Sunday, May 02, 2010

A Masterpiece ripped from Oblivion 3

Némirovski writes with an intensity only those living in fear appreciate.  The nearest feeling to such intense fear, captured by our author here in this wonderful book, was what I experienced when the Dublin Bombings of May 1974 exploded on our Southern streets.   At 17:30 on the fateful Friday of 17 May,  three no-warning car bombs exploded almost simultaneously in Dublin's city centre at Parnell Street, Talbot Street, and South Leinster Street during rush-hour. Twenty-three persons died in these explosions and three others died as a result of injuries over the following few days and weeks.  I distinctly remember the crack of the bombs as they exploded as I then lived with my family on The North Strand close to the city centre.  Being well acquainted with the dreadful scenario of car bombs in the North of Ireland I realised instinctively they they were now visited upon us in the South.   A deep fear disturbed me to the pit of my stomach as my mother and younger brother had gone into town, and having listened to the breaking news on Radio Éireann I realised all too vividly that both these members of my family would have been shopping in the vacinity of these horrific car bombs.

Hence, I can empathize with the sense of fear and urgency and even the sense of hope despite one's worst fears that Némirovski manages to capture in Suite Francaise.  In chapter 2 she introduces us to an upper middle class class family who have a valet, a cook and a chauffeur - this is the Péricand family, who with many of thousands of other Parisians decide to flee Paris as the Germans were approaching.  In this chapter we get the sense of fear and expectation mixed with a sense of finality and the end of things as we know it.  The Péricands have to abandon all their wordly goods and with them all that sense of meaning and purpose and station that such goods give humans.  Once again their fears are offset by the indifference of insentient nature.

In Chapter three we are introduced to the egotistical and self-satisfied writer and literary figure M. Gabriel Corte.  He is an aesthete along the lines of Oscar Wilde, with a candidature in progress for the Académie Francaise, a writer who could only write "if he had a small glass bowl of deep lapis lazuli beside him."  (Ibid., p. 15).  This man is so egotistical, self-centered, almost solipsist that he curses the war solely because it is destroying his imagination and preventing him from being creative. His mistress Florence decides to pack a sturdy suitcase with both their prize possessions - his manuscripts and her jewelry to find that they would not all fit in, and that the manuscripts would have to be hidden in her hat box.

In Chapter 5 we are introduced to one good happy family unit, namely that of the Michauds who are low level bank officials.  They are a happy and satisfied couple who stick together and somehow manage to keep their dignity in tact despite the evil and hatred stirred up by the various ideologies.  Then we are introduced to the head-strong bank mananger M. Corbin and his mistress Mademoiselle Arlette Corail - a dancer.  We feel we are in the company of Madame Michaud in the outer office,  hearing Corbin and his mistress arguing about how they are to flee Paris.  In all this confusion the Michauds were, unlike Corbin and his mistress, more worried about the fate of their son who was in the army.  Certainly they were fearful for themselves, but not for their precious goods which they might have amassed like such as Corbin and his ilk.  Their world was essentially a less material and more spiritual one.   

Then in Chapter 6 we read of the absolute confusion which existed at all the train stations of Paris:
But at all that stations the gates were already closed and guarded by soldiers.  The crowds were hanging onto them, shaking them, then swarming chaotically back down the neighbouring streets.  Women in tears were running with their children in their arms.  The last taxis were stopped: they were offered two thousand, three thousand francs to leave Paris.  "Just to Orléans..."  But the drivers refused, they had no more petrol. (Ibid., p. 29) 
We can literally experience the fear and panic that gripped these Parisians in the pit of their stomachs.  Némirovski is at her best as she captures this fear and panic, nay this sense of impending doom as the normal lives of people were forever shattered under the jackboots of the conquering Germans.  It is as if Armageddon has arrived.  Feel the terror, confusion and sheer anxiety in the follwing short paragraph:
All along the Boulevard Delessert, groups of people appeared outside their houses - women, old people and children, gesticulating to each other, trying, at first calmly and then with increasing agitation and a mad dizzy excitement, to get the family and all the baggae into a Renault, a saloon, a sports car... Not a single light shone through the windows.  The stars were coming out, springtime stars with a silvery glow.  Paris had its sweetest smell, the smell of chestnut trees in bloom and of petrol with a few grains of dust that crack under your teeth like pepper.  In the darkness the danger seemed to grow.  You could smell the suffering in the air, in the silence.  Even people who were normally calm and controlled were overwhelmed by anxiety and fear.  Everyone looked at their house and thought, "Tomorrow it will be in ruins, tomorrow I'll have nothing left.  We haven't hurt anyone. Why?"  Then a wave of indifference washed over their souls:  "What's the difference?  It's only stone, wood - nothing living!  What matters is survival!"  Who cared about the tragedy of their country?  Not these people, not the people who were leaving that night.  Panic obliterated everything that wasn't animal instinct, involuntary physical reaction.  Grab the most valuable things you own in the world and then...!  And, on that night, only people - the living and the breathing, the crying and the loving - were precious.  Rare was the person who cared aboiut their possessions; everyone wrapped their arms tightly around their wife or child ans nothing else mattered; the rest could go up in flames.  (Ibid., p. 30)
How could a writer possibly create a better paragraph to capture the sheer terror, confusion and anxiety that would have gripped all the inhabitants of Paris the night before the Germans would calmly roll in on their conquered quarry?  The style of this paragraph is direct and visceral.  She mentions the smells of Paris - the smells of fear in the very air and the intinctual reactions of the natives.  We are not alone brought into their minds which are peopled with confusing and terrifying thoughts, but also into their very gut reactions.  This is writing at its most intense, at its most existential, at its acutest.  Throughout it all, though, the writer is in control, not lost... she, like an objective observer is recounting the whole experience of Paris falling under the boot of the Germans, like a Buddhist meditator observing her breath.  This is what makes Némirovski such a brilliant writer and such a loss to have perished so young in Hitler's gas chambers and incinerators at the notorious death camp of Auschwitz.

Above another picture of Irene Némirovski, the wonderful and tragic novelist who perished all too young like so many others in the hell of Auschwitz.

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