Friday, February 23, 2007

Suite Francaise - Book Review by Wendy

Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky
Original post of this review found here.
Submitted by Wendy


To lift such a heavy weight

Sisyphus, you will need all your courage.
I do not lack the courage to complete the task
But the end is far and time is short.
-The Wine of Solitude- by Irene Nemirovsky for Irene Nemirovsky
-penciled at the top of the original first page of Suite Francaise-

Suite Francaise is an amazing piece of literature - a work in progress by a woman who lost her life in a German concentration camp before she could complete her masterpiece. Irene Nemirovsky had intended to write a 1000 page novel consisting of five parts: Storm in June, Dolce, Captivity, Battles, and Peace. Because of her untimely death at Auschwitz in August 1942, she drafted only the first two parts of the novel - a story with the promise of greatness. After turning the final page, I was left with the feeling of sorrow that we will never get to read Irene Nemirovsky's finished work.

Both Irene Nemirovksy and her husband died in Auschwitz. Their two children, hidden from the Nazi's by a family friend, survived the war - and in so doing, saved Irene's work, Suite Francaise, to be published 64 years after her death.

As a Jewish writer living with her husband and two children in France at the time of the Nazi occupation, Nemirovsky brings the reader a unique perspective of the war. She indicates in her notes a desire to write a novel not merely about history, but one with a greater depth of experience:

Never forget that the war will be over and that the entire historical sides will fade away. Try to create as much as possible: things, debates…that will interest people in 1952 or 2052.
-From the notes of Irene Nemirovsky, 2 June 1942-

Nemirovsky's writing is beautiful. She captures a sense of place and time with ease. Her descriptions of nature seem almost surreal when contrasted with the reality of war:

It was an exquisite evening with clear skies and blue shadows; the last rays of the setting sun caressed the roses, while the church bells called the faithful to prayer. But then a noise rose up from the road, a noise unlike any they'd heard these past few days, a low, steady rumbling that seemed to move slowly closer, heavy and relentless. Trucks were heading towards the village. This time it really was the Germans. -From Suite Francaise, page 92-93-

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. -From Suite Francaise, page 167-

The novel opens with Book I (Storm in June) on the eve of the Nazi invasion of France. Nemirovsky introduces a cast of characters who include a writer, a priest, a family of the upper class, a working class couple - all fleeing Paris. They have lives which seem parallel to each other, and yet their stories intersect in surprising ways.

In spite of everything, the thing that links all these people together is our times, solely our times.
-From Irene Nemirovsky's notes, 24 April 1942-

The contrast between the rich upper classes and the poor or less fortunate, is stark. We know from the author's meticulous notes that this is intentional:

If I want to create something striking, it is not misery I will show but the prosperity that contrasts with it. -From Irene Nemirovsky's notes, 30 June 1941-

Nemirovsky deftly shows these class differences between characters and how this impacts relationships:

What separates or unites people is not their language, their laws, their customs, their principles, but the way they hold their knife and fork. -From Suite Francaise, page 291-

In Book II (Dolce), the setting is a French village which has just become occupied by the Germans. It is here that Nemirovsky's novel begins to soar as she weaves together the stories of the people - the Mayor and his snotty wife, the farmers, the women who are mourning the loss of sons and husbands, and the soldiers. Amazingly, given that Nemirovsky wrote this novel as the war was unfurling and she was being victimized by the Nazis, she portrays the German soldiers without hatred or malice. With honesty and skill, she deconstructs the idea of the Nazi invader - revealing men with the capacity to think and feel as all humans do.

In the heart of every man and every woman a kind of Garden of Eden endures, where there is no war, no death, where wild animals and deer live together in peace. -From Suite Francaise, page 321-

Although Suite Francaise is a novel - a piece of fiction - it trembles with a sense of truth; an almost autobiographical feel that I could not shake and which touched me deeply. There were moments when the reality of Nemirovsky's life resonated within the pages of her book.

He wrote with a chewed-up pencil stub, in a little notebook which he hid against his heart. He felt he had to hurry: something inside him was making him anxious, was knocking on an invisible door. By writing, he opened that door, he gave life to something that wished to be born. Then suddenly, he would become discouraged, feel disheartened, weary. He was mad. What was he doing writing these stupid stories, letting himself be pampered by the farmer's wife, while his friends were in prison, his despairing parents though he was dead, when the future was so uncertain and the past so bleak?
-From Suite Francaise, page 179-

There is no doubt that had Irene Nemirovsky survived the war, she would have gone on to polish and finish her book. She established herself as a writer of exceptional quality having already published her highly acclaimed novel David Golder. Suite Francaise is an important story which deserves to be read and savored. It is heartbreaking to read the author's notes, as well as the frenzied communications shared between her husband and friends following her arrest. Irene Nemirovsky writes in her notes dated 1 July 1942, only days before her deportation to a Nazi concentration camp:

What lives on:
1. Our humble day-to-day lives
2. Art
3. God

By reading Suite Francaise, we insure that her art lives on.

