Monday, April 14, 2008

Suite Francaise

A masterpiece. And this is the rough draft.

I've spent the last day trying to decide if I loved this book because I'm sentimental. The author, Irene Nemirovsky, was a Russian Jew who wrote this while living in occupied France. A respected author, she had married Micheal Epstein who had also fled Russia when the Bolsheviks revolted. They had sincerely adopted France as their home country, converted to Catholicism and were the parents of two daughters. She began writing this novel while simultaneously experiencing it. She and her family had lived in Paris but had fled when German troops invaded the city. While most of the country was occupied, she moved to a French village and tried to survive amidst the new harsh laws concerning anyone of Jewish decent. She could no longer publish her works, could not cash checks, could not travel freely. Her life and freedom, as well as those of her husband and daughters were threatened daily. She had every excuse to be as frightened and as hysteric as anyone.

Yet, she managed to write an unbelievably candid look at Frenchmen in their hour of need. Her intention was to write a five part novella in the idea of a musical symphony much like Beethoven's Fifth examining the behavior of people from different classes of society. She succeeded in writing two of the five parts: Storm in June and Dolce. Storm in June begins as rumors of a German invasion into Paris reach a frenzied level and characters decide whether or not evacuate their homes. The attitude, priorities and expectations vary greatly between the elite and working class. Desperation brings out the very worst in most, but not all. Food, gas, shelter - the basic needs of any person, become scarce and the desire to survive seems to super cede any desire to help a neighbor. Nemirovsky is an expert at exposing this without focusing on the misery. Instead, in her own words, she shows "the prosperity that contrasts with it. . . one word for misery, ten for egotism, cowardice, closing ranks, crime. But it's true that it's this very atmosphere I'm breathing. It is easy to imagine it: the obsession with food." Writing about the contrast is very effective. `What impresses me more is that Nemirovsky was part of this aristocrat class. She was privileged. To have the ability to understand at all the confusion and need of those without shows great compassion, I think.

The second part of the novel, Dolce, is quite different. Rather than following several loosely related characters, she focuses on a small village adjusting to life with the German troop based there. Most of the upper class members of the village, farmers, land owners etc., had to house the officers of the German army at the same time their husbands, sons, and brothers were being held as prisoners of war someplace else. Nemirovsky manages to weave in a few of the characters from Storm into the story but the overall pace and feeling is much slower and calmer (ah....dolce!) The slower tempo and close proximity force many of the French to look at the Germans as humans rather than simply soldiers. Boredom resulting from the restrictions placed on the villagers, jealousy and greed as supplies and food are scarce for many cause tensions to run high. The most interesting part of this story to me was the relationship between Lucille and the German officer staying at their chateau all the while under the persecution of an unforgiving and pompous mother-in-law. How disappointing when this story ended and there was no more.

Following the two stories are the handwritten notes written by the author. Plans for the third part to be titled "Captivity" were outlined and different storylines attempted. The realization that this was all a rough draft boggles my mind. They seem so....done and flawless. What a loss. After the appendix showing Nemirovsky's plans for the novel is another with the letters recovered from her and her family, acquaintances, editors etc. during this time period. The tone in these letters is so different from the tone in her notes for the novel. It's as if she was somehow push away her fear and trepidation while writing and thinking. Her personal correspondence, however, reveals that she was very aware of the danger facing her. Her last letter is written to her husband as she is being taken to a concentration camp. Following letters show the desperation of her husband, trying to find out where she has been taken and how she can be saved. then those stop as he is arrested and also taken to a concentration camp. They were both killed at Auschwitz.

Her daughters were hid by a close friend for years until the war was over. Her eldest daughter carried around this manuscript in a suitcase wherever they travelled as a link to her mother and finally had it published and translated sixty years later.

I don't think I loved this just because I am sentimental although I love it for that very reason. Independent of the author's tragic parallel story is the creation of something unique and special. It is as if someone was holding a mirror up to the French during the war but this mirror is alluring and beautiful, so much so that you can't help but pick it up and just gaze. But it's more than just a look at the french people during a specific period of time. It is also a timeless portrait of humanity. Highly, highly recommended.

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