Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Suite Française

I did some reading on this trip. The most disturbing was Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, an unfinished novel by a very successful novelist that was murdered by the Nazis in occupied France.
Suite Française is a very disturbing book. Not because it's that great, but because of the circumstances in which it was written. Irene Nemirovsky was a wealthy Jewish Russian exile, whose family of bankers lost everything during the Russian Revolution. She emigrated to France and became quite famous as a novelist.
Suite Française narrates events during the Nazi occupation of France. More precisely, it describes how the French reacted. Nemirovsky has a real jaundiced eye for the French bourgeoisie; in fact, for pretty much everybody. Only someone who really knows wealth and the wealthy can write about them with such contempt. After a while, her contempt stops being interesting and just feels cruel and haughty, with characters so vain and mean spirited, they are almost caricatures. Flaubert skewers provincial life in Madame Bovary and he is poisonous, but somehow not contemptuous of his characters. I guess that's part of his genius. Nemirovsky, on the other hand, seems to loathe everyone, and those characters she doesn't loathe are not as interesting to her. To be fair, she did not finish the novel and it is possible to extrapolate from her copious notes that she intended to balance that out. Parts of the novel are very well written, with merciless clarity and power. But others seem like a Harlequin romance.
I came to this novel from friends' recommendations and because it was being marketed as the last work of a talented writer who lost her life to the Nazis. I think it was even in Oprah's book club. So from what I've heard, here I am, thinking I'm reading the work of an adult Anne Frank. But something in the novel is very strange and disquieting. After a while, one wonders why there is no mention anywhere of a single Jew. There seems to be a stubborn avoidance to this aspect of the story, which is very flummoxing, to say the least. After all, this is a novel about the Nazi occupation of France. These Nazi guys, first thing they did everywhere they went was let everybody know that the Jews were to be ostracized and humiliated. But not a word from her on the subject.
One gives her the benefit of the doubt because this kind of omission can be a perfectly valid and even powerful artistic choice. As in the case of the great German movie Downfall, you can emphatically communicate the bestial evil of the Nazis without showing a single Jew, the point being that Hitler destroyed the Germans as well as everybody else. But that is not the case in Suite Française. The book is an indictment of the French and their petty ways come occupation time. Most of the characters are greedy, prejudiced, cowardly, etc. I've read accounts of life in wartime and that seems to be the human modus operandi, so no surprise there, except for the unabashed vitriol. But then there is a huge chapter devoted to the impossible romance between a married Frenchwoman and a dashingly handsome, noble and cultivated Nazi officer, who plays the piano and loves her deeply. The whole thing reads like a bodice ripper or a bucolic pastoral scene but with Nazis carousing among the sheep and the peasants. For obvious reasons, the novel ends abruptly. It left an acrid taste in my mouth. Why the avoidance of the Jews? Why the infatuation with the Nazis? (It's not that she loves them, but she seems to have more compassion for them than for the French). Well, I didn't know the half of it.
At the end of the novel there are two fascinating appendixes. One is composed of Nemirovsky's notes on her work in progress. They shed some light into her process, but far more light into how selfconscious she was about her own work. I think there is a reason why personal jottings by writers should not be made available to the public, for the most part. They are not that enlightening, at least in her case, and they show too much of the writer's ego, which is tiresome. At one point she says something like "describe the houses of the wealthy to the readers. The masses love that".
The second appendix makes for truly harrowing reading, for it is composed of the frantic letters her husband wrote to everybody he thought could help save her when she was arrested by the Nazis. After all, she was a very successful novelist. Two of her books had been adapted into movies. More importantly, she had converted to Catholicism. She hated the communists, for they had destroyed her family. And a number of other fascinating details (she hated her mother, a hateful, vain woman and she hated, according to the editor, "her Jewish family).
It turns out that Irene Nemirovsky had deep conflicts about her Judaism. The editor writes she had her family converted to Catholicism because of fear (some Jewish artists, like her and Gustav Mahler in his time, did anything they could to be taken seriously and, because they suffered the poison of antisemitism, they thought that by renouncing their Judaism publicly they would help their work. They were wrong. Those who hated them for being Jewish continued doing so after their conversion). Not only that, but Nemirovsky had published some of her work in an antisemitic magazine, a fact her desperate husband, a man called Michel Epstein, pointed out to the collaborationist authorities in order to save her. His letters are frantic (I paraphrase): yes, we're from Jewish descent, but we both hate Bolsheviks, and you can see in my wife's work no evidence of any sympathy for the Jews. YIKES. He writes to everybody who is anybody in France, counts, editors, Marechal Petain himself, all those eminent Christians that he knows from his privileged life. At one point, after having exhausted all his important connections to no avail, the husband gets a letter from a woman who works in the Red Cross. She says to him: the only people who may know anything about your wife are the Jewish Union. You should be talking to them. This, to me is revelatory and bloodcurling, and in a way evidence that the Jewish self-loathing this couple felt was much deeper than a mere conversion meant to save their lives.
Some people, like her editors, helped immensely, and even they were tactfully alarmed by the betraying tone of the most desperate letters. The Count Whatever never answers, which is somehow expected, and in the end Petain himself has Epstein arrested and sent to Auschwitz as well, for all his trouble. Both of them died there. Then the French police, as they have nothing better to do, search all over France for the two young daughters of the couple, ages 9 and 5, to send them to their deaths as well. Their babysitter, a truly righteous woman, hid them through the war and saved them with the help of Nemirovsky's editors. The manuscripts happened to survive because the older girl took them with her in her valise. This is far more interesting reading than the novel and it would make an incredible movie, as would the novel itself, but I wonder if the French are ready to examine so brutally the fact of their collaboration. There are plenty of movies about the heroic French resistance, to my knowledge, but I don't know of any that confront the phenomenon of collaboration directly. Feel free to disabuse me if I'm wrong.
So what I want to know is, are readers of Suite Française understanding that this woman had deep reserves of Jewish self-loathing and are they reading the novel in this context? Or is it just an adventurous romp in the woods while the Fritzes are in town?
But I am obsessed. I cannot stop thinking what this poor snobbish woman must have felt as she was stripped of all human dignity and led to a horrible death because of the Jewish origins she took such pains to deny. No amount of fame, of talent, of swearing on the holy cross would have helped and it didn't.

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