In which our graying heroine is kidnapped just before Thanksgiving and brought to Lowell, AR, forced to relax with family, eat delicious food (3 different kinds of risotto!) and endure FIVE days without web access!
Seriously, those five days and my travels have put me rather behind in more ways than one, but I’ll make up for it. So what did I do during those days, besides the activities mentioned above? I read, madly, deeply, in ways I haven’t read since before the internet–and discovered a wonderful not-so-new author, Irene Nemirovsky. What a find.
A Russian living in France in the pre-WWII years, Nemirovsky was a celebrated author when the Germans invaded and she was removed to Auschwitz, where she, and later her husband, were killed. They left behind two young daughters, who were hidden and kept safe by loyal friends, and Nemirovsky’s journal, which the daughters carried from hiding place to hiding place. Years later, when their children, now grown, could finally bear to read this record of the last year of their mother’s life, they discovered instead, the novel, Suite Francaise.
Suite Francaise is about the German occupation of France in 1940-41 and it’s absolutely riveting and wrenchingly moving. Comparisons to War and Peace (perhaps my favorite novel of all time) are not exaggerated. No, it’s not that long but Nemirovsky had planned for it to be–if she was allowed to live. Unfortunately, we only have the first two parts, roughly 350 pages.
One would think that a novel written in the midst of such an occupation, with an axe literally hanging over the author’s head, would be a stinging condemnation of the German invaders. But in actuality, no one truly escape Nemirovsky’s critical and yet generous eye. She writes with the sure knowledge that the occupiers and the occupied are all pawns of fate, of powers far greater than they. People fall in and out of love, they behave nobly and meanly, act selflessly and selfishly, concerned only about their own skins. French class structure plays a large role and the French “collaborationists,” those who worked with the Germans to save themselves, often come off worse than the invaders.
Included with the book is an enlightening preface to the French edition, as well as Nemirovsky’s letters from the years before she died, (heartbreaking, as they grow increasingly desperate) and notes for the novel (which details the other sections she hoped to write). Indeed, more novels should be published with such notes, they are that enlightening. Should I ever teach a class in novel writing, I will include Suite Francaise simply for the notes.
How did I discover Suite Francaise? I picked up an advance copy of another of Nemirovsky’s novels, Fire in the Blood, which just came out, at the NWP conference. Fire in the Blood, a novel of family intrique set in the south of France was very different, not at all on the level of Suite Francaise and disturbingly predictable. But it was good enough to get me interested in the author’s story and I got hold of her masterpiece as soon as I could. I read it straight through in four days, stopping only to eat, admire the lovely ways in which my nieces and nephews (and sons) are growing up, adjudicate the occasional sibling argument, and watch the Razorbacks make football history.
So, there you are. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and get yourself a copy of Suite Francaise. You won’t regret it.
Coming soon–the best kept secret in Wales and how my husband blew away the St. Jude/Memphis Marathon!