Saturday, December 22, 2007

Suite Francaise...a personal review

That's the title of a remarkable novel I just finished. It's written by Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian born Jew who moved to Paris in 1920, converted to Catholicism, married and had two daughters, and wrote several novels which became critically acclaimed bestsellers in Paris in the 30's.
Then in 1942 she was arrested by the Vichy government for being a stateless person and an ethnic Jew. After a brief internment in France she was sent to Auschwitz where she died shortly after arrival.
Her husband, who never was able to learn of his wife's whereabouts or condition despite dozens of letters and appeals to officials and friends was himself arrested sent to the gas chambers a few weeks later.
The story of how the manuscript came to be published sixty four years later is equally remarkable. Following the disappearance of their parents, the daughters, Denise, barely a teenager, and Elisabeth, five years old, took as a memento of their missing mother a suitcase containing a leather sheaf of handwritten manuscript in which they had often observed their mother writing. Entrusted to a nanny and forced to move from one hiding place to another for the rest of the war, they managed to stay one step ahead of the French and German police. For the duration of the war they faithfully safeguarded the suitcase without ever reading the contents.
When the war ended, still not knowing the fate of either of their parents, the two girls stationed themselves almost daily at one of the train stations in Paris where daily a flood of survivors was returning from the concentration camps and elsewhere. The girls hoped in this way to catch a glimpse of their mother. One time the elder daughter, believing to have seen her mother, ran after a woman on the street. At length they gave up and some time later learned via official sources that both their parents had been killed by the Germans.
For a long time neither daughter could muster the emotional strength to read the manuscript in their possession. Finally after many, many years Denise decided to donate it to an organization dedicated to the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust. Before giving it to them, however, she thought that she would type out the cramped, handwritten script. It was then she discovered that what she and her sister had been guarding all these decades was an ambitious series of novels, of which only the first two were fully realized. These writings paint a picture of life in German-occupied France. It is a tapestry of several story lines and different characters, some sympathetic, some not so much, but all of them bound together by a common cataclysm, in this case the invasion of the German army and the rout of the French army.
Nemirovsky offers subtle and finely drawn portraits of people, mostly civilians, trying to cope with the notion that nothing will ever be the same. In many respects this novel is an exploration man's capacity to accommodate new political realities, to adapt to new social arrangements, and to abandon what on the personal level has become useless or even dangerous. It is also a meditation of sorts on the tension that exists between individual identity and collective purpose. There are moments when one feels along with certain characters how tenuous and absurd are the claims of nationalism or religion or race or class or tradition. But such are the waters inside of which we swim about, sometimes conscious of the current that carries us, sometimes beguiled by our own exertions.
In an appendix to the novel, Nemirovsky writes in her notebook, "Salvation is when the time allocated to us is longer than the time allocated to a crisis." Time flows on many levels and is often experienced by the individual as being "out of joint, a perception that might have more to do with a novelistic sense of life than a scientific one. We sometimes chafe at the poorly scripted character of our unfolding life stories, but we also console ourselves that all may yet be well and that later chapters will bear this out...if only we can turn enough pages. Nemirovsky in her notes reveals an ambitious plan for a five part novel. Suite Francaise is comprised of the first two parts, the only ones she had time to finish. They are called Storm and Dolce. In her notebooks she sketches possible plot lines and themes for the entire epic, she envisions them titled Captivity, Battles, and Peace. She muses over the possible lives and deaths of characters she's already brought into flesh and blood existence. But she also reveals a sense that time is too short, that she will not finish what she has intended. In a short verse that she writes to herself she says,
To lift such a heavy weight
Sisyphus, you will need all your courage,
I do not lack the courage to complete the task
But the end is far and the time is short

It is sobering to be reminded by this novel of the ways in which the herd mentality prevails in circumstances of extreme stress, of how tardily people come to realize what is essential, of how strangely people assign value to objects and and how tenaciously they cling to notions of who they used to be. The Germans serve many useful purposes in this novel. They are avatars of something alien or at least unFrench, their uniforms and their bearing and their language set them apart, but they are also disturbingly familiar, indistinguishable really from their enemies and victims. The comfort of hatred, the usefulness of an enemy, the need to declare to oneself and before others "I am not them."...all of these human tendencies take up residence alongside the opposing and often plaintive desire to be seen truly, to be comprehended, to be loved. War thus affords people opportunities to be blinded by prejudice and by insight. Sadly, either way there are always casualties.
War envelopes this novel but the battlefield is nearly always just off in the wings. Meanwhile characters rush about in full flight from it; they rush about in haste to join it, and they sometimes hunker down in resigned anticipation of its arrival. Strangely, when in the novel the conquering German army finally arrives, it does not herald an apocalypse but an armistice. What ensues is a more banal and revealing look at the psychology of war and national identity.
One senses an infinite weariness on the part of the author with the futility of so much grasping, grasping at wealth, at advantage, at comfort, at one more day. Yet she is also able to capture human longings and yearnings that are sympathetic and even at times ennobling. In her notes Nemirovsky says that three things live on. She lists them thus:
  1. Our humble day-to-day lives
  2. Art
  3. God
Wondering what the rest of her novel might have told us is perhaps unavoidable for us but for her it must have been a daily haunting until she died. She writes in her notes of how she "sees" the third part but that the fourth and fifth parts are still "in limbo". She observes that she and her novel are at the mercy of events and the gods who could if they so please "wait a hundred or even a thousand years, as the saying goes: and I'll be far away." Her wryly ironic tone mocks the sloganeering of the Third Reich which predicted a thousand year reign, and it simultaneously evokes her own perhaps ambivalent desire for release from life if not from her work.
In her own life Irene Nemirovski seems to have bravely balanced a profound personal resignation to death with her commitment to life. In anticipation of her own demise, she carefully and effectively made provisions for the safety of her daughters. Instead of capitalizing on her connections and taking flight, she stayed put and she wrote. Not too long before she was arrested she wrote in her notes "Just let it be over - one way or another!"
That clear headed and fatalistic stance cost her her life and bequeathed to the world a novel that miraculously found the light off day 64 years after its creator's death. A salvation of sorts.


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