Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Suite Française: grace in the heart of darkness

Just finished the magnificent first half of Irene Némirovsky’s two-part Suite Française, written in 1941-42 during the German invasion of France but published for the first time last year. What I’ve read is part one, “Storm in June”, which traces the progress of a number of characters from different classes of French society as they flee their homes. Némirovsky and her family were part of this exodus; being Jewish (and a writer who continued to denounce the Nazi regime in her work), she spent those years under constant threat and eventually died in Auschwitz in August 1942 – but her urgently scribbled notes survived, and 60 years later we have the first two segments of what was originally meant to be a thousand-page epic in five parts.

Reading Suite Française with this back-story in mind, I was astonished by the depth of Némirovsky’s achievement. With great writing that comes out of an author’s personal experiences in troubled times, we expect a certain amount of time to have elapsed between the experience and the writing process – so the writer can distance herself from her more extreme emotions and make full use of what Graham Greene called “the sliver of ice in a novelist’s soul”. But Suite Française was written by someone who was living through and simultaneously chronicling one of the darkest periods in human history. Imagine Némirovsky, 38 years old, a Jewish woman in a France that had surrendered to the Nazis, fearful for her own and her children’s safety, and creating this beautifully observed work in those conditions. The shadow of death and deprivation hangs over nearly every character in the book, the author herself would die in tragic circumstances just a few months after she began working on it - and yet each page throbs with life, and with a compassion for humanity and a historical perspective that is stunning given the circumstances. (In this situation, any writer might have been excused for not being able to look beyond their own backyard.)

“Storm in June”, written in 31 short chapters, follows four or five separate groups of Parisians as they come to terms with the sudden upheaval in their lives and the dissolution of the comforts they had taken for granted. Némirovsky gives the most space to a cultured, upper-class family headed by the resolute Charlotte Pericand who, along with her younger children, her senile father-in-law and a few servants, must leave Paris for her mother’s house in Burgundy. Her husband, a respected museum curator, stays behind, as does their eldest son Philippe, a priest.

The second son, the 16-year-old Hubert, is a young man with wildly romantic notions about war, and Némirovsky uses him for some of her sharpest observations about the foolish jingoism of the period: Hubert’s voice breaks with emotion when he asks a group of soldiers if he can join them; he’s so busy preening that he can’t see how weary and disinterested they are. (Later, even when it’s obvious that the French have been defeated, he expects to see a fresh battalion appear on the horizon, shouting patriotic war cries.) But the great quality of Némirovsky’s writing is that Hubert isn't a mere object of ridicule - this is also a sympathetic picture of a young boy growing uncertainly into a man, dealing with his responsibilities and trying to reconcile a naïve worldview with the harsh realities around him.

Others on the canvas include an effete, self-absorbed writer named Gabriel Corte, his mistress Florence, and the middle-aged Michauds, out of home and employment and worried about their soldier son. The chapters alternate between these characters and some stories are more fleshed out than others, which is probably indicative of the hurried, unstructured writing process. (Sandra Smith’s excellent English translation throws up repeated reminders that Suite Française was a work in progress.) But such is the economy of the writing, it doesn’t matter. Time and again, Némirovsky captures a whole way of life (and the crumbling of a whole way of life) in a few sentences.

“Storm in June” is a stunning portrait of people stripped down to their essence – in some cases surviving on nothing more than the reassurance of their loved ones’ presence – but still clutching desperately at things they have been conditioned to believe in, such as class distinctions. It’s also about the delusions they must maintain to keep their sanity intact. When Madame Pericand learns of her eldest son’s death, she consoles herself with the idea that he was a martyr, sacrificing himself for a noble cause and to benefit others; but we have already seen in the previous chapter how utterly mundane and meaningless Philippe’s death was. The book itself repeatedly eschews the idea of a Grand Scheme, a Larger Picture that might make sense of all the senselessness. The only thing worth clinging to is whatever humanity can be found in the present moment.

