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.