Saturday, May 01, 2010

A Masterpiece ripped from Obivion 1

That we are creatures who are at once meaning-making and meaning-seeking goes without question. That we find the world in turns familiar and strange goes without saying. That we are also buffeted by a virtual roller-coaster of ambiguous feelings is also undeniable. Perhaps, the wisest thing we can say about ourselves is what the great orator-politician Winston Churchill said of the possible future action of Russia on October 1, 1939 that we are "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Small vignettes flicker across the screen of my mind which disturb me from time to time.  I remember once as a young teacher of 22 years walking into my first school. It was probably some time before Christmas 1980 and another young teacher, who was then about 28 years, asked me the question, "what's it all about?" I cannot remember exactly what I mumbled by way of reply, but I recall saying something along the following lines, "What's what about, Gerry?" Then to his inevitable answer, "life, of course," I recall retorting, "it's too early in the morning, Gerry, to answer a question like that." At the time, I had not known that that young man, Gerard Smith, suffered from a congenital heart complaint which meant that his years were numbered. Indeed, a while after I had left that school the poor man died.

Another vignette that flickers across my mind on occasion is that of the famous meeting between James Boswell (1740-1795), the famous biographer of Samuel Johnson (1709-84) with David Hume on the latter's deathbed. Boswell, raised in a Calvinist household and a timid man, fearful of damnation in hell because of his debauched life, was morbidly afraid of death. As a result, this distinguished literary figure could not resist the temptation of going to see the great philosopher, and possibly the greatest empiricist, David Hume (1711 -1776), the God denier, on his deathbed, to ask him if he had repented of his blasphemy, if he had changed his mind, perhaps, about denying the immortality of the soul.  Boswell reported that the learned and peaceful Hume had replied to his questions with consummate ease: "Yes it is possible that the soul is immortal.  It is also possible that if I toss this piece of coal into the flames of that fire, it will not burn.  Possible, but there is no basis for believing it - not by reason, and not by sense perception, not by our experience."

Hume had said famously that what the self (or soul, or principle of life) really is, is nothing short of a "bundle of perceptions" which are indeed constantly being added to as others are discarded.  I have often been convinced that Hume's theory of the self is not too far off what James Joyce meant when he spoke of "stream of consciousness" and Marcel Proust , whose The Remembrance of Things Past seems to suggest that the flow of fragmentary perceptions make up the very self that we are.

To return to Boswell, we can all agree with his report of what the great Dr Samuel Johnston said about mortality:  "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." With respect to mortality and our being meaning-making and meaning-seeking creatures, I can aver that this is the essential reason why the great Russian writers Leo Tolstoy – 1828 - 1910) and Fyodor Dostoyevski (1821 – 1881) have long appealed to me.  They ask such meaning-making and meaning-seeking questions.  They seem to enact a feat tantamount to distilling the very essence of what life and death or mortality are all about.  They seem to answer, in the best way possible, Gerry Smith's deep and personally painful question, "what's it all about?"

And so within the above somewhat unique and unorthodox introduction, I wish now to allude to one equally powerful novel - or indeed two short novellas which have been recently discovered.  This wonderful discovery fits in well with the illustrious meaning-making and meaning-seeking philosophers and novelists I have written about above.  It also is a distillation of Gerard Smith's question - what is it all about?  I refer to Irene Némirovski's (1903, Kiev – 1942) wonderful masterpiece which has only quite recently been puiblished under the title Suite Francaise.  My title of this post is taken from Le Monde's review of the novel which describes it as "a masterpiece... ripped from oblivion."  These two novellas form a beautiful literary diptych which depicts what it was like during the Nazi invasion of France.  They were only discovered in the late 1990s when Némirovski's older daughter, Denise, who had kept the notebook containing the manuscript for Suite Française for fifty years without reading it, thinking it was a journal or diary of her mother's.  She had never read it because she thought it would be far too painful an exercise for her.  In the late 1990s as she aged, however, she made arrangements to donate her mother's papers to a French archive and decided to examine the notebook first. Upon discovering what it contained, she had it published in France, where it became a bestseller in 2004. It has since been translated into 38 languages and as of 2008 had sold 2.5 million copies.

I will review this wonderful little book in my next post.

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