Tuesday, March 25, 2008

'Suite francaise'

this book by the Russian Jewish French Catholic Irene Nemirovsky had caught my eye some time ago, but I always resisted it - period pieces are not quite my thing. But then it turned up under my Christmas tree.

It's interesting. It's in two halves, though these are mildly connected now and again. The first half describes the exodus from Paris as the Germans march in (and to a lesser degree the return to Paris); the second half is about a village somewhere in France, which is occupied by German soldiers, and what goes on during the three months or so of the occupation.

As someone rather familiar with war-time refugee stories (mostly East to West) there is nothing very surprising about the departures from Paris, while people are being bombed, bridges are being mined, and different people have different experiences. Some of these people still had cars, whereas those who fled from Poland to the West four or five years later had nothing (though they were also among the vanquished). There are some lovely little characterizations, though, of those who are rich and who think they can buy everything, of another, very mutually supportive little couple, a dancer who makes the most of her assets and finds strengths in herself which she did not know she had.....

The second story also has a beautiful, and quite biting, characterization particularly of the middle class ladies in a village who have conflicting thoughts and ideas - should they resist the Germans or not, how can they show their superiority to those common people in the village, while at the same time the common people in the village also look down on the fine ladies. Everyone in the village does quite well out of the occupying forces, what with charging them well above the going rate for anything (as a foreign consultant, I recognize the symptoms). In passing, given the films I have seen of how collaborators were treated by the French after the war, I wonder what will have happened to some of the people in this village.

Neither story, though, seems to go anywhere. The first one just finishes, the second one contains a crime that someone committed and ...nothing happens.

Now, here comes the problem with reviewing such a book. In itself, you would say, yes, it's interesting, nicely written, but it's just a snapshot of a situation. What happened next? This is a bit of a weakness.

Then you turn over the book and you see that the writer [most probably] perished in a concentration camp. And at once it becomes more difficult to review the book. It is absolutely possible, therefore, that she meant to continue the stories - but she was taken away in 1942. Her husband a few weeks later. The children survived, hidden all over the place.

Clearly, also, the writer anticipated that things would not go well for her. Appendices in the book contain much anguished correspondence about money (Jews were not allowed to be paid royalties), and eventually many efforts by her husband trying to get her back from wherever she was sent - an effort for which he paid with his life.

So, then, do you review the book as the oeuvre of someone coming to a tragic end who maybe was unable to tidy it up and whose editors did not dare tidy it up, or as a piece of literature regardless of the condition of the author; as a risky work of its own period, or, like me, as another brick in the body of literature and biography involving the Third Reich? Think of Anne Frank - was she a great writer? It's like reviewing Bach with ears that have heard Stockhausen as opposed to ears that have only heard baroque music. An impossible question.