Ever since picking up my first work by Nemirovsky last year, I've admired her talent for observing the human condition. There's something about her observation of people and their actions that suggests a balance between optimistic humanism and world weariness. In Suite Francaise, she trains her fine eye on the way that people react, and then adjust, to war, specifically Germany's invasion of France in WWII.
The book is divided into two sections. The first section begins as the news spreads through France that the army has been unable to stop the Germans. With the Blitz heading towards Paris, panic spreads, and people begin to flee to the countryside. Nemirovsky quickly introduces several people, including one family, and the preparations they make to leave. At first, the sheer number of characters made it a bit confusing, but as the story progressed, I got to know the characters better and became able to distinguish them.
As the Parisians flee, they often find themselves in pretty harrowing circumstances. The invasion has thrown things into disorder, and people who've led lives of privilege and prestige suddenly find the charmed existence that they enjoyed has suddenly disappeared. At first the Germans appear only as news on the radio, but then there are bombings and aerial strafing, followed by pitched battles. The story reflects the horror and confusion of war. As the first section ends, the government has fallen, the fighting has ended and people are in the process of putting their lives back together.
The second section begins in the countryside, specifically in one of the villages to which one of the Parisians had fled. The Germans have gone from being an invading army to an occupying one, and in the process have gone from being an amorphous threat to having a very human face. In fact, the presence of all the young men in a village which has seen its own boys killed or taken prisoner gives rise to a strange dynamic of affection and resentment. This section felt even stronger, as Nemirovsky probes all the fault lines, allowing for a much slower boil of conflicting emotions and allegiances.
Because Nemirovsky was sent to the death camps, she never finished the novel, so the second section of the novel ends somewhat abruptly. Though not part of the novel, I couldn't help but contrast Nemirovsky's eye for day-to-day humanity with the sheer inhuman evil of the Holocaust. I also couldn't help wondering how this chronicle of the war, with all its fine detail and observations, would have continued had she lived.
Donald Hall (1928-2018)
3 weeks ago