Suite Française debuted in English in 2006,and i was immediately drawn to the tragedy of the author's story: Irene Nemirovsky, a talented and prolific author, editor and mover/shaker of the Parisian literary world, was murdered at Auschwitz before finishing her magnum opus. I was so drawn by this tragedy, by the historical import, by the romance of the manuscript discovered in a trunk sixty years after the authors death that bears witness to her remarkable life, that I was sure that it couldn't actually be a good book.
I was wrong. Suite Française is not only a good book it is amazing, all the more so for being a first and incomplete draft.
The first quality of the novel apparent was Nemirovsky's ability to convey the environment. The first movement of the novel, "A Storm in June", details the exodus from Paris that occured immediately prior to the arrival of the German army. Many different families are portrayed so as to give a cross section of the Parisian society fleeing the bombings. This act of the novel is not driven by characters or their development, but their movement and their stasis during the evacuation: to a village, where there are no rooms to stay, to the train station, which is locked, walking down dusty roads, driving until their cars break down, and the reader is there with them. Nemirovsky was able to sustain this illusion by offering contrasting details: "you sometimes hear the whole orchestra, sometimes the violin."
Much of the writing here reminds me of the opening of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss in that I could not only 'see' the surroundings but feel them. Many authors write moving depictions of color and light and scent, many can lay out a landscape, but few can make you feel the air on your skin the way Eliot does in this passage:
The stream is brim full now, and lies high in this little withy plantation, and half drowns the grassy fringe of the croft in front of the house. As I look at the full stream, the vivid grass, the delicate bright-green powder softening the outline of the great trunks and branches that gleam from under the bare purple boughs, I am in love with moistness, and envy the white ducks that are dipping their heads far into the water here among the withes - unmindful of the awkward appearance they make in the drier world above.(The Mill on the Floss, "Outside Dorlcote Mill", pg. 54.
And here is Nemirovsky, in the bit that brought Eliot to mind:
The windows and shutters were both open. The moon lit up the rooftops in the village; the tiles glistened like the scales on a fish. The garden was fragrant, peaceful, and the silvery light seemed to shimmer like clear water, gently rising and falling over the fruit trees. . . The short June night was fading. The stars grew paler, he air smelled of milk and moist grass; now, half-hidden behind the forest, only the pink tip of the moon could be seen, growing dimmer and dimmer in the mist. Suite Francaise, pg.98
"What interests me here is the history of the world," Nemirovsky wrote in her journal while composing Suite Française, and most of "Storm in June" is not typical of the opening act of a novel: this is fiction for the sake of posterity. Nemirovsky captures the moods of the evacuees: fear, certainly, but also vicious self-preservation, indifference, greed, and exhaustion. These 'moods' are developed further in the characters of the Angelliers and Sabaries and the German officers who billet with them in 'Dolce', the second and last completed movement. One mood that stood out to me, possibly because of my interest in the Great War (more so than the Second World War), and possibly because of the recent death of Florence Green, the last surviving veteran of the Great War (and also possibly because of the influence of Downton Abbey), is the sense of betrayal by fate so many of them feel and express. There is a sense of determinism in their response: as though this war could not have been prevented by men, that somehow their plight was a overdose of bad luck. Here is Lucille Angellier:
The individual or society? she thought. Well, Good Lord! Nothing new there, they hardly invented that idea. Our two million dead in the last war were also sacrificed to the "spirit of the hive." They died . . .and twenty-five years later . . What trickery! What vanity! There are laws that regulate the fate of beehives and of people that's all there is to it. (pg. 263)
This two-fifths of a novel was not only beautifully written but provides essential insight and first-hand observation of the German invasion of France and the occupation, as well as bearing witness to the struggles of an occupied people.
This is the secondthird [holy cow!] FOURTH novel I've read recently by authors who lived through the second world war as civilians and wrote to bear witness to it: Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, a fictionalized account of the true story of a German couple who made protest against the war; All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg, which told the story of an Italian family who loses their paterfamilias just as Italy allies itself with Hitler, and The Path to the Spiders' Nests by Italo Calvino, about a young boy who joins the partisans in their war against the Nazis set in the mountains of Northern Italy were the others. I'm looking for more novels written from first-hand perspectives of this war (or other wars, for that matter. ) Suite Française is highly recommended. If you have any other recommendations in this arena, please let me know!
Family is the book that Jonathan Franzen probably wishes he was writing when he was writing Freedom. This is my first Ginzburg novel (or rather, nove...moreFamily is the book that Jonathan Franzen probably wishes he was writing when he was writing Freedom. This is my first Ginzburg novel (or rather, novellas - there are two)and I would like to refrain from making general statements about the rest of her oeuvre, but will anyway: Ginzburg's project, it seems, is in describing the personal and spiritual isolation of modern life and the dissolution of the family unit as people find other alternatives out of desire or necessity.
Ginzburg's prose [as presented by her translator] is sparse and descriptive and seems not much at first reading. I thought a lot about B.R. Myer's A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose while reading Family. He makes a point in his manifesto about the tyranny of the sentence in modern writing; how the best compliment a critic can give an author nowadays is that she/he can write a beautiful sentence. This led me to think about the point that Myers and others have made that this tyranny of the beautiful sentence has crushed the novel and story as art forms. As a result, they have lost their bounded-ness of late and become leaky globular things whose meaning is hard to pin down . . . (and now I am reminded of this brilliant Maud Newton piece in the New York Times on this very phenomenon).
I counted one beautiful sentence, in "Borghesia". I didn't set out to count it but it was so obvious, surrounded as it was by its homely siblings, that I couldn't help but notice it. It wasn't even that beautiful - it just stood out by comparison. Not much else jumped out at me while reading these two novellas about the Roman middle-class until the end of each when it occured to me that what I had just finished was something with form and symmetry - things that the contemporary novel, with its focus on the beautiful sentence, has completely forgotten about. For all of the disorder in these characters lives their stories unfold in ordered ways.
Family is the story of two former lovers who, once their relationship is over, find in each other the stability they lacked while they were in love and takes the form of a circle, starting and finishing with a trip to the movies. Borghesia, perhaps the lesser of the two in the scope of its exploration of petit bourgeois existence, but my favorite all the same, tells the story of a woman, Ilaria, and her family, who are constantly bitten by small tragedies. The story itself is like the path of a drafter's compass in the way that it pivots around a central focus of Ilaria's adoption of a succession of cats. It is wonderful.
To finish, give me form and symmetry and stories that are beautiful in their wholeness and save your bloody beautiful sentences for a t-shirt. (less)
In this alternate history by Philip K. Dick, World War II was won by the Axis, and the world is divided between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, with...moreIn this alternate history by Philip K. Dick, World War II was won by the Axis, and the world is divided between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, with Italy holding onto a small bit of the African continent.
This may be the most complex and well-constructed piece of speculative fiction I have ever read. This novel fits together like a fine-grained mural, each tiny piece perfectly interlocked with the next. I think it would take an immense amount of bravery on the part of a novelist to truly investigate the consequences of a Nazi victory the way that Philip K. Dick does here; he tops it off with an exploration of the meaning of history itself.
This is a complex and multi-layered novel that will reward many readings. I listened to the audiobook, but will go in for the dead tree version next time. (less)