Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! We’re in Madrid for the holiday. I’d love to say I picked up the #1 Spanish-language bestseller, Ayuda! Hay un perro loco en los pantalones! —but that would require some Spanish skills about 1,800 levels greater than my own. We’re really great at starting conversations—”una mesa para cuatro, por favor”—but inevitably the target responds, dousing us in light-speed syllables that sap us of all hope and self-esteem. “No entiendo,” we finally whimper. At least, unlike John, I have not ordered a goat instead of a beer.
In between gross faux pas I have been reading the books I carted along with me, starting with Suite Francais by Irene Nemirovsky—a woman whose name contains unsettling, multi-directional accents that I am far too lazy to figure out how to recreate. I can honestly say I’ve never read a novel like Suite—namely because it’s only 2/5 of one, the only sections that Nemirovsky was able to finish before she was arrested by the Nazis and murdered at Auschwitz. A Russian-born Jew living in Paris, Nemirovsky was a popular and well-regarded novelist in Europe when the Germans invaded France. Suite Francais was her attempt to capture the events she was witnessing firsthand, to explore the complex feelings and experiences of people in wartime.
Part one, “Storm in June,” follows several characters of varying classes as they flee Paris and the advancing German forces. The more narrowly-focused second part, “Dolce,” centers on a few important characters living in the French town of Bussy, where each family is forced to house a German soldier. Here Nemirovsky explores the relationships between the occupiers and the occupied, the struggle between nationalism and individualism that the French experience as they begin to get to know—and like—and even love—the conquering warriors.
Nemirovsky takes no sides here. She does not vilify either the individual German soldiers or the French women who warm to them. In fact it is usually the most huffily nationalistic and adamantly unsympathetic that serve as antagonists in both “Storm in June” and “Dolce.” Concern for others, openness to emotion, acknowledgment of a shared humanity—these are the characteristics that mark her protagonists.
Nemirovsky’s charity becomes chilling as one moves on to the appendices of Suite Francais. The first contains excerpts of her notes on the novel, showing how the first two parts—somewhat disconnected—were to cohere later on; the second is a collection of letters chronicling Nemirovsky’s steadily worsening situation and eventual disappearance.
I’m not usually one to care about author biographies, but in relationship to the unfinished novel I found the appendices both moving and terrible. They play the part of the unwritten three sections, reinforcing Nemirovsky’s thematic intentions, but also somehow making an even larger, stronger statement about the senselessness and evil of prejudice and hate. Nemirovsky had no illusions about what would befall her; as early as 1941 she suspected her end. Yet she wrote in her notes: “I swear here and now never again to take out my bitterness, no matter how justifiable, on a group of people, whatever their race, religion, convictions, prejudices, errors” (342).
As we’ve seen throughout contemporary fiction, villains are those without empathy; heroes are the ones who maintain the wisdom and grace to sympathize, connect, and forgive. Reading Suite Francais, I see more clearly than ever that such distinctions are not confined to imaginary worlds alone.