Tuesday, May 04, 2010

A Masterpiece ripped from Oblivion 4

It is surely time that I brought this review of Suite Francaise by Irene Némirovsky to an end, because I loved the book so much that I will be wont never to stop writing about it.  Well, let me just list the reasons why I loved this book:

This is an Intense Book

This is a book written by one who is very much the quarry or the hunted, and she communicates that to us in an equally intense but very clipped, exact and succinct style.  Like all good novelists, indeed writers of any and every genre, there is never a word that is redundant.  Bad books need a lot of editing.  This is a brilliant book, and one could expand on every paragraph because it is so intense and succinctly written.  As I've said already it's like a distillation of experience.

This is an existentialist Book

This novel is suffused in existentialist themes: (i) Firstly there is the feeling and thinking subject, who is not an object that has to be predicted or manipulated. The object may be the essence of the thing while the subject is the existing feeling and thinking actor as it were. What does it mean to be a subject? What does it mean to be a conscious being? “Existentialism says I am nothing else but my own conscious existence.” (From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest, T.Z. Lavine, Bantam Books, 1984, 330)

(ii) The theme of anxiety was at the very heart of existentialism from its very origins. This is a sense of anguish which can be defined as a sense of dread of the nothingness of human existence.  Némirovsky's book is suffused with existential anxiety - sheer angst. 

(iii) A third theme would be that of absurdity. I am my existence and it is absurd. Why am I thrown into this existence here? Why here? Why now? We are utterly contingent beings. In other words we are not logically necessary at all. We did not have to exist. And so my life is an absurd contingent fact. How many of us have stated something such as this to our parents or other significant adults: “I did not ask to be born!”  Theis sense of absurdity also suffuses Suite Francaise.  Why did this absurd war have to happen anyway?  Why all this chaos?  Why all this hate?  Why all this death?  Why? Why? Why?  Where's the rhyme and where's the reason to all this?

Némirovsky introduces us to many characters who illustrate the theme of the absurdity of existence.  However, to my mind at least, one character epitomises this trait, and he is Charles Langelet - a shallow culture vulture, an art and porcelain collector. How well chosen, then, is the object of his adoration - porcelain - so brittle, so fragile like life itself! Némirovsky is at her best here. This character is a shallow man, a cultured man yes, but as the German war machine rolls inexorably in, his culture counts for nothing as the drive to survival and the animal instincts of all take over. We see a man who, while he has a cultural base, has no spiritual one. This cultured man, this Charles Langelet tells us:

I cannot bear all this chaos, these outbursts of hatred, the repulsive spectacle of war. I shall withdraw to a tranquil spot, in the countryside, and live on the bit of money I have left until everyone comes to their senses. (Suite Francaise, p. 35)
Némirovsky paints Langelet as a self-centred egotist and an aesthete who has no deeper values that his worship of his fragile porcelain. For him routine is everything - even the way he bosses about his servants. We first meet him as he feverishly tries to pack away his precious possessions lest the Nazi hordes get them. He is visibly, and almost audibly, as Némirovsky writes so well, sweating and grunting as he tries to seal his tea chests of precious items of art and porcelain. This man, when he runs out of petrol in his flight from Paris, dupes a young couple by his beautiful and sophisticated words, telling them that he will watch their car while they sleep, and goes on to steal their cans of petrol and heads away. He is shallow, unfeeling for others and self-serving to a great degree.

(iv) A fourth concern in existentialism is that of nothingness. Here is where I as the existential being, the conscious subject, rejecting all philosophies and theories that seek to define me objectively, strips away all these external structures or scaffolding. Then what am I left with? Following Kierkegaard’s lead, I am left with absolutely nothing by way of structure. It is here that I stand in anguish at the edge of the abyss. All the characters in Suite Francaise stand on the edge of the abyss.

This is a Frightening Book

I say this not to put the would-be reader off, but rather to inspire the reader to go out and buy it and read it many times if possible.  We need to be frightened, because the Holocaust and World War Two (or Three or Four) can and could happen again.  They say we read history to learn from our mistakes.  Reading good literature and attending good drama can and does bring home the same important message in a more personally disturbing way.  It is with the same idea in mind, the same trepidation that I read the writings that sprang from the great Holocaust like Ann Frank, Elie Wiesel, Paul Celan and Primo Levi.  Lest such depravity happen again we must read such literature.  We need to be aware of the depths to which humankind is capable of descending.

This is a beautifully written book

All  good literature is well written.  This hardly needs to be said, but let me say it anyway.  If a story is good and is written badly, it will never sell.  All publishers know this. It will be only told orally in company in some pub or hostelry or other.  If a good story is told well it hits home.  If it is subsequently written well, it will sell equally well.  A good story, well written,  touches our heart and our soul.  It enters deep within us, disturbs us, moves us, makes us laugh and cry by turns.  It gives us insights into our world as human beings.  Such writers, who are gifted with the power of expression in words, weave a world, which we as readers can very easily inhabit.  It is the writer's power of description that lifts us from our quotidian routine into a world of experience beyond our physical senses.  Indeed, their words bring us on a transportation of soul and self into a mystical world we can share even with an author long dead.  Coleridge defined style as the right word in the right place.  Némirovsky is possessed of this abilty to a superb degree, so much so as to be in my estimation a wonderful exponent of great style.

Above, Irene Némirovsky with her husband and two children.  She and her husband both perished in Auschwitz while, thankfully, both daughters lived.

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.

A Masterpiece ripped from Oblivion 2

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.