Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

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

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