Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A book about France in 40s

from w
I'm in the middle of reading a super book published 2004 in France and two years later translated into English - though it was written in the 1940s in France. It's a chilling tale of how ordinary people, even very rich people, react in an emergency situation - running from Paris when the Germans moved across France. Some acting dishonourably when in a crisis. It is beautifully written and structured (though unfinished) in a musical form. It's called Suite Francais and is by Irene Nemirovsky. I'll write more about it later.

(Saturday) I've finished reading this remarkable book and mostly it was very good reading but suddenly it stopped, as if mid-sentence. Then I realised the author had intended to add two more sections according to her notes which were published also in this edition. Excellently drawn characters and a lot about collaboration as well as the contradictions that come with being occupied.

Here is part of a review of the book.
Review of Suite Francaise By Andrew Riemer
March 23, 2006
The publication of a lost masterpiece reveals a beautifully crafted and ambitious work Suite Francaise: a rival to Tolstoy's War and PeaceAuthor Irene Nemirovsky
Publisher Chatto & Windus

Until its publication in Paris in 2004, this superb panorama of French life in the wake of the catastrophic German victory of 1940 lay buried for 62 years. The two parts of Suite Francaise - each the length of a conventional novel - are the surviving fragments of an unfinished masterpiece.

Its author, Irene Nemirovsky, the daughter of a wealthy banker, was born in Kiev in 1903. After the 1917 revolution the family fled to Finland, then Sweden and finally to France. In 1929, at the age of 26, Nemirovsky made a sensational literary debut with a semi-autobiographical novel, David Golder. A series of highly esteemed books followed that initial success. After the German occupation of the northern parts of France, Nemirovsky went into hiding in the so-called free Vichy zone. She was detained in 1942 and deported to Auschwitz, where she was killed.

Nemirovsky's daughters survived the war. Throughout those terrible years, they treasured a fat notebook filled with their mother's minuscule, indeed microscopic, handwriting. It contained the text of the first two parts of an ambitious project: a five-part novel that would run to 1000 pages and chronicle the ignominy and tragedy of France's collapse during the first years of the war. Unaccountably, the text was not deciphered until the 1990s.......

It is a bird's-eye view, so to speak, of the great exodus from Paris in June 1940 as German troops advance on the city. Nemirovsky's skill in weaving together the fortunes of a large cast of characters is breathtaking. Nature's serenity in that golden month contrasts marvellously with scenes of terror, folly, selfishness and occasional altruism.

Several groups of characters stand out... Notable among these is a right-wing novelist, Gabriel Corte, and his mistress who, in the increasing panic and chaos, begins to drop her well-bred mask and reveals (to her lover's horror) her plebeian origins. There is also the Pericand family, devout upper-class Catholics who betray the shallowness of their faith when their world begins to collapse around their ears. And above all, we meet the Michauds, a struggling middle-class couple whose fundamental decency shines bright in a dark world.

In the second section, Dolce ... the focus narrows to Bussy, a small town where a contingent of German troops is garrisoned. At the centre of this wonderfully composed canvas stand two figures: Lucile, a young woman trapped in a sterile marriage, and a German officer, Bruno von Falk. In her mother-in-law's gloomy house, filled with the insigniae of provincial propriety and mementos of her prisoner-of-war husband, Lucile is appalled to find herself attracted to the polite, cultivated representative of an infernal regime.

There, as elsewhere, Nemirovsky's psychological insight, her compassion and a clear-eyed, sometimes sardonic ethical sensibility elevate a commonplace subject to the realm of great art. Several times in her jottings, Nemirovsky mentioned Tolstoy and War and Peace. Those allusions were not misplaced. Had it been completed, Suite Francaise might well have rivalled Tolstoy's achievement. Even in its incomplete state the novel reveals an amplitude and something that I can only call wisdom, which often bring that writer to mind.

Nemirovsky could not, in 1942, have known how the war (and therefore her novel) would end. Nevertheless, had she survived, she would, no doubt, have had to confront the fate of collaborators like Gabriel Corte, or indeed of Lucile, the unwitting, lovelorn traitor to her nation - at least in her mother-in-law's eyes. She might have dealt, too, with the terrible perils faced by Jews like herself who saw themselves as fully integrated members of French society...

This English version is a faithful, if somewhat pedestrian, rendition of a tour de force, the most affecting work of fiction to come my way for many a year.

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Blogger bec said...

Sounds like a good book. I'll check back to hear about it.

2:44 PM  

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