Thursday, February 28, 2008

Irène Némirovsky

I just recently have discovered I. Nemirovsky's Suite Française, thanks to Clara. I was going to write up a quick bio, but found that the Washington Post Book World section has already done that very nicely. I'll include that here:

"This extraordinary work of fiction about the German occupation of France is embedded in a real story as gripping and complex as the invented one. Composed in 1941-42 by an accomplished writer who had published several well-received novels, Suite Française, her last work, was written under the tremendous pressure of a constant danger that was to catch up with her and kill her before she had finished.

"Irène Némirovsky was a Jewish, Russian immigrant from a wealthy family who had fled the Bolsheviks as a teenager. She spent her adult life in France, wrote in French but preserved the detachment and cool distance of the outsider. She and her husband were deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where he was gassed upon arrival and she died in the infirmary at the age of 39. Her manuscript, in minuscule and barely readable handwriting, was preserved by her daughters, who, ignorant of the fact that these notebooks contained a full-fledged masterpiece, left it unread until 60 years later. Once published, with an appendix that illuminates the circumstances of its origin and the author's plan for its completion, it quickly became a bestseller in France. It is hard to imagine a reader who will not be wholly engrossed and moved by this book."

I would add to this that her writing style has hints, though to a lesser degree, of the same unsympathetic and objetive, almost cruel, relationship with her created characters, that Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald also have. That is not to say that her characters are lifeless, inhuman or uninteresting... but rather, they illuminate rather uncomfortable weaknesses that are often hidden but endemic to the human condition. It is as if they are under the harsh light of an operating table, shown in high relief. Endlessly, but somewhat gruesomely, fascinating.

I think, though, that it is not just the human condition that N. is trying to describe, but particularly that of the French character. I think the Book World author hints at this when she says that the tone is clearly one from an outsider. This is someone intimate with France, yet not one of them. N. is looking at a people (of course with particular exceptions) who, though of varied social and economic backgrounds, surrendered and eventually were complicit with their enemies.

To me it constantly brought to mind, as I read, Winston Churchill's speech in wake of huge French and Belgian military disasters, concluding with:

"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

It does seem marked that the British endured the Blitz and never surrendered, while only six days after the entry of Paris the French signed an armistice with Hitler.

This is no simple castigation of a faceless crowd though... N. shows one by one the personalities and motivations that lead them to this place.

1 comment:

elrj said...

Oh, you said Muriel Sparks and it was dead to me. Can you explain why people like her? (sorry, I know this comment is off topic)