Oh, my God, so this is war . . . An enemy soldier never seemed to be alone — one human being like any other — but followed, crushed from all directions by innumerable ghosts, the missing and the dead. Speaking to him wasn’t like speaking to a solitary man but to an invisible multitude; nothing that was said was either spoken or heard with simplicity: there was always that strange sensation of being no more than lips that spoke for so many others, others who had been silenced.
It took a fourteen-hour power outage for me to finish reading Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky [translated from the French by Sandra Smith]. It’s not that I struggled with the novel. It’s just that I wanted to take it slow. Or rather, it told me to take it slow. The novel’s just so lush and detailed and vibrant — and all those words that denote yumminess — that it kept telling me to just chill with it, to savor. With sentences like He had kissed her as if he were bringing a glass of cool water to his lips and The tender June day persisted, refusing to die — this is language you are compelled to bask in [many thanks to the translator!]. I was; I’d been reading this one for weeks now, until a storm had me sit down with it until I was compelled to finish it.
I loved it. [You saw that one coming.] And, well, quite speechless about it — how to talk about this book? In my notebook, I mostly wrote down passages, wrote down my Oohs and Aahs. I’m not very confident re my abilities to do justice to this novel. For one, it’s too complex. For another, it still overwhelms in my head. I think that beyond the sheer awesomeness of the novel, I’m quite humbled by the story behind it. So. This post shall be for, well, posterity’s sake. So. Here are some of my notes — with edits: I’ve elaborated on several points, I’ve omitted some of the many excerpts I’ve pulled. As usual, with a few incoherencies:
♦ We are in German-occupied France, Némirovsky taking us through the lives of its citizens, and its conquerors. There are two books: The author only got to finish writing two of the five she’d planned before she was persecuted and sent to Auschwitz, where she died. [That story!] In Storm in June, the exodus from Paris, a survey of families, personalities, representative of social classes. There are no textbook-heroes. There are a lot of people I want to hit. The encompassing mood, however:
It wasn’t exactly what you’d call fear, rather a strange sadness — a sadness that had nothing human about it any more, for it lacked both courage and hope. This was how animals waited to die. It was the way fish caught in a net watch the shadow of the fisherman moving back and forth above them.
♦ What’s great is Némirovsky manages to put forward that it’s not just the threat of the Germans provoking people, there’s no sudden change in personalities and ideologies: Some people are just horrid, some people are just selfish, some people just love. I keep flinching. What’s strange is that I looked upon the smallest hint of heroism — dammit, of hope — with a cynical eye, having seen the nitty-gritty of the rest of the French. I like my heroes, but there’s only so much heartbreak they — and the reader — can take. Am I making sense?
“My certainty that deep down I’m a free man,” he said, after thinking for a moment. “It’s a constant, precious possession, and whether I keep it or lose it is up to me and no one else. I desperately want the insanity we’re living through to end. I desperately want what has begun to finish. In a word, I desperately want this tragedy to be over and for us to try to survive it, that’s all. What’s important is to live: Primum vivere. One day at a time. To survive, to wait, to hope.”
♦ Oh, the language. So dense and lush. Unafraid of images, of utterance. Part of the reason why I need to take my time with this — the story, the characters, the events, of course, but the language demands your attention. It demands you to go back to the beginning of the paragraph and read it all over again because it deserves all the focus you can give it.
♦ For Dolce, the second book — a slightly different tune to this, though the same rhythms. Human nature in a Petri dish, in villages with bunking German soldiers, the inevitable resentments and rapports. Ooh, conflict. Ooh, cinematic conflict.
This friendship between herself and the German, this dark secret, an entire universe hidden in the heart of the hostile house, my God, how sweet it was.
♦ My favorite story arc, definitely Lucile and Bruno. It’s almost cliché, and I suppose it would be if a less-capable writer had written it. But the author makes it work. Mostly because she captured that tension, how forbidden it all is, how welcome. Especially Lucile’s inner conflict re being one of many Frenchwomen who look upon the German men as “replacements” for their imprisoned Frenchmen. And how Lucile and Bruno’s relationship struggle to exist, but just barely. Ach! I can’t help it. It makes me giddy.
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 . . .
♦ With the two books, there are a lot of characters to keep track of — more so since I read this with nary a pause between them. The narrative takes on a vignette-ish quality, and many recalling of those vignettes, a revisiting of the characters introduced. I think — I risk saying this — I think the author was conscious of this communal feel. As much as there are so many rich stories, so many people with their own lives and responses to the events around them — we eventually see them as a collective. Those vignettes taken together are so dizzying and all-encompassing, I eventually resorted to taking them as a whole. As I should, I suppose. [But what about Lucile and Bruno?]
♦ The circumstances surrounding the creation and the creator of Suite Française are as fascinating and as gripping as the novel itself. How difficult it is to separate the novel from the circumstances that produced it, and preserved it. The edition comes with the author’s notes and correspondences — Basically, how she created two novels [with plans to do three more] that sought to preserve the time it was made in. And Némirovsky’s fate, my goodness. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s a novel in itself, really. I guess that’s why this novel has affected me more than I thought it would: Seeing Némirovsky fleeing, being persecuted, eventually being caught. How this novel survived, how it was discovered. Gahk. I have to wonder how the three other books read: In this edition’s Appendix, there are notes about them. I can only speculate how great they would be if they’d been written. If the author had survived and continued to write. Man.
♦ Affective, yes. If a book compels you to read it by candlelight in the middle of howling-winds storm, is that not affective enough? The language, the people and their individual heartaches and issues and specific dramas. The collective. The conflict. The Germans. I watched, with bated breath, a little pinch in the chest, with Lucile as she saw the Germans march off to meet the Soviet Union. Augh. I don’t want to dwell on what’s been lost to the world, with Némirovsky’s death, her murder. That is, what was never brought in. [A strange regret, this.]
[Photo above: How I read the last half of Suite Française.] Also – Reading begets reading: Halfway through the novel, I bought Némirovsky’s Dimanche and Other Stories. Even then, she and I were clicking — and since short fiction’s more or less my favorite form, why not? Then again, I know I’ll read more Némirovsky in the future. Thank goodness the bookstores here carry a lot of her titles.