Friday, January 9, 2015

Suite Francaise (Irene Nemirovsky)

So it was the Christmas holidays and I was heading back to the Midwest to visit family, and I wanted to take a book along to read.  Hmm, what book to take?  So I looked at my shelves and pulled down "Suite Francaise", which I'd bought quite awhile ago but had never gotten around to reading.  Yeah, it's not on my list of 105 books that I really need to readand blog about before my impending death, but once again I threw caution to the wind and veered off the list.  I'd been wanting to read this book, and besides, what could be more appropriate for the holiday season than reading about Nazis?  That was a joke.  The Nazis sucked.  I mean totally sucked, and that's made clear by this book.  Not even just the plot of the book, but the circumstances under which this book was written.  Goddamn it, I just spilled my martini.

Fuck, that was a good martini too, made with Plymouth Gin and chipotle pepper-stuffed olives from The Olive Pit.  Fortunately there wasn't much left of the martini when I spilled it, but one of the olives rolled across the floor and I had to toss it in the garbage, as it was now thoroughly coated with a dusty residue.  What a pity!  Chipotle-stuffed olives are the bomb and you can quote me on that.  And that's not just the 7/8ths of a martini talking.  Well, maybe it partly is.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah, those goddamn fucking Nazis.  Both the plot of this book, as well as the story of the author and how and where this book were written, are tainted with Nazis.  Irene Nemirovsky was a Russian Jew born in Kiev in 1903.  During the Russian Revolution her family fled to France, where she attended the Sorbonne and became a writer.  She married and had two daughters, but after the Germans invaded and occupied France in World War II she was eventually arrested (in 1942) as a "stateless person of Jewish descent" and deported to Auschwitz where she died soon after.  Her husband later died in Auschwitz as well, but her two daughters survived the war, and they had in their possession a notebook written by their mother during the German occupation.  Thinking it was a memoir, they couldn't bear to read the contents, and so it was stored away until the 1990s, when one of her daughters finally read it.  Surprisingly it wasn't a memoir, but the first two parts of a planned five-part sequence of novellas.  It was quickly published under the title "Suite Francaise" to great critical acclaim.

The book is fascinating, because the subject of the two novellas is the German occupation of France, and the lives of the French citizens under the occupation.  The book thus fictionalizes events that were occurring during the war right as the author was writing it.  The author had no idea how the sequence of five novellas would turn out, because she didn't know how the war would end.  And tragically, she didn't and couldn't predict that the war would consume her before she could finish the work.  But fortunately for us what she did get to write survived and was rediscovered.

The first novella, called "Storm in June", recounts events as the German army stormed into France in 1940.  As the Germans press towards Paris, many residents of the city flee, as it is not clear whether Paris will be leveled with bombs or not (it wasn't, as an armistice was signed and France surrendered before Paris could be destroyed).  The roads are flooded with refugees, taking as many of their belongings with them as possible.  Panic is everywhere as no one really knows what's happening, or what will happen.  The book follows the stories of a cast of individuals and families as they flee the oncoming Germans.  Most of the characters do not have any connection with one another, so the narrative cuts back and forth from one person/family to another.  This might seem like it would be confusing, but it actually works quite well.  As the characters flee, chaos reigns, and all their initial plans become confounded.  Most of the characters become more and more unsympathetic, as they lose their humanity and become more ruthless and self-centered in order to survive.  But the book really moves, and it's hard to put down.  Despite not really liking many of the characters, the sense of doom and danger is made quite palpable.  And there's one scene that I found particularly disturbing.  One of the characters is a priest who is leading a group of orphans fleeing into the countryside.  When he chastises them for breaking into someone's house, they turn on him.  The scene was a surprise to me, and things just get worse and worse for the priest, and it's horrific.  The helpless orphan boys become as bad, or worse, than the oncoming Nazis.  The scene reminded me of something from "Lord of the Flies".

In the second novella, called "Dolce", we are introduced to several new main characters, although some of the characters from the first novella reappear, or are at least mentioned.  This novella focuses on a small French country village which is occupied by the Nazis.  The Germans live apparently peacefully with the villagers, and the officers are billeted in the French people's houses.  Relations on the surface seem polite and cordial...the Germans try to keep things as normal as possible, and many officers try to respect the lives and property of the citizens. The Germans are perhaps a bit too formal for the French (they are military personnel after all) but at least they're polite.  But beneath the veneer, things are much more grim.  The French can never forget that they have been conquered, and that many of the men from the town are being held captive somewhere far away in German POW camps.  The Germans post many rules, such as a curfew and prohibition of gun ownership, and notices plastered around the town remind people that violations of the rules are punishable by death.  Some townsfolk collaborate with the Germans, and are despised, while others resist but not too openly.

The main character in "Dolce" is Lucile Angellier, a young newlywed whose husband has been captured by the Germans and is in a POW camp far away.  She has mixed feelings about this, because she doesn't want him to suffer, but on the other hand he has been unfaithful to her and she has no love for him.  She lives with her mother-in-law, who despises her.  A young German officer, Bruno von Falk, is billeted in their house.  Bruno is a polite and cultured, and was studying to be a musician before the war.  He and Lucille start discretely spending time together and they fall in love.  Well, sort of.  Because of the power dynamics of conqueror and vanquished, and their different cultures and languages, there is always a gap between them.  Eventually a local farmer murders a German soldier because he was trying to seduce his wife, and Lucille agrees to hide him in her house, under the nose of Bruno.  She does so because she knows Bruno and the Germans would never suspect her of all people from hiding this most wanted man.  But by doing so, she drives a wedge between her and Bruno, at least in her mind, as it make apparent to her their vastly different roles in the war.  But then the Germans in town are forced to leave when Germany declares war on the Soviet Union, and they are called away to fight on the Eastern Front. It is there that the novella closes.

This book is one that is going to stick with me.  The writing was beautiful, and the story was a page turner.  But what makes this book so totally poignant is how the author's story is intertwined with the story in the book.  The German occupation of France, which she novelized right as it was happening, is what led to her own downfall and death, and prevented her from finishing the book.  She left an outline of the third novella in the five-part series, entitled "Captivity", but she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz before she could start writing it.  Both her book and her life are a tragic and horrible story in a tragic and horrible historic period that consumed many millions of lives.  Goddamn Nazis.  But fortunately this beautiful book survived and was rediscovered.  A small consolation, perhaps, and too late for the author, but ensuring that the story of her own personal tragedy, and her insights into the lives of the citizens who suffered in France in World War II, will not be forgotten.