27 comments:

Pour of Tor said...

I think it is fascinating that we were both drawn to the same striking quotation about important events bringing men's souls into relief. What a stunning use of language!

Wendy said...

There was so much beauty in Nemirovsky's language. I had marked probably 25 different passages I loved...then had to whittle that down to something that would fit neatly into a review. This was one of the more difficult reviews I've written.

kookiejar said...

I liked this book well enough, but I have to wonder if a good part of the hub-bub about it was because of the author's tragic death and the remarkable journey her manuscript made. She was a very popular writer in France before the war, but I'd not heard of her before this book. Why?

If she was truly one of the world's premiere writers, you would think she would have been world famous before her death. It seems that no one can speak of this book on its own merits and always bring the author's circumstances into the equation, and I'm not sure that's a fair way to judge a book.

That being said, she was a good writer and used language extremely effectively. I just think this book was a little over-hyped.

Pour of Tor said...

I agree, kookiejar, that while I was reading the appendices to "Suite Francaise," I could help thinking that Nemirovsky's story was so compelling that it threatened to overshadow the merits (and potential failings) of the book itself. In fact, no review I have read (or written) has been able to omit a discussion of the author's fate, and I think it is totally valid to question whether that is a fair way to evaluate a work of art. (Much of 20th century literary criticism would claim that it isn't - that the literary text should be examined on its own terms, without reference to the life or intentions of the author.) Are we sentimentalizing Nemirovsky, and is that fair to her as an artist (not to mention to other artists)?

On the other hand, in a lot of works the fact of a text's incompleteness (whether intended or not) is a crucial aspect of how we read it and making meaning out of it. I found this issue particularly intriguing in light of the historical subject of "Suite Francaise." She wrote about the events going on around her at that very moment with such inconceivable calm, acuity and prescience, and the appendices revealed how adroitly she had constructed a larger structure for the series of novellas that would echo events as they unfolded after her death. The incompleteness (or interruptedness) of this perfectly planned structure, and its slightly unpolished state, seem somehow appropriate for a tale of wartime, occupation, desperate measures, sudden exoduses, and general chaos. I think the author's life wouldn't intrude so much on our awareness as readers (and in such potentially uncomfortable ways, as kookiejar points out, where we are in danger of turning the author into a celebrity rather than an artist) if it didn't echo and interact with the events of the text, including the many unpleasant deaths and miraculous survivals.

As for the author's previous works, I have heard rumors that her "masterpiece," "David Golder," is about to see a translation into English, although I now can't remember where I heard about it. I don't know why her work never made it across the Atlantic (or into English) before this, but perhaps the disruption in her literary estate (the lack of any fully authoritative literary executor, for instance) caused by the Occupation and its aftermath is responsible?

Wendy said...

David Golder is available in English (I intend to read this one!).

I do not think Irene's backstory can be separated from her novel, Suite Francaise. I mentioned in my review that this book felt autobiographical...to me it can be compared to Anne Frank's diary in that it was being written as the war unfolded and the author was writing it in fear of her own safety. To me, the value of the novel is less in the actual "novel" (which is unfinished and a draft), but more in the historical significance of the manuscript.

Why is it not fair to judge a written work in this context? Even aside from this...I saw many beautiful passages which to me show the "promise" of the novel.

I think for Americans, Irene is a new writer...but for those living during her time, she was quite well known and acclaimed.

Pour of Tor said...

A note about the new translation of "David Golder":
http://www.complete-review.com/saloon/archive/200702b.htm#vz8


I apologize for the typo in the first line of my previous comment, which should read "I couldN'T help thinking...."

I also had a question relating to my calling the book a "series of novellas." Do you think this is accurate? Is this an incomplete series of short books, or an incomplete novel made up of several parts? If it is the former, does that make it any less fragmentary-seeming? How do you think the two existing parts worked together? For a time at the beginning of "Dolce" I thought that it was going to have a completely different set of characters, and I felt a surge of happy recognition when some familiar characters showed up.

Pour of Tor said...

Argh. Poor linking skills from Pour of Tor. Try this link instead: David Golder

And this link leads you directly to The Independent's review of David Golder

Wendy said...

Thanks for the links!

