Tuesday, May 16, 2006

#41 - Suite Française

It's a truism that people are complicated, multifaceted, contradictory, surprising, but it takes the advent of war or other momentous events to be able to see it. It is the most fascinating and the most dreadful of spectacles, [Louise] continued thinking, the most dreadful because it's so real; you can never pride yourself on truly knowing the sea unless you've seen it both calm and in a storm.
Minutes ago, I just finished Irène Némirovsky's masterpiece Suite Française. It's a hauntingly beautiful book about France during the Second World War. Broken into two distinct sections, the first deals with the flight from France of a large cast of characters, and the second deals with a smaller group of people living in a small, rural community once it's occupied by the Germans.

The stark contrast of both situations, those fleeing from occupation just before the Germans declare victory in France, and those living with the consequences of defeat, is balanced by the even, solid storytelling. In the hands of a lesser writer, the large cast of characters would sprawl unevenly across the pages, but Némirovsky's deft hand never lets it get out of control. Everyone has a purpose in this novel, if it's only to truly and completely reveal the horror and beauty of war from a clear, honest point of view.

The novel, lost for years until Némirovsky's daughter found it in an old suitcase, is like a time capsule. Written before the author died at Auschwitz in 1942, Suite Française hums along like an orchestral movement, each sentence an instrument finely tuned and perfectly in time with the one sitting before and after it.

The novel has a Russian feel to it (it's tone reminds Dostoevsky) and the narrator remains omniscient with an extraordinary control over the story. There's a sense of existentialism in the novel, a crucial feeling that regardless of how many mothers mourn their sons, nothing will change the fact that Germans now occupy their beds. Life is life and war is war.

What's most surprising is Némirovsky's ability to be sympathetic on both sides. The German characters are drawn with the same keen attention to detail as the French. The enemy is described as beautiful in places; he's human, just doing his job. And the French take everything in stride for the most part (with a few exceptions). They deal with the situation with an equanimity for the most part, as if a calm acceptance is the only way.

The first half of the novel, as rich and poor flee the city of Paris, the true nature of humanity reveals itself. Class systems, clung to by those who occupy the upper regions are destroyed, maybe for a few hours, maybe for a few days, but the sense that nothing will ever be the same again stays present, despite a civilty that returns once the Armistice is signed. By the second half, having to swallow their hatred for the enemy that now boards in their homes, the citizens rebel in their own little ways: selling their wine for far more than it's worth, not speaking to them even if they live in the same house, and so on.

You fall into the world of this novel and it's a world that so perfectly reflects its time and its place that it's a miracle it was found. It's a miracle it was published and it's an important piece of work. But most of all it makes you feel absolutely sad at the ridiculous nature of war, about how unfair it is that Némirovsky died so young and in such a terrifying manner, especially when you think she was going to complete two more novels in the series. What I wouldn't give to read them now.

And don't just take my word for it, read Brian Bethune's blog post and see for yourself.

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