I wish now to review what Le Monde famously called "a masterpiece...ripped from oblivion, i.e., Irene Némirovski's wonderful diptych of novellas which recount the invasion of France by the Germans in 1940. The book is called Suite Francaise, and my Englkish edition is published by Chatto & Windus, London, 2006. The translation is superbly rendered by Sandra Smith.
What makes this novel is its universal appeal insofar as its themes are what I have called "meaning-seeking" and "meaning-making" ones in the tradition of the great Russian writers Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevski. This novel is a thinking man's and a thinking woman's novel in this same tradition. It deals with the universal themes of life and death distilled into the space of a little over a year as our author Irene was to die (or more correctly be murdered) tragically in the Auschwitz death camp.
This novel for me was a distillation of humankind's search for ultimate meaning, or even any little crumb of meaning as the pincer grip of the Nazi German war machine moved inexorably inward on Paris. The first novella of the diptych, entitled appropriately and aptly Storm in June is an intensely written and accurately distilled account of what it must feel like to be a hunted animal before the inevitable kill. It is written with consummate style which captures the gut-gripping fear of the cornered quarry. The magnitude of the fall of a nation, coupled with the inevitable fear of personal annihilation makes this a gripping read.
Némirovski, unlike Tolstoy, does not evoke big and bloody battles or the rattle of sabres or the thunderous fire of huge guns or even the machinations and intrigues of the quarelling politicians. Rather, in the line of the existentialists, she evokes with consummate ease and an accurate eye the lives and personal trials of the ordinary citizens of France.
Her style is clipped and sharp and precise. The opening sentence of the first chapter is a mere four words in length: "Hot, thought the Parisians." (Op.cit. p. 3) Their hands and their foreheads are sweaty with anxiety. She writes of the fears of women whose men were at the front, and of their jumpiness as they hear the distant bombs exploding. She even brings us into the dreams of these fearful people and what it was like to have nightmares that blend so well with the reality their dreamers were experiencing when awake. Némirovski paints the Parisians as hunted animals:
The wealthy simply went to sit with the concierge, straining to hear the shells bursting... their bodies as tense as frightened animals in dark woods as the hunter gets closer. Though the poor were just as afraid as the rich, and valued their lives just as much, they were more sheeplike: they needed each other, needed to link arms, to groan or laugh together. (Ibid., p.4)In this intense writing style she continues to distill the feelings of the ordinary people of France as the jackboot of the German Nazis marched closer and closer. We are brought into the minds of young and old, the living and the dying. We are spared nothing. Her style is ruthlessly honest. We feel that we are as powerless as the poor frightened citizens of Paris awaiting the conquerors. The children lay asleep "against their mothers' sides, their lips making sucking noises , like little lambs." All this animal imagery makes us think, of coourse, of lambs to the slaughter.
Let me advert here to one major factor I found in Némirovski's style, that is, her depiction of nature. She does not do so in a Shakespearean or Worsworthian fashion. What I mean here is that Némirovski is such a modern, that she is firmly in the tradition of existentialist writers like Friedrich Nietzche. Like him she paints nature as vastly and completed indifferent to the feelings of human beings. Nature is nature. The sun comes up and goes down, the moon and stars come out and go in and the cycles of daytime and night time merely continue unaffected by the suffering and pain, or indeed by the very consciousness of humankind. Némirovski captures this quintessential existentialist theme.
Here is how she finishes the first chapter with the sounds of war not too far away:
The sun came up, fiery red, in a cloudless sky. A shell was fired, now so close to Pasris that from the top of every monument birds rose into the sky. Great black birds, rarely seen at other times, stretched out their pink-tinged wings. Beautiful fat pigeons cooed; swallows wheeled; sparrows hopped peacefully in the deserted streets. Along the Seine each poplar tree held a cluster of little brown birds who sang as loudly as they could. From deep beneath the ground came the muffled noise everyone had been waiting for, a sort of three-tone fanfare. The air raid was over. (Op. cit., p. 5)Not much pathetic fallacy here, that sympathy of nature with humankind, defined by the great Victorian critic Ruskin. No indeed. This is the Nietzschean nightmare come true.
To be continued
Above, a picture of the great novelist, Irene Némirovski.