tightly it seems as if she wants to put the baby back into her womb, the only safe place; a young woman tends to a wounded soldier during “the summer they were 20, in spite of everything.”

These moments are rare, however. The book is divided in two (the “suite” being unfinished): “A Storm in June” follows a bunch of miserly, hypocritical Parisian snobs as they flee the city, and “Dolce” observes a community of superstitious farm wives, including two young women locked into cold and loveless marriages. The novel’s prevailing attitude can be encapsulated by Hubert Péricand, who leaves his family a foolhardy teenager eager to see battle, and returns to them a cynical young man:
The people around him, his family, his friends, aroused a feeling of shame and rage within him. He had seen them on the road, them and people like them: he recalled the cars full of officers running away with their beautiful yellow trunks and their painted women, civil servants abandoning their posts, panic-stricken politicians dropping files of secret papers along the road, young girls, who had diligently wept the day the armistice was signed, being comforted in the arms of the Germans. “And to think that no one will know, that there were will be such a conspiracy of lies that all this will be transformed into yet another glorious page in the history of France. We’ll do everything we can to find acts of devotion and heroism for the official records. Good God! To see what I've seen! Closed doors where you knock in vain to get a glass of water and refugees who pillaged houses; everywhere, everywhere you look, chaos, cowardice, vanity and ignorance! What a wonderful race we are!”
Living (and dying) the way she did, witnessing all that she did, it’s no wonder Némirovsky’s characters are either selfish bastards or misanthropes. From the preface to the French edition: "She had absolutely no illusions, not about the attitude of the inert French masses—'loathsome' in their defeat and collaboration—nor about her own fate." She refused to stop writing even when the rest of the French publishing industry were rolling over for the Nazis, and she knew they would eventually murder her for it.

There is a violent act towards the end of "A Storm in June" that disturbed me so much I had to stop listening for a couple of months (I started the book in early October). I don't want to tell you what happened that so turned my stomach, in case this novel is on your list, but suffice it to say my mother will not be reading Suite Française. The passage in question is one of the most shocking things I have ever read.

I get that war is hell and it brings out the very worst in people, but doesn’t it also, if only occasionally, bring out the very best? There were plenty of people who didn’t wish to survive at the cost of their humanity; not every person in France was apathetic, not everyone was a collaborator; just because the word “heroism” is grossly overused doesn’t mean there are no heroes. We see virtually none of that in Suite Française because that wasn't the author's experience; but I imagine it's rather difficult to give your characters a happy ending when you know your own will be anything but.

3 comments:

Emily said...

Wow. This sounds incredibly intense, both the actual writing and the circumstances in which it was composed. I'm glad you found it worthwhile - I love the particular blend of emotions that go with finishing a difficult yet worthwhile book, taking some deep breaths, and moving on.

Pare said...

I finished it just now, and to tell you the truth, I feel a little gutted.

I think this was an unfliching, unromanticized story - or stories, rather - of a terrible time in history. That Nemirovsky wrote it in the midst of living it floors me. That she wrote it knowing what would happen to her leaves me utterly speechless.

I don't know if the audio version included the appendix of her letters, and the letters he husband wrote to try to find her after the French police took her. They are *wrenching.*

The other appendix includes her notes on the ongoing "suite" - where she notes that someone called the priest scene "schmaltzy" - ! I had to laugh a little at that, considering I knew your feelings about that scene before this post. (You seem far more disturbed by it than I, and I am still trying to figure that out.)

Longest. comment. ever. and I'm sorry for that. It's just so nice to be able to digest this book with someone else...

Kate said...

You have intrigued me with the fact that this book contains the most disturbing passage you've ever read. Although I couldn't help but think as I read this post that you seem to read an awful lot of WWII books, but that there seems to be a dearth of books regarding any other conflict. When I got to college I began to realize that my elementary and high school education focused solely on Europe when there was a whole other world out there. I think Bill Berkeley made a good point: "In Sudan, I learned, a civil war had begun the year that I was born and lasted until I was in high school. Half a million southern Sudanese had died. ... I consider myself reasonably well informed. Yet I had never heard of this war."