"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Monday, September 10, 2018

Suite Française...my evolving evaluation of a classic

Suite Française was written by Irène Némirovsky as the events of WWII were unfolding. The book consists of two novellas, " Storm in June" and "Dolce" but the author planned for a total of five novellas to round out the work. Unfortunately Némirovsky was arrested on July 12, 1942 by French police working for the Germans, as a "stateless person of Jewish descent" and sent to Auschwitz where she died a month later. Looking at the date of her arrest and eventual death, it means that Némirovsky wrote Suite Française as the events were happening. How could anyone, especially in the days before the Internet, do that? How could she gain enough perspective on her own circumstances to write a fictional account of actual events without having the help of time and distance? Apparently it is an unheard of feat.

"Storm in June" opens in Paris as the guns of the advancing Germans can be heard in the distance and panicked Parisians abandon their city in droves, most without a plan where to go and how to get there. The story follows several families, most of them very disagreeable people. Along the way these refugees encounter all kinds of tests and trials including food shortages, lack of lodging options, and the chaos caused by war. One family is traveling with their cat and the child becomes fixated on the welfare of the beast. Her brother, meantime, runs off in the middle of the night to join up with the French Army nearby to help them. His patriotic gesture nearly gets him killed and his family, thinking he is dead, worships him as a hero. A bank manager, pushes employees out of his car making room for his mistress, who harangues him every step along the way. Another refugee returns to Paris only to be killed in a traffic accident. The reader is introduced to many characters, a few make a reappearance in "Dolce" and one does not know if Némirovsky planned the return of others in subsequent novellas since they were never written.
"Storm in June" is a tour de force of narrative distillation, using a handful of people to represent a multitude. Némirovsky's shifts in tone and pace, sensitively rendered in Sandra Smith's graceful translation, are mesmerizing (NYT). 
"Dolce" in contrast to "Storm in June" is calm and takes place entirely in one village where a garrison of German soldiers are billeted among the villagers' homes. Forced to live in close proximity to their captors, civilians start to adjust and accept their situation, some with resignation and others more openly. Lucile Angellier and her mother-in-law are forced to house a lieutenant, Bruno von Falk. With Lucile's husband, Gaston, away as a prisoner of war, she and the officer strike up a friendship. The Germans, not wanting to appear to be seen as invading mongrels, take pains to treat the French with respect and kindness so when they are called to move out toward their next assignment on the Russian front, the whole village comes out to wave them goodbye. 

In the beginning I found it hard to like the book because I didn't like or know any of the characters well. I thought, by contrast, of books written recently about the war in France like All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale where the reader gets to know and like the characters to point of cheering them on. None of this happened in Suite Française. In fact, I experienced a sense of dispassion, particularly as I read "Storm in June", and I found myself plotting how I would write this review taking a negative point-of-view not found elsewhere. But even as I was plotting my approach, this little voice in my head kept saying, "Can you believe that Irène Némirovsky wrote this book WHILE the events were unfolding?" and "Isn't it tragic that Irène Némirovsky died in Auschwitz when she was clearly such a talented writer. Think what the world missed by her death." 

By the end of "Dolce" as Bruno and Lucile part and the Germans march out of town, to their sure death in Russia, I found a tear trickling down my cheek. I was touched much more by the book than I originally thought. And the writing. Oh, the writing. The book is worth the read just get swept up in Némirovsky's beautifully crafted prose. Even in the midst of war there is this... 
“But what is certain is that in five, ten or twenty years, this problem unique to our time, according to him, will no longer exist, it will be replaced by others...Yet this music, the sound of this rain on the windows, the great mournful creaking of the cedar tree in the garden outside, this moment, so tender, so strange in the middle of war, this will never change, not this, this is forever.” 
And...
“All the light of the day, fleeing the earth, seemed for one brief moment to take refuge in the sky; pink clouds spiraled round the full moon that was as green as pistachio sorbet and as clear as glass; it was reflected in the lake.” 
And...
“Paris had its sweetest smell, the smell of chestnut trees in bloom and of petrol with a few grains of dust that crack under your teeth like pepper. In the darkness the danger seemed to grow. You could smell the suffering in the air, in the silence. Everyone looked at their house and thought, 'Tomorrow it will be in ruins, tomorrow I'll have nothing left.'” 
With this, these lovely quotes, I end this review but I also hand to you a recommendation---read this book.

4 comments:

  1. What??? How did I not know (or maybe remember?) the story of how this book was written? I read it maybe 10 years ago and though it was a recently written novel. Or maybe I just don't remember - always a possibility these days! lol Anyway, thanks for the reminder...and the quotes, too! Maybe I need to re-read this one.

    Sue

    Book By Book

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    1. Yes. It was recently published, 2004. One of her daughters saved the journal where the book was written for years and years without looking inside. Just before she was preparing to give it to a museum (or someplace) she looked inside and was surprised to see that it was a novel written in teeny, tiny handwriting. She took it straight to a publisher. So 60 years after it was written, it was published.

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  2. I too was blown away by the writing and the fact that the events were so immediate. It was really just a rough draft of a book, yet it is still amazing.

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  3. That's amazing to write the book while in the middle of it and so tragic that the author died in Auschwitz.

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