Friday 10 August 2007

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903. Her background and how she became an author is as fascinating as the novel she wrote during the German occupation of France during the second World War.

Her mother hated her and how her growing up reflected on her mother's aging. her father was financially a wild success but he was distant and remote. She lived a life of privilege in Russia until the October Revolution in 1917. During a break in the fighting, her family fled to Sweden and ultimately to France.

She loved Paris and met and married her husband Michael Epstein. They had 2 daughters and while Irene was being a mother she was also writing. Her first novel, David Golder, was made into a film shortly after her second daughter was born and she had published 9 novels. She enjoyed major success as a novelist and was widely respected in French literary circles.

In 1939, the previous decade of violent anti-Semitism led Irene to convert herself and her 2 daughters to Catholicism. Fatefully, she never sought French citizenship for herself.

Suite Francaise was written whilst Irene and her family awaited their fate. The novel is astonishing at every turn. Comprised of the first of 2 of what was intended to be 5 stories about the course of the war between France and Germany, the stories are compelling as much as what they say as what they don't say.

There is no explicit condemnation of the German Nazi persecution of the Jews. One gets the sense that she didn't want to taunt her occupiers and oppressors.

The first installment, Storm in June, tells the story of the French fighting and losing their country. There is a sense that the French didn't have the heart, money, and courage to fight another war so soon after the first World War. The story is told from the perspective of numerous individuals as they flee the invasion of Paris. Every class is represented. All behave equally despicable.

The second installment, Dolce, tells the story of the ongoing German occupation of a small village in central France and the delicate balance between the French villagers and the German invaders. The handsome and lonely German soldiers yearn for the pretty and lonely French girls and vice versa. Your heart breaks when a French woman finds love for the first time with the German officer staying in her home. Regrettably, her husband would not look too kindly upon learning his wife never loved him when he returns from his German prison.

One element that is consistent between the two stories is the impact of class on the reaction to war time and the hard ships it brought. Nemirovsky certainly gives the impression that the more you had to lose the more reprehensible you acted. that is, the higher your class status, the more greedy and selfish you were. the more you had to lose, the more you fought to hold on to it. The sweeping acts of generosity came from those who had little to share and nothing to lose.

Both stories are remarkable when you consider they were written as the Nazis rounded up the Jews. On 13 July 1942 Irene was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. She died 17 August 1942. Heartbreakingly, her husband, Michael did not understand what was happening and wrote a letter volunteering to take his wife's place due to her delicate health (she was asthmatic). In October 1942 he was also arrested and on 6 November 1942 he was exterminated in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.

The daughters were protected and hidden by their governesses and teachers and nuns from the police who searched high and low for them. You would think the police would have higher priorities than 2 small orphan girls.

Remarkably, Denise, the oldest daughter and just 13 at the time, had the presence of mind to pack her mother's manuscripts as they fled to hide in one precarious place after another. Not until she and her sister, Elisabeth, were much much older did than have the courage to transcribe what they later discovered were literary masterpieces.

The greatest tragedy is that the world was deprived of the rest of the story. I can only imagine the 3 novellas Nemirovsky had yet to write. They would have been more of the same: honest, insightful, powerful and moving. Told by a woman who witnessed it with an unflinching eye for detail and honesty. Irene Nemirovsky did not look at the world through rose tinted glasses and the stories of the brave French resistance now sit in my mind next to an altogether different perspective of the frailer and vulnerable parts of the human condition.

I recommend this book, clearly. But don't read it just once. Read it again and again and again. And never forget it.

Book Group Update: We were a small group of 5 this month and only 3 of the 5 had read the book. The 3 of us had a lively and thought provoking discussion particularly around the emergence of the individual over the group during and after the second World War. There was general consesus that this was a good choice especially for a book group as there was loads to discuss. Next month is The Road by Cormac McCarthy at Kate's home. Date to be announced.


Anonymous said...

The Road is on my bedside table, but I haven't started it. So now I will. Something else we can talk about in September.
I'll have to find this book soon.

Have a lovely holiday.

LaDawn said...

Like we would ever run out of things to talk about!

Janell said...

Irene's execution is such a tragic loss of talent and insight.