Because I read mainly novels, the identity and experience of the author is usually immaterial to me. Of course, who they are and where they are from shape their words and the stories they tell, but seldom do I pay attention to these things. My belief is that the authors would want it to be so – that they would wish for their stories and characters to stand on their own, and to be authentic without our knowing anything about the artist who brought them to life.
Sometimes, however, this isn’t possible. Having looked at the copyright of The Grapes of Wrath, for example, I know going in that John Steinbeck is writing in the here and now. He is writing a story about events that are going on around him, and he doesn’t yet know what the future holds for the Joads, or for anyone else entrenched in the Depression.
I remember feeling this way when I read The Diary of Anne Frank. That I knew her tragic fate going in, but when she put her words, her hopes and dreams, to paper, she still clung to the hope of a future ahead, outside of the Secret Annex.
Which brings me to Suite FranÃ§aise, a novel divided into two parts, by Irene NÃ©mirovsky. The knowledge that while she was writing these words, the war was raging around her, and she did not know whether she would live or die, permeates and perfumes every page of this novel. That she intended it to be a novel in five parts, but died in Auschwitz with only two parts complete, makes it even more poignant.
The first part of the book, Storm in June, tells the stories of several families and individuals fleeing Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion. The stories told are from very different points of view, from the wealthy woman trying to keep her family heirlooms together, along with her ailing father-in-law, her children, and her servants, to the married couple who work at a bank, and fear mainly for their son, who is a prisoner of war, but also for their jobs, their security, and their lives. There is a priest, trying to transport a group of teen-agers from what can only be described as a correctional facility, to safety, while deep in his heart, he wishes to be far away from them, as he sees no evidence of God within them. There is the aesthete, proud of his figurine collection, and of the good luck (and smarts!) that conspired to leave him single and childless at a time when so much worry would be wasted on caring about another human being.
Some of his friends had gone, but he was neither Jewish nor a Mason, thank God, he thought with a scornful smile. He had never been involved in politics and didn’t see why he wouldn’t be left alone, a poor man like him, very quiet, very harmless, who never hurt anybody and who loved nothing in this world but his porcelain collection. He thought, on a more serious note, that this was the secret of his happiness amid so much upheaval. He loved nothing, at least nothing that time could distort, that death could carry away; he’d been right not to have married, not to have had children…My God, everyone else had been taken in. He’d been the only clever one.
The second story is Dolce, and takes place two years later, in a small village during the occupation. The families of the village are required to take soldiers into their homes, to live with them and adjust to their presence. The glimpse of both sides of this situation, and of a young (married) French woman who falls in love with a young (married) German soldier who comes to live with her, and the events that ultimately pull them apart, are gripping.
“He asked my permission to go into the garden to pick some strawberries. I couldn’t exactly refuse. You’re forgetting he’s in charge here now, unfortunately…He’s being polite, but he could take whatever he wants, go wherever he pleases and even throw us out into the street. He wears kid gloves to claim his rights as a conqueror. I can’t hold that against him. I think he’s right. We’re not on a battlefield. We can keep all our feelings deep inside. Superficially at least, why not be polite and considerate? Ther’e something inhuman about our situation. Why make it worse? It isn’t…it isn’t reasonable, Mother.” Lucile spoke so passionately that she surprised even herself.
These are unfinished stories, not polished or edited as Ms. NÃ©mirovsky would surely have wanted them to be. She had long term plans for some of these characters, as evidenced in her notes, included in an appendix at the back of the book. Some of them were to spill over into the remaining three stories. One was to be titled Captivity, and it sounds like it would have been the story of characters in a concentration camp. For the final two stories, she was waiting to see what would happen, wanted them to be based upon real events, and to have them talk to readers well into the future. I only wish she had been able to finish her book.
1. Get Genevieve groomed so she’ll be prettiful (and smell prettiful) for Thanksgiving next week.