Monday, March 29, 2010

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky *****

Every once in a while, I will read a book that has a meaning of more than just the words that are written on its pages. This book in two parts, Suite Francaise, is a work of fiction. But the story behind its author has made it even more than the sum of its parts.

In the first part of the book, it's June of 1940, & the Nazis are invading France. The people of Paris are abandoning everything & racing in a frenzy to leave the city behind to what they assume will be its utter destruction. All classes of people are thrown together, much to their dismay, in this mass exodus. The rich, the famous, the struggling, the poor, all of them have the same kinds of experiences in the countryside surrounding Paris.

In the second part, Dolce, a small French village is subjected to the occupying forces. Nazi soldiers are housed in spare bedrooms, the community's horses are all bought for the war. The townspeople make money off the Germans, & the young people gradually find themselves in relationships with the enemy that they never thought they were capable of. As the new Eastern Front opens up with Russia, the book suddenly ends.

My above descriptions are of the book itself. What makes this more than it is, is the fate of the author.

Irene Nemirovsky was doubly damned, being not only Russian but Jewish. To the Nazis, Communists were almost as bad as Jews, & they pretty much assumed anyone from Russia was pro-Communist. Though Nemirovsky lived her adult life in France, she wasn't a citizen. When Paris fell she fled, like the characters from her book, into the countryside with her husband & daughters. There they thought they were safe, even as Irene started writing her new novel. Suite Francaise was going to be her masterpiece--her own War & Peace. She envisioned it in 5 distinct parts, like an orchestral symphony. She was destined to only get the first 2 parts done.

In July of 1942, she was arrested & sent to a concentration camp in France. From there she wrote 2 last letters to her family. Then she was put on a train east. To Auschwitz. She didn't last long there & died on August 17, without her family's knowledge. Desperate to find his wife, her husband, who was also a Russian Jew, frantically telegraphed & wrote to everyone he could think of who could help. It was to no avail, & 2 months later he was deported also. He was sent to the gas chambers immediately upon arrival.

At this time, Nemirovsky's daughters were 5 & 10 years old. A family friend immediately removed the yellow stars off all their clothing & hid the children in several different places for the rest of the war. They were continually hunted by the French police, who apparently had nothing better to do, but luckily they were never caught.

Denise, the older daughter, kept her mother's leather bound notebook with her all through the war & after. She couldn't bring herself to read what was written within, but kept it simply as a memento. Then, in the early 1970's, she decided to donate it to a French collection of war writings. Looking at her mother's writing for the first time, she was surprised to find not just a journal as she always suspected, but also a book. It was finally published in 2004.

That is the story of Suite Francaise. I could go on & on about the book & the emotions it has stirred up in me. Anger, mostly. The waste, the terrible waste of human life & genius because of the Holocaust. I wanted so very much to read the end of this book--all 5 parts. I know it would have been the masterpiece she envisioned. Instead, her own life became the ending of her book.

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