Thursday, January 17, 2019

Readings: Suite Française

Well, then. 2019 is off to a good start. After the very satisfying The Ensemble, here is one that has already jumped into the yearly favorites list. Just by chance it also, like the previous novel, has a musical theme in that the author, Irène Némirovsky, intended the two novellas contained in this Suite to be part of a quintet, a written symphony. 

Alas, she never made it that far. Soon after she made her handwritten notes (heart-breakingly reproduced at the back of the novel) she was arrested by the Gestapo to be sent off to her death in Auschwitz. Incredibly, the manuscript survived; her daughter Diane unearthed it decades later and discovered the masterpiece. 

In the first novella we see the evacuation of Paris in June 1940. There's chaos and panic and we follow a cast of characters from all strata of society. Some cling to their fine china and linens even while on the road, others are happy just to be able to walk with the clothes on their backs. Each family's journey is so meticulously outlined, yet nothing feels mawkish or forced. This is really what happened, you realize: the author herself went through it and what's more, she wrote this a few weeks after she went through it. This fact astounded me, really astounded me, and I still have not recovered. More so since she was not even 40 at the time. Did she always have such a superb understanding of human nature or did that understanding happen overnight as her life was torn apart like all those other millions?

The second novella in counterpoint to the first one's sense of movement, is set in a small village that is occupied by the Germans in 1941, various of whom are billeted in the village homes. One such home belongs to the family Angellier. The elder Madame Angellier is a widow who pines for son Gaston, prisoner of war. Her daughter-in-law Lucille sets a chain of events in motion later in the story both through her unwilling emotional involvement with their billeted officer; and then through a conscious choice she makes which finally galvanizes Madame into being on the same side. 

How marvelous is the flow of this story! I enjoyed it even more so than the first. The bits of humor that bob here and there amidst the chaos are almost life-affirming. The Germans and the French are, we understand in the end, human. Nothing more and nothing less. All the author's meditations on war and peace, loyalty, devotion, reason, duty...everything is of a piece and again I was struck by the sense of sympathy with which each situation was drawn. 

Sigh. If only the quintet had been completed. The doomed Ms. Némirovsky was a gem of a writer, one that had already produced works of acclaim in her adopted country of France. I must go search for these. On an aside, I have watched the film based on this novel- it's excellent- but the book is in another class, even among all the stellar fictional works to have come out of WWII.

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