Sunday, August 08, 2010

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

I bought a copy of this book last year, after I returned from a trip to Paris.  When I take trips, nice trips, I tend to want to continue living them.  Several people on a travel forum recommended this book so I went and bought a copy, not knowing much about it.  Honestly, with regard to extending my time in Paris, it wouldn't have been effective.  This is more about the effects of World War II on Paris and France.  I didn't get around to reading it last summer though because I suppose school started and once I realized it was about the war, I was afraid it might be a bit heavy and emotional for escaping the classroom stress - which is why I read books during the school year.

This summer, I packed the book in my suitcase before my trip to Paris.  I had another book to read, and was carrying this as my "backup" book.  I didn't start the book until I got on the plane leaving Paris.  It's divided into two parts and I read the entire first part on the plane from Paris to Boston.  Then I set the book aside and didn't return to it for a few weeks.

In order to fully appreciate the book, it's important to know a bit of background about how this story.  It's unfinished and is only two parts of the author's intended five.  The story wasn't published until almost sixty years after it was written.  The notebook in which it was written was in a suitcase belonging to her daughters, and it traveled with them for years as they hid from the Nazis.  Her daughters assumed it was a journal, and they didn't read it, thinking it would be too painful.  When they did finally read it, they discovered what became Suite Francaise, as well as notes about how the author wanted the story to progress.

The story takes place in occupied France.  The first part, Storm in June, is the story of people fleeing Paris as the city is claimed by the German army.  The city is in a complete panic.  Nemirovsky introduces several different characters, from various backgrounds, with different interests.  She doesn't paint a very flattering view of the people in her city.  There are the rich people more concerned about their possessions than they are their neighbors.  They're driving around with a vehicle loaded down with dishes and bed linens while people are walking along the roads, with no other means to escape.  Some of the people are quite horrible, arrogant and cruel, others kind and generous, doing all they can to assist those in such a desperate situation.

I thought some of the stories were a little strange and melodramatic, which I assume is the result of the story being the author's first draft.  (At the end of the book, it describes her writing process, how she'd write everything she could think of, then go back and edit.  Even in her notes she mentions not liking an event that I found a bit too awful.)

One thing to keep in mind about this is that the author wrote these stories as she was living the experience.  This is not a case of a someone writing a story based on history or family stories.  Nemirovsky was in Paris as this was happening.  She saw the people around her going through this.

The second part, Dolce, takes place in a village occupied by the German army.  Again, this story is based on the author's experience of living in an occupied village.  I think what's most interesting about the story is the way she objectively views the French and the German citizens.  She paints a very sympathetic view of the Germans, pointing out that these soldiers are in some ways in as dire a situation as the people who's homes they are occupying.  She describes them as young men, far away from home, in a place where they don't speak the language, living among people who hate them.  Also, it's clear that she is not especially proud of the way the French behaved during this time, so eager to tell on each other if they thought it would benefit themselves.

The story ends with the German army leaving the village and moving on to fight in Russia.

I liked the second part of the book better than the first.  There was more of a continuous storyline.  The characters were more developed and more likable. 

She never finished the story, and in her notes even mentioned that she wasn't entirely sure how it would end, that it was in God's hands.  Because, of course, she didn't know how the war would end.

Before she finished the book, she was taken to a concentration camp, where she died.

Knowing that made me so sad, because here she'd written this story in which she clearly didn't hate the German army.  She seemed to understand that it was a war, they were only following orders.  And yet, these men that she portrayed so kindly are the same ones who took her from her family and led her to her death.

My copy of the book had notes in the back and a series of letters from her husband to others, trying to get her returned to her family.  It's clear that the family didn't know the full horrors of what was happening at the camps.  He kept writing and trying to find her, long after she'd died.  He eventually met the same fate, never knowing what happened to her.  It says that after the war their children would go meet the trains that had the survivors on it, hoping to see their parents return. 

I think this book is especially valuable in the way that it provides a unique perspective of the war and its effects on the people.  This isn't a history book or a tale of famous leaders and soldiers, but rather a picture of the lives of the people who suffer as the result of these leaders' actions.

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