Friday, February 23, 2007

"Suite Française" by Irene Nemirovsky

"Suite Française" Irene Nemirovsky ****1/2

"Important events— whether serious, happy or unfortunate— do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves." (167)

It pleases me that my month was bracketed by two excellent French novels by authors I had never read before. At the same time, I am immeasurably saddened to find that both authors were cut off in the prime of their lives and the apex of their talent by events of world wars - Henri Alain-Fournier (author of Le Grand Meaulnes) in the battles of the first, and Nemirovsky in a concentration camp during the second. "Suite Française" is a an impossibly lucid (more light language! Time to expand my critical vocabulary.), detailed study of the occupation of France, written as the events were unfolding. The humanity of a broad cast of characters (broad on the scale of a Russian novel, showing the profound influence of Tolstoy on the Franco-Russian Nemirovsky) is underscored again and again, for good and for ill. German soldiers, living in French homes and requisitioning French property, are both eager to please and defensive about their actions. The upper classes (and particularly the upper middle class) come in for a scathing critique of their selfishness, but people from all walks of life manage to be alternately poisonous and self-sacrificing. Ideals like patriotism and piety have their roots in a profound selfishness. It is the details that scar and sear, a particularly striking feat since this novel remains unfinished and largely unedited by its author. In one nightmarish scene, a priest who agrees to take charge of a group of orphans from an institution under his family's patronage. They beat him to death after he leads them through the evacuation of Paris, and leave him mired in much on the grounds of a decayed estate.

Some other scathingly honest observations on the occupation:

On the French response to defeat -
"They feared a German victory, yet weren’t altogether happy at the idea that the English might win. All in all, they preferred everyone to be defeated." (270)

And, from the terrifying appendices of the book, which provide Nemirovsky's notes for the work as a whole and the correspondence that traces her family's struggle with occupation authorities who sent both Irene and her husband to their deaths in Nazi camps -
"The French grew tired of the Republic as if she were an old wife. For them, the dictatorship was a brief affair, adultery. But they intended to cheat on their wife, not to kill her. Now they realise she’s dead, their Republic, their freedom. They’re mourning her." (344)

[I have to note, at least tangentially, that this was the first eBook I have ever read in its entirety, and it was a laborious endeavor. It was very hard to maintain a rhythm of reading when you have to wait for the next page to load, or cannot see the whole page at once. I hadn't fully realize before how darting my reading style is - rather than proceeding methodically and linearly down the page, I frequently retrace my steps, reading a phrase here and there from different parts of the page. Don't ask how this makes for a coherent reading experience; I don't completely understand it myself.]

My original blog entry, which deals with a number of other books in addition to Suite Française, can be found here.

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