Friday, January 15, 2010


1942. I can't get the year out of my mind, although I turned the last page of Suite française over a month ago. I was in the Métro, coming home from work, on my way to meet a friend for dinner, when I read and re-read the short notes in the appendix. There were plans for the next volume, the lives of the characters traced out and annotated with question marks. Thoughts on the state of France. It was history, yes, but there I was: I couldn't shut it and come back to the present.

Suite française was published posthumously. Its author, Irène Némirovsky, was an important literary figure in pre-war France, and in her short career, she wrote sixteen novels and numerous novellas. Born in Kiev in 1903 to a wealthy Jewish family, she moved as a child to Saint Petersburg, then fled Bolshevik Russia as an adolescent, in exile first in Finland, then in Paris. And here, she had in many ways arrived home. Like much of the Russian economic elite of the time, she had lived her childhood in the cultural orbit of France, vacationing each year with her parents in Paris, Nice and Biarritz. Mothered by a French nanny and educated in French, French was her second mother tongue. She wrote fluently and brilliantly in it, and most likely dreamed in it.

France was le pays de son coeur, a home she wasn't born to, but to which she was ferociously loyal. Like me, I think. But I met a Frenchman at age 21, then tardily learned French from scratch, disentangling the vestiges of my Spanish pronunciation from the les and un that first felt so foreign in my mouth. When I write in French, it is with the help of Microsoft Word's grammar checker and not without a certain inferiority complex. I chose my home, but I chose late, freely, and by accident; there's no exile in my story, no immersion in French culture from the cradle. My ties here aren't as strong as hers, and yet I can hardly imagine leaving my adoptive home.

Irène Némirovsky was deported to Auschwitz in July 1942, part of a convoy of foreign-born Jews who were among the first France sent to the concentration camps under the Occupation. She never returned. Her husband was deported and perished a few months later.

Until the very end, she thought that her country of adoption would somehow protect her, that it would never cross a line that couldn't bear contemplation.

Her two daughters, 12 and 5 years old, fled, crossing France, hiding under assumed names, and always carrying with them their mothers' final manuscript, which wouldn't be opened and read until the end of the century. The manuscript was Suite française, a two-part novel chronicling France in the beginning of the war. I imagine her daughters kept the manuscript as a talisman, more memory of their mother than real words, and they had no idea what was contained inside. I imagine that if I held the last pages my mother had written, I wouldn't want to read them. As long as they were closed, there'd still be one last message from her; once opened and read, she would be gone forever.

Although the novel is complete, the story is unfinished. The characters were supposed to continue to live through another volume, perhaps three. It was 1942, and predicting the fate of a such a novel was no easier than predicting the course of history. There's an exhilaration in the notes Némirovsky writes and the questions she poses to herself. I can't shake the feeling that the unabridged version must end mid-sentence, as if in surprise.

When I closed the book, I felt trapped in 1942. I thought to myself obsessively that it wasn't just Irène Némirovsky who was killed, but all of her characters as well, knowing it was shallow and stupid to think this, but unable to chase it from my mind. Then came an avalanche of whys as I imagined myself in her place. Why not leave? Why trust a country? Why trust this country? Her portrait of France was too perceptive and cruel to let me doubt that she knew exactly where she found herself, and yet, she stayed. So I stay in 1942, too.

I've almost finished reading an excellent biography by Olivier Philipponannat and Patrick Lienhardt, where some of my whys are answered. And this weekend we will be going to Troyes, where my husband's aunt remembers 1940 and the exodus of Suite française. She turned 10 in September 1939 on the day the war was declared. I want to ask her to share with me what she remembers, again, because this time I'm ready to hear.

"I find it funny that you're discovering World War II only now," my husband mused, after listening to me wonder aloud over dinner about what I'd just read.

"It just seemed, as they say, 'a long time ago in a country far, far away,'" I told him, somewhat ashamed to be admitting the truth.


Anonymous said...

Very perceptive. I understand how you felt in a way abandoned in 1942. It's a very odd feeling to know the history (the future, from the point of time of the novel) but not the story. And then, of course, the reason you don't know the rest of the story is because of what you know the history/future really held for the author. It's one of those things that makes a mind ache with longing and sadness.

Anyhow, it's true that your generation didn't grow up in this country with the kind of connection with WWII that your husband had. Maybe just a matter of a few years and an ocean. But I wonder if the French of the next generation -- say 10 years younger than you -- will have much understanding of that war either.

Sylvie said...

Someone gave me this book and I opened it, perused it and closed it dozens of times. But I simply couldn't make myself read it; it seemed too imbued with incredible sadness, which I knew I would absorb if I read it. So it sits, packed away in some box in a basement in Seattle, while I am here in France.
I suppose I've never had the questionable luxury of being able to ignore World War II, as I was born shortly afterward and it was always a presence in our home through my parents' war stories.
Now that you've discovered World War II, you might also be interested in discovering World War I, which in some ways seems strongly present in France today, too.

caramama said...

I think those of us in this generation and younger raised in the US do feel distant from WWII. The constant reminders aren't there for us (unless, I suppose, you live near Pearl Harbor).

That book sounds like a fascinating read, as does the biography. Saying "It's such a shame what happened to her" doesn't seem to be nearly adequate.

phelps5 said...

You should read a book called Sarah's Key. Also a haunting read of that time period. It is written by Tatiana de Rosnay.

Blue said...

I have to say I think Sarah's Key is vastly inferior to Suite Francaise. The events it addresses are, of course, horrific and compelling, but it just doesn't have the soul that Suite Francaise does. A lot of the narrative felt forced to me.

Also, I think one's feeling of connection to WWII may have everything to do with how much one's family remembers about it, or lost in it. I am your age, but death resonates for generations.