Friday, February 8, 2008

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (1942/2004/2007) (nat)

I'm not normally one to dwell on autobiographical aspects of books. I don't know much about most of the authors I read. Nemirovsky's biography is so tied up with the novel that it's impossible to ignore and it really makes the whole thing desperately tragic.

Suite Francaise is about a wide cast of characters, most of them French, from a wide sweep of social and economic situations who must cope with WWII and their displacement from Paris and surrounding cities because of the German invasion. They must then negotiate the German occupation of France. The characters are all engaging and fully formed despite the reader only seeing snippets of their lives. In the first half, each chapter focuses on one set of characters (a family, or group) with those groups sometimes splitting or interacting with other groups during the war until the armstice. What we do not see in this first section is the German point of view. The reader is teased with almost-encounters and exposed to the fear engendered in the French who never have much exposure to the enemy s a people during the war, only air raid sirens and bombers. The second half of the novel focuses mainly on a mother and wife of a prisoner of war during the occupation with brief excursions to see characters in Paris. What makes this half so interesting is that we see the German officers and we get to know one in particular fairly well.

Unfortunately, Nemirovsky never finished the novel. It was supposed to be two or three more sections to round out the war. The autobiographical aspect is particularly poignant in this sense because she was writing the novel about the war while the war was going on. There are some notes about the next sections but there were gaps because she wasn't sure what was going to happen, how long the war would last, and how these things would impact the the course of the novel's plot. And she never had the opportunity to finish the novel or see the end of the war because she was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz--her parents were Russian Jews but Nemirovsky had denouced her parents' religion (as had her husband) and converted to Catholicism. The Germans didn't care about that and didn't care that she was a highly successful, highly regarded French novelist. At the end of her life, she was being persecuted by the Germans while writing the tenuous love-affair between a French woman and a German soldier. Normally I'd skip the appendices at the end of the book--her notes and then her correspondence--but I started skimming them and then paying attention more closely. I wish she had the chance to finish the novel (it works as a fragment because the stories tie themselves up in a way that satisfies the reader, but it would have been wonderful as she saw it) and the letters broke my heart. First Nemirovsky is taken (her voice disappearing from the correspondence), then her husband begins a heart-rending letter-writing campaign to save her, then he is taken to a concentration camp as a reward for his efforts, then there are letters from people who don't know either has been taken, and, finally, letters about the well-being of Nemirovsky's two daughters who had to be hidden in various places during the war because the Germans were constantly looking for them. Nemirovsky's final two novels (this one and Fire in the Blood) have seen the light of day because her oldest daughter stuffed the manuscripts in a suitcase when they fled. She didn't open the suitcase until the 1998 when she began to type out what she thought was her mother's diary in order to donate it to a French archive. She soon found that the presumed diary was a novel-in-progress and part of another novel (her father had the other half of Fire). She had Suite published in French in 2004 (translated into English in 2007) to much acclaim not to mention buzz that this might be the first WWII novel. Fire was published a year later in France and in late 2007 in English.

I really enjoyed the book. It has short chapters (which I LOVE) but is engaging so you want to read a million tiny chapters instead of treating them like stopping points. I'll definitely look into Fire and maybe her pre-war novels that won her fame during her life.

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