Thursday, June 21, 2007
Love and Hatred
I just finished Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. It is composed of two novellas about WWII France, the first (“Storm in June”) about the exodus of civilians from Paris when the Germans were about to occupy the city, the second (“Dolce”) about a small French village during a short period of time when it is occupied by a regiment of German soldiers. There were to be three more sections, but the author was unable to complete them because she died in 1942. To explain why would be a spoiler, I think, even though it has been discussed extensively in reviews. The novellas stand on their own as a story about the effect of war on ordinary people. The circumstances of the book’s writing and rediscovery (described in the appendix) are both devastating and miraculous. The novellas were not published until 2004 (in English, 2006).
Several pages from the manuscript are reproduced as the endpapers of the book: they are filled with lines of tiny cursive script, some of which are crossed out and rewritten. The two novellas are essentially a first draft. It is hard to believe that, reading them. She did not have the luxury of cut and paste, of revising and changing. She wrote the stories sitting outside on her coat in the French countryside, while waiting for things to come to the end she saw clearly.
There are many loving and beautiful moments in the book, also funny moments and brutal ones. Mostly the focus is on the everyday lives and concerns of the characters, who are loosely entwined and overlap in the two novellas. One of my favorite chapters, in “Dolce,” describes the fantasy of a bitter, lonely older woman whose son is a prisoner of war. In her darkened bedroom, she pretends her son is sitting by her side, a chubby toddler, and acts out stroking his hair. She is not crazy, just creating for herself the solace she needs. She imagines him returning from the war and sitting by the fire, while his wife (whom she resents and tyrannizes) reads to him. Involved in her fantasy, she gets up and starts downstairs to greet him. Could that be the voice of her daughter-in-law reading? She opens the sitting room door to see her daughter-in-law reading aloud to the German officer billeted in her home.