Sunday, July 22, 2012

The French Tolstoi

Here's my review of "Suite Francaise" by Irene Nemirvoksy. Posted yesterday on Amazon.

The only limiting judgment you can make about this novel, the best literary treatment of what it was like to be a civilian on the ground during World War II I have ever read, is that French novelist Irene Nemirovsky did not get a chance to finish it. The book we have here is only the first two parts of an intended four-part “suite” that would give us a panoramic view of society under the stress of war – an ambition similar to Tolstoi’s treatment of Russian society during Napoleon’s invasion in his “War and Peace.” Nor did Nemirovskyi have the opportunity to revise the earlier sections in the light of what was to follow. Finally, she was writing with an eye to the headlines as France collapsed militarily in 1940 and suffered its first year of German occupation. Generally a worthy literary treatment of a national trauma takes a decade or more to produce – the first American Civil War novel of note, The Red Badge of Courage, was written in the 1880s. But Nemirovsky was writing, literally, under the gun.
It’s not military history, or politics that’s on stage here. It’s how a full range of social classes and types behaved in the panicky retreat of June 1940 when their country fell apart more quickly than anyone could imagine. Nemirovsky had a sharp eye for the privileged, the wealthy, the clever, the “beautiful people,” the kind of people who bargain hard with their servants while indulging their every personal whim – call them France’s 1 percent. The 99 percent exhibit the full range of human virtues and vices when their own survival is at risk. It’s the novelist’s eye for the telling detail. The bank manager who throws his workers out his touring car to make room for his mistress’s wardrobe and warns the working class employees that if they don’t make it to his place of retreat in time their jobs are at stake. The parents’ whose hopeful philosophy of life collapses when there’s no news of their son at the front. The maltreated orphans who loot and vandalize a wealthy home when the reins of authority grow thin. The boy whose romantic fantasy leads him to run away and join a remnant of the broken French army defending a bridge only to discover that he’s completely useless. Those who share their food with others; or share it up to a point.
The second section, titled “Dolce” after the musical notation, covers life in an idyllic – which is to say boring, narrow-minded – French village after the “armistice” (or surrender) and the arrival of a German occupying force. The author’s fair-mindedness is astounding. The Germans are polite, cultured, more educated than the villagers. They sing loudly, but well, and stomp around in their heavy boots but take pains not to insult the sensibilities of the defeated French. Equally astonishing, and frankly refreshing, is how seldom we come across the words “Nazi” or “Hitler” or references to the Third Reich’s racist, murderous ideology… The French, common and rustic to a man, exhibit a closely observed range of responses. The chauvninstic hate the Germans on principle. The poor hate the rich, and make accommodations to the their occupiers, while overcharging them for the wine and other luxuries. The rich fear the village’s disgruntled laboring class and are perfectly happy to see their conquerors keep order better than they can. Most interesting is the plight of the intelligent woman, hemmed in by “respectable” society at every turn (and her mother-in-law), whose brutish husband is a prisoner of war. She finds the German officer billeted at her farmhouse much better company, though she must hide her feelings from everyone. Nemirovsky’s repressed, stingy, materialistic, cold-hearted villagers remind one of the characters in her novel “All Our Worldly Goods” – a more perfect book written on a somewhat smaller scale, but equally Tolstoyan in its ambition to paint a realistic portrait of a society at a certain time. The books begins at the turn of the 20th century. Apparently things haven’t progressed much by 1940.
On finishing this book you can’t help yearning after what else Nemirovsky would have been able to tell us about life in a defeated country, especially as every aspect of life grew harder, more pinched, and violent. What a loss to literature and the world that Nemirovksy, a White Russian immigrant of Jewish ancestry, did not survive the catastrophe she was writing about.