The way Nemirovsky refers to Suite Francaise is a novel (slated to be approximately 1000 pages) consisting of 5 "books"...which it seems were connected, yet happening at various stages of the war (ie: the first book dealt with the Nazi invasion of Paris, the second book dealt with the Nazi Occupation, etc..). I believe her idea was to write a novel which encompassed the entire war period utilizing common characters to pull the pieces together.

kookiejar said...

As hefty as the incomplete version of the novel was, I hate to think that it ever would have been published completely in one volume. (I read John Updike's 'Rabbit Tetrology' in that form and it was ENORMOUS)

Wendy, while I think it is important to remember the context in which the author wrote the book and the circumstances that led it to be published, it cannot be allowed to overshadow the work itself. For instance, nobody remembers that Ernest Hemingway was in the middle of writing 'A Movable Feast' when he shot his head off. They just know that is a fine example of Hemingway's writing. A tragic situation does not and should not elevate the importance of art.

That being said, in a way I agree with ToP, that the unpolished, unfinished aspect of the work is very appropriate to the unfinished life of the author, much like the abrupt ending of 'The Diary of a Young Girl'. War leaves many lives cut short.

kookiejar said...

I'm sorry Pour of Tor. I reversed your initials in my last post.

Wendy said...

Yes, I understand what you are saying Kookiejar...But, I still believe the historical context (ie: when the novel was being written...actually *as* the war was unfolding) is an important context to the book (not so much how the author died, but that she was experiencing it while she was writing it). I didn't rate the work so high ONLY based on this (because, as I've said, I thought the writing was beautiful), but I do think given it was a work in progress, we have to view the whole picture. What value does it have as a work of literature? I feel to be fair to her art, we need to keep it in context to the situation.

Pour of Tor said...

It is certainly true that Nemirovsky talked about publishing the whole piece in one volume rather than separate volumes so that readers wouldn't forget the characters. That certainly would make it a novel of Tolstoy-level girth. These might have seemed liked novellas to me because they were the first two parts in the series (and were so different in tone, as indicated by the shift from "Storm" to "Dolce"), and introduced such a diversity of different characters. The principal characters of "Storm" were generally speaking absent or played relatively minor roles in "Dolce," and vice versa. As a result, each part seemed relatively self-sufficient, although of course each gained in meaning by comparison with the other.

Pour of Tor said...

I just realized that I forgot to finish my thought about why the fact that these were the first two parts in the series made them seem more like independent novellas. What I meant to say is that later section would probably have spent less time fleshing out this huge cast of characters, and more time establishing connections between them (consolidating them, so to speak), connections we already begin to see in tantalizing outline in the sections that came down to us.

Wendy said...

It looks like (from her notes) that Nemirovsky was going to follow a handfull of characters from beginning to end (Jean-Marie, Hubert and Lucille).

I agree there was a big leap from Storm to Dolce, although Nemirovsky did seem to tie some characters together.

kookiejar said...

Don't get me wrong, Wendy. I liked the book very much, but with all things being equal, I just didn't think it deserved as much acclaim as it got and I wondered if it might be because of the circumstances of the author's death. There were many other books published last year that I thought were better written. I just have to wonder if they got overlooked because "Suite Francaise" made such a splash.

"The Brief History of the Dead" for example, was so moving, so beautifully written that I can hardly contain my enthusiasm about it, and yet it didn't make any lists. Surely, I can't be that off base. When it came out it was recommended by both 'Bookmarks Magazine' and 'Pages Magazine' and they are good resources.

I do think it is a good idea to get an idea of the author's background and frame of mind while reading a book, but it is equally important to be able to pick up a novel with no prior knowledge of the author and be able to enjoy (or not) the work on it's own.

Wendy said...

I *do* understand your point, Kookiejar :) And, yes, I would agree that sometimes books get lots of hype while equally good, or better books don't (I'm think of The Book Thief...which the average person doesn't even know about and which I thought trumped all other books out there!). I will have to check out The Brief History of the Dead on your recommendation *runs to wish list and makes note*!!!

kookiejar said...

I'm tempted to even say that 'The Book Thief' was better than 'Suite Francaise'. I know I enjoyed it more.

If you do get a chance to read "The Brief History of the Dead", please let me know what you thought of it.

Pour of Tor said...

Here's another article discussing the impact of Nemirovsky's biography of how we receive her work, this time addressing her (possible/alleged) anti-Semitism.

Pour of Tor said...

I actually found that "The Book Thief" suffered slightly from over-hyping when I read it recently, whereas "Suite Francaise" won me over to its glowing reputation over the course of the first section. I think I might have been more struck by "The Book Thief"'s originality if I had come to it fresh, but after reading a number of ecstatic reviews it came over as more mannered or forced than I was expecting.

