Thursday, July 1, 2010

Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky

I was so not excited about this book. It looked heavy and long and it's about World War II, sounds fascinating... Boy, was I wrong! I loved it! There were a lot of characters but all felt real, interesting, different and how the characters were linked together was not awkward or artificial at all. The story flowed nicely, the descriptions were beautiful and even though the book was more of a collection of moments and depiction of the time and peoples lives, the story itself also kept me interested and always wanting to know what happens next. The only negative, or sad rather, thing about the book is the fact that we never get to know what happens to all these peoples. Némirovsky never got to finish her work and this book is only two first parts of a five part novel.

And Némirovsky herself! How on earth have I never heard of her before?? Her lifestory and how this novel came to be is so tragic and yet she was so courageous and amazing. Her story, to me, is even more impressive than Anne Frank's! Némirovsky started Suite Francaise during the second World War. She was (after having finished two parts of the book) taken to a concentration camp in France and very soon after moved on to Auschwitz. In the end of the book there was a touching collection of correspondence related to her life, especially letters written by or to her husband after she was taken away. He didn't understand that being taken to a concentration camp means you're not coming back, but kept sending letters trying to get his wife back. No good deed goes unpunished and he was also sent to Auschwitz and straight to the gas chambers. Nèmirovsky's two little girls survived the war (even though their story is also filled with hard ship and impressive survival moments) and they had, while fleeing from their home, taken their mother's notebook with them as a memento. Reading the notebook was too painful so it took decades before one of them read the notebook and realised it contained an actual book.

I'm lost for words infront of the writer's tragic faith and after knowing what happened to her, the story of Suite Francaise, for me at least, is even more amazing. The book is actually written while all this was happening. Maybe that is why it feels so real, because the writer was living it while she was writing the story. She describes everyone as people first, nationalities, goodness or evilness, everything else comes second. The first part of the book introduces a ton of new charaters and only has a few chapters on each, but the reader still gets a good idea what the characters are like. Even though the first part is sort of shattered, the story still stays intact and flows nicely. The second part of the book goes deeper into the characters (and introduces some new ones as well) and I really got into the book in the second part. Still, it really saddens me that I never get to know what happened to Jean-Marie (one of my favourites from the first part) or his parents and if the young German never meets Lucile again. Throughout the book it managed to stay so real, it was never over the top, yet not boring, it described in detail when need be and moved on fairly qickly when appropriate. Némirovsky herself aspired to write a five part novel, something along the lines of War and Peace. And even though I will happily confess never having read any Tostoi or Dostojevski (I tried once, it was just looong and booring, but I will try again some time, promise!) I really wouldnt've mind reading another three parts of this novel.

This book really made an impression on me and even more so after getting to know the writer's story. Made me feel all insignificant, shallow, evil and weak in comparison. I hope our list contains more books that are as inspirational as this one. And as nice to read, not too heavy (I am kinda shallow and flighty from time to time) yet still thought provoking. I also think that this book demonstrates well why we should keep on with our project and read also those books we're not 100% sold on before hand; I would've never chosen this book on my own and I would've missed out on a very significant reading moment. So thanks Ii for choosing this book for our list, I owe you one!

Okay, okay, this one's on me again. Well, sue me, I have a life, and I had to go be all brilliant and amazing and smart in the meantime. But I finished the book, eventually. (Btw, I haven't read the above bit yet, there's some first impressions I want to get off my chest first, so...)

I finished the book, but not the war. This story ended in the middle of it all so bad that it hurts. Usually I'm not a fan of WWII stories, be it books or movies, for several reasons. One, they're all so bleak and depressing. Two, you know how it's going to turn out in the end (well, except for Inglorious Basterds). Three, it's always so clear-cut, you're either good or bad, there's no gray area. And four, we've seen it all before so many times.

But I liked this book! And I really really wish there had been more.

Okay, I'll read what Mads wrote above, and then continue.... Okay, yeah, you owe me one. But, I also owe myself one, as this book was on my list simply because "the name rang a bell, should be a so-called important book or something".

Mads mentioned the first part being shattered, and I agree. I guess the jumping around from one character to a group of others made it difficult for me to get started on the book, as I was reading it sporadically and had trouble keeping track on the characters first. I must say I preferred the second part, where the story kept more or less within the same group of people.

I found the whole affair of Lucile and the German officer a bit hard to swallow at first. I realize this is probably because my view of the events are from the post-WWII world where Germany is the evil and France (the Allied forces) the good and thus it was, at first, difficult for me to see behind the uniform and look at the man inside it. Just like it was for the people in the village, and all of France, I'm sure.

Némirovsky was able, in my mind, and of course I have no realistic image of what it could have been like, to portray the confusion people experienced at those times. When you were forced to see the human in the enemy because you shared their everyday life and they shared yours. And I think that's because she was writing Suite Francaise during the war, as opposed after it.

There were few moments that stuck with me in particular. The relationship between the German and Lucile was one, especially the moment where Lucile, eventually, had to take sides perhaps for the first time. She had been able to rationalize her indifference to the war for a long time (compared for example to the reaction of her mother-in-law), she was detached. But when she chose to help Benoît, she actively chose a side in the war. She was now acting for France, and against the Germans. Maybe her choice was even more profound given her warm feelings towards Bruno, at least in her mind.

I also wasn't able to shook the scene where Philippe, Father Péricand, was killed. Or the man with the porcelain figurines, dying in a hit-and-run. These scenes felt like a symbol on the arbitrariness of war. It wasn't just the soldiers getting killed, and it certainly wasn't in any justice-like manner where the bad get what's theirs and the good prevail. War is no Disney movie. Bad things happen to good people.

A Marine from the Iraq war commented on the confusion on the ground during the invasion in 2003 with "it's the nature of the beast". The deaths of Philippe and the porcelain-man whose name I can't remember reminded me of that quote. War is this beast that tears things off the ground, leaves by-standers wounded and causes havoc and fear in those it merely passes. Némirovsky told us this through the small snippets in the lives of everyday people.

I wish she'd gotten the chance to write the rest of the story.
But maybe, given all the above, this is the rest of the story. Hers is the rest of the story. Unjust, heart-breaking and arbitrary. And such a terrible loss.

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