Books

Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

When French authorities arrested Jewish novelist Irene Nemirovsky on 13 July 1942, she had completed drafts of two sections of what was to be a five-part, somewhat symphonic novel detailing the effects of the war on ordinary Frenchmen.

Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books
[15 September 2006]


This week: When French authorities arrested Jewish novelist Irene Nemirovsky on 13 July 1942, she had completed drafts of two sections of what was to be a five-part, somewhat symphonic novel detailing the effects of the war on ordinary Frenchmen.

Suite Française
by Irene Nemirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith
Knopf, April 2006, 395 pages, $25.00
"My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honor and its life." it is rejecting me let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honor and its life."
-- Irene Nemirovsky

When French authorities arrested Jewish novelist Irene Nemirovsky on 13 July 1942, she had completed drafts of two sections of what was to be a five-part, somewhat symphonic novel detailing the effects of the war on ordinary Frenchmen. She died one month later at Auschwitz.

Her manuscript -- kept unread for years by her surviving daughters as a memento of their mother-- was finally published in April, and the unfinished Suite Française emerged as a startling revelation, a fascinating and terrifying close-up of France under the pressures of Nazi invasion and occupation.

The first section of the book, "Storm in June" (which was deliberately styled after the opening movement of Beethoven's fifth symphony), details the month-long Nazi invasion and focuses on the evacuation of Paris. There are no stylish, fearless Humphrey Bogarts or Ingrid Bergmans here, drinking the last of their liquor while Dooley Wilson plays "As Time Goes By" over the roar of approaching German guns. The characters in "Storm in June" are ordinary and flawed, tediously and frighteningly so, and, as promised, Nemirovsky observes the unraveling of these characters quite coldly.

There is the large Pericand family, so bogged down with domestic details, that even as the Nazi guns draw near they find themselves fussing over superficial household matters, because, as Nemirovksy writes "their need to follow a routine was stronger than their terror." There are two pathologically narcissistic characters, including writer Gabriel Corte, who cannot bear to be without excellent food, and who, once he finally evacuates, is shocked that he is forced to mingle with plain and classless commoners. There is the eldest Pericand, young Father Philippe, who tries in vain to look for saving faith in a group of silent, sullen, docile orphaned teens and ends up with much more than a crisis of his own faith.

Nemirovsky doesn't treat all her characters with equal cynicism, but all of them are seen through a very realistic lens. She wrote a note to herself (included in the appendix) so that she would remember to "stress the Michauds" as "people who always pay the price" and "who are truly noble," but having said that, she doesn't exactly portray Maurice Michaud as a larger-than-life Paul Henreid leading an impassioned rendition of the Marseillaise in a German-occupied café. On the contrary, while trudging along with the other evacuees, the following quirky thoughts fill his head:

In spite of the exhaustion, the hunger, the fear, Maurice Michaud was not really unhappy. He had a unique way of thinking: he didn't consider himself that important; in his own eyes he was not that rare and irreplaceable creature most people imagine when they think about themselves. He felt pity towards his fellow sufferers, but his pity was lucid and detached. After all, he thought, these great human migrations seemed to follow natural laws. Surely such occasional mass displacements were necessary to humans, just as the migration of livestock was to animals.

"Storm in June" contains arresting detail which could only have been created by someone present during the evacuation of Paris. Fortunately for readers of "Suite Française ," Nemirovsky was both. Wherein history books and memoirs might record accurate historical details, Nemirovsky has recorded the exact psychological color of the evacuation; it is as if she took a series of literary photographs on her way out of Paris and it is this immediacy that stuns the reader:

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. Even people who were normally calm and controlled were overwhelmed by anxiety and fear. Everyone looked at their house and thought, "Tomorrow it will be in ruins, tomorrow I'll have nothing left."

Nemirovsky was fascinated with striking contrasts and the novel features these on numerous occasions, often contrasting the beauties of early summer with the ugly invasion. While Jeanne Michaud lies face down on the ground to avoid being shelled, she notices "a bell-shaped pink flower brushing her lip" and later recalls: "while they were stretched out on the ground, a small white butterfly was lazily flitting from one flower to another."

If "Storm in June" is a series of harsh, sometimes discordant but stunning images and characterizations, "Dolce," the second section of the novel feels like the second movement of a symphony: it begins with barely a sound and crescendos to a deafening roar before calming into a quiet (but in this case, a tense and unfinished) climax. "Dolce" examines the complex relationship between the conquerors and the conquered, focusing on one French household, which is home to the wife and the mother of a French prisoner-of-war. Upon first seeing the German officer they are forced to house, the younger woman, Lucile Angellier (whose complex relationship with this officer becomes the kernel of the story), cannot help but notice "his large, delicate hand, his long fingers" and she immediately imagines this lovely appendage "holding a heavy black revolver, or a machine-gun or a grenade, any weapon that metes out death indifferently."

A beautiful, sensitive hand holding a gun. Always with Nemirovsky it is striking contrasts and the Nazi was a perfect subject for this study. Nemirovsky's Nazis are not cold cruel caricatures but are on the contrary quite dashing, charming, polite, and even kind. The Nazi mentality, however, obviously had a duality problem and while describing the psychology of one soldier, Nemirovsky paints this duality in clear terms:

He behaved kindly or cruelly depending on how people and things struck him. If he took a dislike to someone, he made sure he hurt them as much as possible ... On the other hand, he would behave with infinite kindness and sympathy towards certain prisoners who seemed likeable to him ..."

The Nazis certainly seem to like the French villagers in "Dolce" but the key question of the tale is this: do the villagers return this affection? If so, why? Part of the answer to that question depends on the connection each particular Frenchman has to the war:

The mothers of prisoners or soldiers killed in the war looked at [the Nazi soldiers] and begged God to curse them, but the young women just looked at them.

Unlike other historical novels in which the fictional characters play out their plot points amid the backdrop of war, the characters in Suite Française are the war: they are the retreating Parisians, they are the collaborators, they are the French patriots, and they are the Nazis. The book is a fascinating marriage of documentary-like details and skillfully wrought fiction; a truthful, coldly rendered portrait of a country under stress by a writer who it ultimately betrayed.

Kathryn Atwood Amazon

+ + + +


Music

Books

Film

Recent
By the Book

Jack Halberstam's 'Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire' (excerpt)

Enjoy this excerpt of Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, wherein Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which wildness has been associated with queerness and queer bodies throughout the 20th century.

Jack Halberstam
Music

Sotto Voce's 'Your Husband, the Governor' Is Beautifully Twisted DIY Indie Folk-rock

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gabos releases another odd, gorgeous home studio recording under the moniker Sotto Voce.

Music

Numün's 'voyage au soleil' Is a Trippy, Ambient Ride and Ambitious Debut

Eclectic instrumental trio numün combine a wealth of influences to create a vibe that's both spacey and earthy on voyage au soleil.

Music

L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.

Books

Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.

Music

Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.

Music

Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.

Music

West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".

Culture

Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".

Music

Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.

Music

Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.

Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.