Irene Nemirovsky was a successful novelist in France, daughter of rich Russians who abandoned their wealth with the Revolution and ran for their lives before the red onslaught could swallow them. It was a Jewish family, the sort for whom it’s a half forgotten nationality rather than a religion or culture.
As if that matters to those who are hunting for the stain.
In the wake of the German conquest of France, those humiliating few weeks that left the ghosts of the Somme silent, and a nation in a complexity of horror and shocked shame, Nemirovsky wrote a manuscript. It was tightly written in barely legible print, crammed like swarming ants so the paper was more ink than white. Suite Française is simply gorgeous prose, a shell-shocked narrative of the first year of that war from the perspective of the French. A breathing, living portrait of a people and place so exquisite that you can smell the air and hear the voices of a world that’s all but gone now. A world in which clawing up and out of the peasantry is still a living memory, when the countryside was still the heart of countries, when the old vestiges of aristocracy still hadn’t accepted democracy as more than a dangerous fad.
So striking is her depiction too of the German occupiers, and the many shades of gray that exist between occupier and occupied. She shows them through a dozen sets of eyes, some which glare and can see nothing but evil, some who wonder at the sheer normalcy of these boys who live in their houses, politely drink their coffee, sneaks kisses with their girls, even while in the back of everyone’s mind is that somewhere their friends, their fathers, their brothers, are in prisoner camps off to the east somewhere. They are not described with admiration or acclaim, and certainly not with sympathy, so much as the natural empathy that arises from a perfect depiction of normal men, of men and not monsters.
Suite Française is getting the movie treatment, although it’s only a half-finished story, beautiful as the prose is. There are outlines that presumably they finished the story with, but its Nemirovsky’s story that I find more interesting, because it’s real and tangible and messy. The trailer is down below.
This writer, who even as her nation is occupied, as enemy troops march past her door. This writer, who captures a generation of German men in the eternal youth of their innocence, in that moment of easy triumph before the long years of Eastern annihilation. This writer, who in the desperation of slow-creeping dread writes stories for fascist magazines to earn some tainted reprieve from the fate her birth dictated? This is the writer they take?
To deepen the wounds, it wasn’t even the Germans who took her away, but the cooperative French police. She didn’t even have the minute protection of being a French citizen since French anti-semitic laws of the thirties had repeatedly denied her citizenship. She was therefore a “stateless person of Jewish descent” and hence her very existence was illegal by the standards of the German occupation.
Her family wrote letters for years, pleading her case, trying to secure her release, trying to find out where she was, ship her packages, find even the slightest hint of information. A swathe of that correspondence is published in the appendix of Suite Française. Her husband’s pestering of the authorities led to his own arrest not four months later. Their daughters survived, raised by others, by those who sent the endless letters and pleas. It wasn’t until the war’s end that they found out that Nemirovsky had died a month after her arrest, and her husband had been taken straight from the train to Auschwitz’s gas chambers.
For fifty years, that last unfinished novel, scribbled in that cramped notebook, sat in a box of papers. Her daughter thought it was a journal, you see, and couldn’t bear to look at them because of the pain of loss until near the end of her life.
You can’t tell the horror of history by the millions. You can only tell it face by face, looking every one in the eye. They say that the plural of anecdote is not data, but that’s not quite right. Anecdotes are emotional truth, and it’s by taking them individually that we build emotional data. That’s how you turn history into a story, dry pages into living memory.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.