The recurring theme that grand ideals and beliefs quickly fall away in times of extreme crisis is made most explicit in a passage that begins with Charlotte encouraging her children to share their food with others:
“Jacqueline, you have some lollipops in your bag,” said Madame Pericand, with a discreet gesture and a look which meant, “You know very well you should share with those who are less fortunate than you. Now is the time to put into practice what you have learnt at catechism.” She got a feeling of great satisfaction from seeing herself as possessing such plenty and, at the same time, being so charitable.
But soon after this she finds that all food shops in the vicinity are out of stock, and this discovery effects a big change in her attitude to charity. “Get back inside,” she now tells her children. “I forbid you to touch the food.”
Grabbing the two stunned culprits firmly by the hand, she dragged them away. Christian charity, the compassion of centuries of civilisation, fell from her like useless ornaments, revealing her bare, arid soul. She needed to feed and protect her own children. Nothing else mattered any more.
This is a one-of-a-kind work. As I mentioned before, most great books about the Holocaust or about wartime experiences are written at a certain distance from the events they speak of. Among the exceptions, there’s Wladyslaw Szpilman’s The Pianist, written shortly after his experiences in 1940s Warsaw, a book that was suppressed by the Polish government and republished 50 years later (and made into a fine film by Roman Polanski). But the first thing that strikes you about The Pianist is how cool and detached it is (if I remember right, an epilogue suggested that this was because Szpilman was still in a state of shock when he wrote it and had not yet processed the magnitude of his tragedy). On the other hand, there’s nothing remotely cool or detached about Suite Française. It’s warm, passionate, full of a deep, unforced humanity, with empathy for its characters and their foibles.

Where she might easily have contented herself with reportage-oriented writing (she had experience of journalistic work), Némirovsky even finds the time to be playful and experimental. In one delightful chapter, the protagonist is Albert, the Pericands’ cat, whom we follow as he goes hunting outside while the family sleeps (“He was a very young cat who had only ever lived in the city, where the scent of such June nights was far away...the smell rose up to his whiskers and took hold of him, making his head spin”). Structurally, there is little justification for this chapter in the midst of all the others that deal strictly with human movement (though one must remember that Némirovsky never got a chance to fine-tune her work anyway; perhaps she would have dropped or modified these passages) – but it’s a demonstration of the joy she took in her writing, even in these dire times. Here and in many other places, one also gets the sense that the things she was seeing daily, the constant reminders of death all around her, must have intensified her love for life in all its forms.

P.S. around the same time I read “Storm in June”, I was also browsing through the new Granta: War Zones. In his introduction to this collection, veteran Granta editor Ian Jack points out that wars had a remarkably good press among civilians until some years into the 20th century – people cheered and looked forward to armed conflict, with its promise of heroic deeds and the vanquishing of the Faceless Enemy. But this changed with the events of 1914-1918:
After the First World War, the prospect of fighting between nations made people morbid, anxious and fearful. Ten million dead had knocked sense into them...it was no longer possible for even the most gullible patriot to regard modern warfare as a brave adventure where death, in the unlikely event it came, would arrive as a nice clean bullet through the heart. The foundation was laid for a new and realistic appreciation of war – the constant cruelty and frequent stupidity of it – that has coloured attitudes ever since.


  1. Lovely piece of writing-yours and the writer's. The reference to the cat is exquisite. The Great War changed the world for ever but the second one destroyed man's faith in humanity.

  2. Just a thought that has stayed with me over the years - Why is it that we do not have any first/second-person narratives of the oppressors? Why do we, so easily and necessarily, demonise them and, consequently, learn little or nothing of such experiences / psychologies?

    Isn't this the only tenable reason why we have to re-live histories as they have unfolded themselves?

    I do not intend to lionise the demons - but to try and understand / empathise with what they did, how and why.

  3. A lot has been written in the French and English press recently about Irene Némirovsky so I was pleased to read your personal impression, Jabberwock.

    Then Carmen Callil wrote that the novels by I N were unputdownable so I bought two in Bayonne the other day.

    For some reason was surprised to discover only two per cent of the French were resistants during the war, and two percent collaborators. So presume all the others were either starving, prisoners and/or keeping a low profile

    Hope we keep finding more and more books on this subject. I recommend Primo Levi to any of you out there interested in the whys and the wherefores of 2nd Word War.

  4. wrt what willothewisp was saying -
    this and
    might be relevant.

  5. Thanks Jwock for reminding me about this.


  6. Thanks, Neha.

    That was pretty much what I had in mind.

  7. Oh I am glad :D and then again Lolita is in news these days ;)

    and i think you have touched a topic i cannot have enough of. *shudder*

  8. Willothewisp: I'm sure there have been works of that sort too. Offhand I can think of Martin Amis's Time's Arrow (gimmicky and difficult but perhaps that was the point - to shield us from the horrors of the things the central character gets involved in). Also, most of the great Holocaust books I know of, even the ones that are told from the victims' perspective, don't "demonise" the oppressors in the sense you mean - that is, presenting them as something other than human (and therefore conveniently different from us). I think a subtext in most great literature of this sort is that any of us is capable of anything, depending on the circumstances.

  9. Not related to the comments -

    Would recommend getting hold of Jason Lute's Berlin... in connection with the post.

  10. i recently read this book and it was definitely unputdownable for me. Each chapter is so beautifully written, that you can't help wonder how the story moves on. when i finished reading the book, there was this undescribable ache in my heart, knowing that i would never be able to read the other 3 volumes.