Finished Suite Francaise
yesterday. Not one I would have picked out for myself; WWII is a topic I
read obsessively but I mostly go for the non-fiction. I received it as a gift from staff at a local library in thanks for a workshop I did on this
. But I'm very glad to have read it. It's set during the German invasion and occupation of France, and though written by a woman who was actually living through it while writing about it (Irene Nemirovsky was a Russian/French Jew who had converted to Catholicism; in 1942 she was already a popular and critically acclaimed author) it nevertheless has the feel
of having been written many years later, looking back, like an old woman remembering. Irene had planned three more sections of the book, but she was arrested and died in Auschwitz in August of 1942. Excerpts at the end from her journal (as the title of this post) suggest that she knew what was to come; perhaps that's what gives her writing its objectivity; perhaps, like someone with a terminal illness, she already felt herself as apart from those around her, as drifting away.
Part of this feeling of recall of the past, du temps perdu
is the vividly sensual and detailed yet distant way with which she narrates events, as though they were happening miles away or years ago. Part of it is the dream-like quality of some of the scenes, especially in Book II the lovely descriptions of spring and summer in the French countryside, its scents and visual beauty -- apple blossoms and green things growing, horses with their foals grazing in the meadows, fresh-faced farm girls tending the cows -- juxtaposed with war, invasion, death. The deaths of several of the characters also have a sense of surrealism, like the mad logic of a nightmare -- ( for example... )
. Part of it is the way she deftly separates, for her characters, "the enemy" from individual German soldiers. In the real world, in 1942, they were preventing Irene's work from being published and forcing her to wear the Jewish star; yet even while this is going on she can write lyrically and almost sympathetically about a small French village where the Germans have set up shop and billeted their officers with local families, and how the locals hate "Fritz" or "the Boche" but rather like "that nice Willi who's staying with the Angelliers." The soldiers talk about their families, their homes; the French girls swoon over their blond good looks and gentleman-like behavior.
In this scene, Lucile Angellier and Bruno, the German soldier staying in the house, are alone: Lucile's mother-in-law (who dislikes her), has gone to her room, and there is a storm, the power has gone out. Lucile's husband, who treated her shabbily and had a mistress, is a prisoner of war.
Most exquisite of all was this sense of being on an island in the middle of the hostile house, and this strange feeling of safety: no one would come in; there would be no letters, no visits, no telephone calls. Even the old clock she had forgotten to wind that morning (what would Madame Angellier say -- "Of course nothing gets done when I'm away"), even the old clock whose grave, melancholy tones frightened her, was silent. Once again, the storm had damaged the power station; no lights or radios were on for miles. The radio silent...how peaceful...It was impossible to give in to temptation, impossible to look for Paris, London, Berlin, Boston on the dark dial, impossible to hear those mournful, invisible, cursed voices telling of ships being sunk, planes crashing, cities destroyed, reading out the number of dead, predicting future massacres...Just blessed forgetfulness, nothing else...until nightfall, time passing slowly, someone beside her, a glass of light, fragrant wine, music, long silences. Happiness...
Although none of the characters experience battle, all of it -- even the peaceful country scenes -- are underlaid with a sense of uncertainty, of darkness just beneath the surface. And that's what's most striking: we feel it because we know the dreadful things that were going on elsewhere, but there's no way the author could have foreseen the knowledge that later readers would bring to her writing...and yet it feels as though she somehow does, that she's aware of the violent contradiction between the (relatively) peaceful scenes she describes and the horrors of Auschwitz or Dachau and purposely not spelling it out for the reader, and thereby making it all the more vivid and agonizing.
The notes from her journal at the end rough out the other sections she intended to write, and those also seem to be even-handed as to the horrors of war, that everyone loses, that the average person mostly just waits for it all to be over so they can go back to their cows and their job and their lives. I don't know that I'm doing the book justice, and I can't decide if it's horrifying or inspiring, but I do recommend it highly.
I have to include one other quote, in which the self-righteous Viscountess de Montmort is trying to improve the souls of girls at a local school, for its pungent summation of SOME people's view of religion:
She paused and nodded curtly to the woman who had just come in: she was a woman who did not attend Mass and had buried her husband in a civil ceremony; according to her pupils she hadn't even been baptised, which seemed not so much scandalous as unbelievable, like saying someone had been born with the tail of a fish. As this person's conduct was irreproachable, the Viscountess hated her all the more: "because," she explained to the Viscount, "if she drank or had lovers, you could understand her lack of religion, but just imagine the confusion that can be caused in people's minds when they see virtue practised by people who are not religious!"