Sunday, May 13, 2007

Suite Francaise

I took a break to defend my dissertation and actually finish my degree. Woo-hoo! So, now, I get to go back to novels rather than policy and data (though, I'm wonky enough to like those as well).

So, the first book I picked up upon finishing was Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. As probably everyone knows by now, this work is actually two chapters of a planned novel by Nemirovsky. However, her plans were interrupted by those of the Third Reich. I had read a brief sketch of the horrifying events of her life before reading the book--and intentionally didn't want to read the more detailed recounting that is part of the ancillary materials in the book before reading the two chapters: Storm in June and Dolce. I didn't want my opinion of them to be overly colored by her biography. I needn't have worried.

Suite Francaise is an achingly beautiful book. Nemirovsky's narrative voice is sharp and cold in its pitiless assessment of the foibles of the rich and privileged that frequently spell their doom. She is particularly harsh on the upper class, whose emotional range seems to have been as neatly trimmed and trained as its carefully manicured gardens and as dulled as its dusty drapes. An example . . . The head-spinning turn of Madame Pericand in a moment from self-righteous self-declared exemplar of noblesse oblige to wild-eyed hoarder is wonderfully drawn to both show the horrors that the war is bringing and distance the reader from any moment of sympathy for Pericand.

At other times, Nemirovsky can paint a reasonably unsympathetic situation in a cautiously warm glow all the while suggesting the dangerous sadness that war both creates and reveals. When Lucile engages in her platonic romance with Bruno, Nemirovsky manages both to play with the romantic conventions and then to shatter them as foolish delusions destined to lead to tragedy. In these first two chapters, her own heart is reserved for the characters stuck in the middle (like Lucile or the Michauds or even Bruno), those whose own goodness and kindness seems to arise in spite of their surroundings. War, the book suggests, doesn't produce "the greatest generation"; it simply makes each of us even more of what we really are, which--for most of the characters--is not very pretty.

I had never heard of Nemirovsky before reading Suite Francaise but the talent that exudes from the pages and the sheer beauty of so many of the sentences makes me want to read more. Her anger and the vengeance that she clearly desired comes through the weaponry of her words, and I am intrigued to see how her voice plays out in her earlier works.

Read this book. It will break your heart--for all the right reasons.

1 comment:

Carol E. said...

What a well-written review of Suite Francaise! Thanks! I loved it, too! (I've seen some so-so reviews of it - which disappointed me big time.) I am saving it for a 2nd read some time. I know there is a lot I can get out of it that I missed the first time around.