Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

First of all, there's a blurb on the back saying that this book "has the kind of intimacy found in the diary of Anne Frank," and that irritates me, because it's obvious that this comparison is only being made because both authors died in concentration camps. Can we use the eventual fate of an author as the basis of a comparison that makes no sense?

Because, while The Diary of Anne Frank is an amazing book, a clear and forthright recording of unimaginable events by a teenage girl, Suite Francaise is obviously written by an accomplished author, and has breadth and insight into a much more sweeping story. 

Both books are good, but they're nothing alike. The manner of an author's death, no matter how specific, is not a basis for comparison of works they wrote while alive.

Suite Francaise was a book that I wasn't sure about until I started to read it, and got swept up in the story, the characters, and Nemirovsky's merciless eye for human grace and ridiculousness, often both encapsulated in the same moments. The book covers the surrender of Paris, and the later occupation of a small town by the Germans, in two discrete sections, although a few characters bridge the gap. 

Tragedy is rarely poetic, graceful, or beautiful, and yet we expect it to be such. One character, an author, is disgusted by the pettiness of the tragedy he sees around him after a German bombing, wanting these messy bodies and wounds and groaning underclasses out of his sight so he can enjoy the artistic merit. But these events do not conform to artistic desires, and Nemirovsky continues to show how there can be grace in some gestures, and cruelty and ridiculousness in others. Often even coming from the same characters.

Nemirovsky also has a lot of cutting things to say about class in France, for as the upper class flees Paris, they seem as concerned with asserting their class privilege as with the impending invasion of the Germans. They are infuriated when the lower classes have food, or, in the second half of the book, refuse to be subservient. One character makes the astute observation that while the wife of the local big landowner is happy to dole out scraps of food as charity, and to sell supplies to those of the same class, she won't sell anything she has to those she considers social inferiors, because that would allow them status. And so she thinks they need to beg or starve. 

And yet, in the middle of tragedy, there is humanity. The Germans, when they come, are not monsters, although they are also not just misunderstood young men. They are conquerors, willingly or not (and there are some of each), and Nemirovsky understands acutely the power imbalances in any relationship that begins under such circumstances. Dolce, the second half of the book, considers the arrangements both sides make to exist as conquerors and the conquered, each to the best of their ability, until the strains of such a relationship inevitably begin to fray the deceptive calm of the town. 


There is such a strong sense of complexity in this book, of difficult situations, and how power is contained and expressed, and how powerlessness is accepted and rejected. As a look at her adopted country under incredible pressures, Suite Francaise is an unsentimental look at this time period, although not quite a cynical one. And it is also a look at how humans react in difficult times, and this specific difficult time, and the wide variety of their responses, the times they reach out to help each other, and the times they withhold what they have, out of fear or anger or distrust.

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