Wednesday, 11 June 2008
Sorry not to write anything yesterday - I was tearing through the book for tonight's book group (metaphorically, you understand), having similarly dashed through one for Tuesday night's book group. They're not often on consecutive nights, so it was rather a challenge this time. Luckily both books were great - a re-read of Angela Young's Speaking of Love (see 50 Books You Must Read....) and the book I'm going to chat about today - Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. Both her name and the title are calculated to defeat Blogger's attempts to locate accents and cidillas (sp?) etc, so I'm afraid I'm going to leave the lot out. Sorry...
Suite Francaise has had a lot of publicity, in Europe anyway, so I shan't say that much about the plot of the book - a lot of others have done so better than I could, anyway. I should, actually, say books - these are the first two of a planned trilogy (potentially even more) which Nemirovsky was tragically unable to complete, because she was killed in Auschwitz in 1942. The two books are Storm in June, which documents the invasion of Paris and the fleeing of many from it; and Dolce, about a village under Nazi occupation. Some characters overlap, especially in peripheral mentions.
I'll launch right into my praise - Nemirovsky is an incredibly gifted novelist. Had these been further edited; had the trilogy been complete, this could have been one of twentieth century's most important works, I think. The people at Book Group agreed that her greatest talent was the delineation of character, and making people unique and fully formed. A comparison of Dolce with the film Went The Day Well? is illuminating and quite amusing. Though I love that film, it could hardly be considered to offer sympathy to the German troops - it is a bitter irony that Nemirovsky could see these soldiers are people, with all their virtues and vices, and yet would die under the Nazi regime. Had these novels been written now, the French might be innocent victims and the German soldiers all baddies - Nemirovsky, especially in Dolce, is able to see them as humans, first and foremost. Perhaps Storm in June has one too many unpleasant rich men, but perhaps Paris had too many of them at the time. A pervasive theme is that money could help one escape most things. She laments the way those with no control over the situation are those to bear the brunt of the anguish:
'But why are we always the ones who have to suffer?' she cried out in indignation. 'Us and people like us? Ordinary people, the lower middle classes. If war is delcared or the franc devalues, if there's unemployment or a revolution, or any sort of crisis, the others manage to get through all right. We're always the ones who get trampled! Why? What did we do? We're paying for everyone else's mistakes.'
Neither novel has a straight-forward, linear plot, and often novels which avoid these are difficult to keep reading. They don't grab you. But in Suite Francaise, despite the episodic and patchwork-like writing, I always wanted to read on. There are sharp points of drama amongst less shocking narratives; it is an experience rather than a plot. I did prefer Dolce, as I didn't lose track of characters as I did in Storm in June, and the central story between Frenchwoman Lucile and German soldier Bruno is touching and sophisticatedly complex - but both novels are evidence that Nemirovsky was a writer who should have had a very glowing future. Authentic, beautiful, understanding.