Wendy said...

POT, thanks for the link to the anti-semetic article. Here is my take on that: Nemirovsky was a Jew who converted to Catholicism. She also was facing possible deportation along with her daughters and husband. Anything she might have written to officials during that time, I think need to be kept within the context of this...the terror at that time with "being a Jew" was real; I think it is safe to say it is beyond anything anyone living today might be able to understand. I find it hard to accept that a Jewish person (converted or not) can truly be anti-semetic. It would in essence be denying themselves. I am always wary of this kind of talk...there are so many out there that want to discredit those who portray the Holocaust for what it was; and I wonder if this is a campaign to malign a gifted author who represents to a number of people a human face to the Holocaust.

Pour of Tor said...

On the subject of Nemirovsky and anti-Semitism:

I think that it is perilous to try to discern anti-Semitism (and other types of bigotry) from an author's work and life. In the work, it becomes hard to distinguish an individual characterization from a representation of the group. There is a world of difference between creating a flawed Jewish character and implying that all Jews are inherently flawed in some particular way. Flawless/idealized characters can be just as dehumanizing, for that matter. Furthermore, how do we distinguish between the author's representation of a bigoted worldview (through the voice of her characters or narrator) and her own prejudices? It is difficult.

Even more difficult is trying to discern bigotry or "collaboration" in a life lived under tremendously strained historical circumstances. We enter into an unreflective realm of judgment when we try to assess the lengths people will go to to survive.

Furthermore, it seems to me to be dangerous to take religious conversion as a mark of self-hatred. Surely everyone has the right to spiritual and social choice without that choice being a reflection on ethnicity or heritage. Otherwise (and perhaps this is a naive opinion) surely our history becomes a prison.

Wendy said...

I couldn't have said it better, Pour of Tor!

I was thinking about this again last night, and putting it into perspective as a writer. When I create characters for my stories, I deliberately create flawed characters who will generate conflict. Any good story must have conflict. For people to imply Nemirovsky was anti-semitic because of her flawed characters (who were Jewish) is absurd.

kookiejar said...

It is absurd, Wendy. I tend to think it is just a campaign to bring down an author who is getting a little more attention that some others would want her too.

Otherwise, we could deduce that the great humanist Mark Twain hated black people and the genius tv producer Norman Lear was exactly like his creation Archie Bunker.

Conversely, what if she was an anti-semite? Would that make her work any less poignant? Should people pooh-pooh 'The Wizard of Oz' just because L Frank Baum also wrote articles advocating the genocide of the American Indian? One has little to do with the other. He was just a horrible person who wrote a hell of a good book.

The art and the artist can be separated, and that has been my contention through this entire discussion. Her political and religious beliefs, and the circumstances of her life and death should have no bearing on how or why we read her work or how we judge it.

Wendy said...

I will agree with you on this one, KookieJar! I think because Nemirovsky's personal story is so linked with this book, people think it gives them a right to question her personal beliefs...based on what, I'm not exactly sure!

Ms. Jaroch said...

I enjoyed reading your lively discussion about this book. One lingering question of mine, which somewhat links to your comments about anti-Semitism:
I found it intriguing that Nemirovsky, a Jew living in Nazi-occupied France, didn't imbue her novel with any Jewish characters or any of the trepidation that she herself, as Jew (yes, I know she converted to Catholicism, but not till later, and still...) must have felt at that time. Was she just being extra careful not to allude to any pro-Jewish sentiments? Her husband, in those heartbreaking letters/telegrams in the appendix, cited her works that didn't have any pro-Jewish or pro-Bolshevik feelings as proof that she was no threat to the Germans.

kookiejar said...

That's a good question Ms Jaroch. I don't think we'll ever know for sure, but it seems like in her previous work any time a Jewish character was brought up, it was in an unfavorable light. Was it because of her personal feelings or because of political reasons? A little of both? More to ponder.

Juliette said...

Hi Wendy and friends
I have just read your Suite Francaise review - it was wonderful and I loved the way you picked out salient quotes. I read Suite Francaise and then moved onto the memoir of a Russian countess who survived imprisonment and the second world war. It was Forgive Those Who Trespas Against Us by Karolina Lanckoronska. My review is at http://www.librarything.com/profile_reviews.php?view=juliette07
plus I am on live journal at http://juliette-m-m.livejournal.com/2305.html

If you enjoy reading about the determination and resilience of women in the most unimaginable contexts, together with some history you would like this read.
Julie