Friday, January 05, 2007

Suite Francaise

As part of the book club on Finny Knits, I just finished Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.

This is a novel based in WWII's history, yet it is so much more. Sadly, the entire volume is incomplete--the author was killed in Auschwitz in 1942, her manuscripts taken into hiding by her daughters.
Only two books of a planned five were completed; published 64 years after their mother's death.

At first I was underwhelmed--too many characters to track, too much undercurrent between the lines, and (unfortunately) too much history outside my ken.
Too, I wasn't sure I wanted to read about the war. That part of history was something distant...not anything I really thought about.

Until now.

Then the history itself...this woman...crept into my dreams.
It all made me think.

That, I suppose, is the essence of a fine novel.

The book is not so much about the details of the war, but about human nature--its twists and short-comings. Throughout, however, I got a sense of the author's hope. Perhaps it was because of the way she repeatedly describes the beauty of sunlight on a branch, or the bursting fragrance of fruits or flowers.

And therein lies its brilliance.

The message is not within a story of war, judgments, or accusations. It is within a story of life. In Appendix I of the author's notes:
"The most important and most interesting thing here is the following: the historical, revolutionary facts etc. must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides must be described in detail." (page 356. Emphasis mine)

"A toad croaked in the darkness. It was a soft, low musical note, a bubble of water bursting with a silvery sound. "Croak, croak..." Lucile half closed her eyes. How peaceful it was, sad and overwhelming...Every so often something came to life inside her, rebelled, demanded noise, movement, people. Life, my God, life! How long would this war go on? How many years would they have to live like this, in this dismal lethargy, bowed, docile, crushed like cattle in a storm? She missed the familiar crackling of the radio: when the Germans arrived it had been hidden in the cellar because people said they confiscated or destroyed them. She smiled. "They must find French houses rather sparsely furnished," she thought..." (page 207 Dolce)

From the preface of the French edition:
"Nemirovsky began Suite Francaise , as was her habit, by writing notes on the work in progress and thoughts inspired by the situation in France. She created a list of characters, both major and minor, then checked that she had used them correctly. She dreamed of a book of a thousand pages, constructed like a symphony, but in five sections, according to rhythm and tone. She took Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as a model." (page 392 emphasis mine)

What I like to do is let the character's words speak here. Random quotations are pulled, unrelated.

The characters are full of self-absorption and vice, yet representation of the enemy is surprising in its sensitivity.
"They were alone--they felt they were alone--in the great sleeping house. Not a word of their true feelings was spoken; they didn't kiss. There was simply silence. Silence followed by feverish, passionate conversations about their own countries, their families, music, books...They felt a strange happiness, an urgent need to reveal their hearts to each other--the urgency of lovers, which is already a gift, the very first one, the gift of the soul before the body surrenders. 'Know me, look at me. This is who I am. This is how I have lived, this is what I have loved. And you? What about you, my darling?' But up until now, not a single word of love. What was the point? Words are pointless when your voices falter, when your mouths are trembling, amid such long silences. Slowly, gently, Lucile touched the books on the table. The Gothic lettering looked so bizarre, so ugly. The Germans, the Germans...A Frenchman wouldn't have let me leave with no gesture of love other than kissing my hand and the hem of my dress." (page 299 Dolce)

"War...yes, everyone knows what war is like. But occupation is more terrible in a way, because people get used to one another. We tell ourselves, 'They're just like us, after all,' but they're not at all the same. We're two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever." (page 307 Dolce)

"The piano...How could anyone like music?...
Anything was better than music, for music alone can abolish differences of language or culture between two people and evoke something indestructible within them."
(page 309 Dolce)

" never pride yourself on truly knowing the sea unless you've seen it both calm and in a storm. Only the person who has observed men and women at times like this, she thought, can be said to know them. And to know themselves." (page 335 Dolce)

The descriptions of the children gave me pause:
"They obeyed him so perfectly, so mechanically--no doubt used to hearing the whistle blow, to standing in line, to being docile, to enforced silence--that it broke his heart. He glanced at their faces which had suddenly become glum and lifeless--as closed as a house when the door is locked, the life within withdrawn, absent, or dead.
...He walked among them, talked to them...trying to interest them, to get closer to them. All in vain. They didn't even seem to be listening; he realized that anything he said to them--encouragement, reprimands, information--would never sink in, for their souls were shut off, walled up, secret and silent."
(page 126, Storm)

When the author's eldest daughter finally was able to tackle the task of "deciphering the miniscule handwriting (she) soon discovered these were not simply notes or a private diary...but a violent masterpiece, a fresco of extraordinary lucidity, a vivid snapshot of France and the French..." (page 395 from preface of French edition)



Blogger FinnyKnits said...

This is an incredible review - I think you really hit on something with your observation that she was optimistic throughout the writing of the novel. Highlighting the sunlight as it shone down or the croaking of the frogs.

I agree, she did give off a sense of hope and optimism throughout the book. Like she always felt that the misery was just about to be lifted and they would be back to their normal lives.

I get the impression that this was her point - to let you feel that sense of anxiety and expectation that people get during war - that this is merely a temporary situation that, at any moment, could disappear and return them to their daily lives.

I'm glad you enjoyed the book and had the time to write up such an insightful review.

8:47 AM  

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