How often do we get a chance to read a “novel in progress” which, paradoxically, has already been internationally published and acclaimed?
How often do we come upon a novel so achingly hovered-over by the irony of fate — where both the characters and the author are caught up in the sweep of history as it unfolds – where we know the outcome better than the author does: though she, clearly, has grave intimations of the outcome of her personal history?
And beyond that, how often are we privileged to see straight into an author’s mind as she talks to herself about a work she is racing to complete, racing against time, against the ever more menacing dictates of the occupying forces, against fading health….?
Thanks to an appendix of the author’s personal notes, we catch glimpses of Irene Némirovsky’s grand plan for Suite Francaise. We learn that Némirovsky envisioned the work we hold in our hands to be just the opening sections of a five-part novel intended as the literary equivalent to a musical composition, the great themes of history and war picked up and repeatedly replayed — interwoven with narratives intimate, particular, revealing the traditions and mind-set of the many levels of French society at the time of the German invasion — in a way that, when complete, would hold echoes of a symphonic work as stirring as Beethoven’s Ninth, and as all-encompassing as Tolstoy’s.
In her notes Némirovsky does muse on Tolstoy. Had she lived, she surely would have succeeded in achieving a work as broad in compass as War and Peace. What interested her, she says at one point in her notes, is nothing less than “…the history of the world.”
Yet the greatest strength of this work (the enduring strength of Tolstoy too) is Némirovsky’s ability to see, grasp, bring the reader directly into the minds and hearts of a widely divergent cast of characters, with a style that is piercing, yes, but with an edge that is charmingly compelling. In Suite Francaise we meet wealthy French collaborators; miserably exploited (but always-scheming) peasant farmers; aristocratic land-owners; humble village shop-keepers; terrified Parisians fleeing the devastation of their city. Yet even the most contemptible of them are described in a way that draws us immediately into their over-turned lives — the bravery and generosity of some, the smug self-saving of others — as the German forces take over their country and (often) their homes.
And while we seem to flow in and out of these lives with such ease, there is a brilliant structural concept at play here, allowing Némirovsky to achieve both sweep and intimacy, with effects not merely musical but operatic. We hear the chorus of the German soldiers as they tramp through the village on their way to maneuvres, their marching songs, the clanking of their boots, the skittering of their horses – we hear the villagers in their role as “chorus” too, as they comment glumly through half-shuttered windows, and we hear the nervous laughing chatter of the village girls at the well as the soldiers look them over: (we are, after all, in a village where all the local boys have long gone off to war and are now either dead or imprisoned, no one knows where….). We hear all this as the background to very personal stories.
I mentioned how on reading Suite Francaise we are constantly aware of the tragic nature of Némirovsky’s own fate. But it is in her scribbled notes, rather than in the work itself, that she reveals the all-encompassing urgency she feels to complete this work under increasingly dire circumstances. Yet here, too, we perceive her personal peril almost exclusively through her musings on the novel: how the ensuing parts might most effectively be arranged. What to keep in, what to leave out?
It is here, in a discussion she has with herself about what scenes “deserve to be passed on for posterity”, that she gives one of the most arresting pieces of writing advice I have come across.
“It must be done by showing contrasts,” she says.
In a scene where hostages are shot and killed, it is “the profound indifference of the people,” that should be given the major emphasis, by dwelling on a party at the opera house taking place at the same time. “If I want to create something striking,” she says, “it is not misery I will show, but the prosperity that contrasts with it … yes … one word for misery, ten for egotism, cowardice … opulence…. closing ranks.…” Then she adds, “The reader has only to see and to hear.”
In April 1942, just months before she herself is murdered, her scribbled notes still dwell almost exclusively on her creative challenges, not her personal situation. Convinced that she is working on a masterpiece, “Work on it tirelessly,” she says as she re-thinks ways of approaching the first section. Regarding a further section, “Tell what happens to people, and that is all.”
What wonderful advice to a writer. Tell what happens to people, and that is all.
Virginia Woolf talks about the danger of writing out of anger. How such personal emotion makes us “think about ourselves rather than our subjects.” With Némirovsky, the work itself is astonishing in its dedication to itself , while at the same time with seeming even-handedness – yes with charm — she reveals the poisonous matrix of her own evolving fate.
In her last note, on July 11th, she is in the pine woods near the village where she still hopes she and her two little daughters (all already forced to wear the identifying yellow badge) might be safe. She is sitting on a blue cardigan “in the middle of an ocean of leaves” with her notebook.
Her last words in that notebook: “in a moment or so I will try to find the hidden lake.”
From correspondence between her husband and various publishers, in a further appendix, we get a real sense of the terrifying times during which Suite Francaise was composed – we learn about the journals and papers that are no longer allowed to publish “Jewish” writing, and the need to find people who can receive the royalty money that Némirovsky is owed from her previous internationally published works — people who can be trusted to pass the money along to her — we learn of the impossibility of getting a travel permit so she can return to Paris for medical treatment, and the increasing concern of the fate of their two girls … and during all of this, in the leather-bound book where Suite Francaise is being scribbled, she is telling what happens to people, that is all….
Two days after she wrote that note in the pine woods, the police arrived at her door. She was interned in France then spirited away to Auschwitz where on August 17th she died.
Her husband, desperately pursuing the Authorities for news of her, was then also imprisoned, deported, executed on 6 November.
The two little girls were hidden by a trusted friend, first in one place and then another, and another. They survived the war – carrying with them the leather-bound notebook with its scrawled, much-crossed-out and very tiny writing, which they thought of as merely a “momento” of their mother, having no idea that the bulk of it contained not a diary or notebook but the first two sections of a masterful work which, thanks to those musings of the writer to herself, we can now imagine in its further entirety, open-ended in the way that life itself is. All the more powerful because of that.