Amanda Craig is the author of Foreign Bodies, A Private Place, A Vicious Circle, In A Dark Wood and Love in Idleness. She is the children's books critic for The Times and a regular reviewer for The Independent, The New Statesman and The Daily Telegraph. Her new novel, Night and Day, will be published next year by Little, Brown. Amanda writes here about Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française.
Amanda Craig on Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
Suite Française is a novel whose reputation has grown since its publication early this year, and is still being discussed. I tend to feel I have had my fill of Holocaust novels and memoirs, but this one has a strong claim on readers' (and writers') attention, and on my attention in particular. It is a unique example of what can be gained, and lost, by writing fiction in the growing point of the author's present.
Now, this kind of fiction interests me very much, not least because Suite Française is the kind of novel I write, and it has become deeply unfashionable and relatively rare. Over the past 20 years literary writers have been focusing increasingly on the past. There are many possible reasons for this, not least the rise of reportage in newspapers and magazines. However, there are less pleasing possibilities. As Ian McEwan discovered with Saturday, writing about the present can be dangerous. The present is fluid, unpredictable, perverse: when McEwan wrote Saturday he supported the Iraq war, something many people at the time already opposed but which more recent events now show to have been wholly misguided, and therefore possibly damaging to his career. The present, unlike the past, contains real people who are all too eager to identify themselves as villains, as I discovered when enduring a most unpleasant accusation of libel in A Vicious Circle. History Lite, on the other hand, bestows all kinds of pleasant sensations, not least the wisdom of hindsight. The novelists who have begun to tackle the subject of 9/11 talk of having needed to digest their experience. Yet I believe that by not writing about the present, by not showing The Way We Live Now, novelists are missing what readers most need from them.
Nowhere is the urgency of this task reflected so well as in Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française. Its tragic history – put as a manuscript in a suitcase by Némirovsky's elder daughter Denise as they fled the village once their Jewish mother had been interned in a concentration camp, and left unread for 64 years until Denise began to decipher it with the aid of a magnifying glass – has almost overshadowed its merits as a novel. Had the novel been finished it would, I believe, have equalled the achievements of Tolstoy and Flaubert, in portraying the thousand betrayals and reversals of the human heart during the French Occupation.
It was conceived as a symphony in five sections, but we only have the first two - 'Storm in June' and 'Dolce' – to give an indication of what the finished book would have been like. 'Storm' is about the fall of France to the Nazis in June 1940, and the flight of a handful of characters from Paris to the Free Zone. It is an astounding piece of writing, not least in being extremely funny in many places. There is the appalling banker, Corbin, who escapes with his mistress Arlette, and incurs the fury of his wife when she discovers a naked photograph of Arlette in his suitcase, wearing a magnificent necklace. It is the necklace that enrages her, not the nudity. Equally selfish is the writer Gabriel Corte, fleeing to the refuge of a luxury hotel and temporarily stripped of his self-importance, and the monstrous Madame Pericand, a mother whose journey from benevolence to venom is one of the most enjoyable passages in the novel. Interwoven with them are the sweet, elderly, impoverished Michauds, employees of Corbin who are desperate for news of their missing son; Madame Pericand's son, the impetuous Hubert; the cat-like mistress Arlette; and Madame Pericand's priestly brother Philippe.
All of this is drawn in short, swift chapters that are rich with social and sensual detail. The importance of being a member of the Jockey Club is emphasized, and it is clear the author knows a good deal about the lives of the elite. People worry about priceless china, about good wine, about their linen, and the initial tone is one of satire. Even the description of people 'jammed like fish in a net' as they flee Paris does not really disturb.
In contrast, 'Dolce' tells of the thwarted passions of a group of young German soldiers and the French countrywomen with whom they are billeted. One, Lucille, falls in love with an officer, Bruno. Blond, handsome, tender and cultivated (he is even a composer), he is the opposite of Lucille's absent husband. She does not succumb to Bruno's caresses, partly because she is also hiding a local farmer wanted for murder. It must have been easy to see the snobbery, greed, hypocrisy and fear of the French peasants and their aristocratic masters, because it had all been repeatedly pointed out by French writers since the time of Balzac. The difference is that Némirovsky, unlike most women writers, is given a subject beyond that of women's lot. There are bombs and guns, the stuff of men's stories about war since The Iliad, but they are part of the rent fabric of domestic life. It is like reading War and Peace as written by those left behind – the women, the children, the elderly.
What Némirovsky did not have was the wisdom of hindsight. She had no way of knowing - at least, there is no indication she did - that what had invaded France was an evil beyond anything imagined by novelists. It is the fate of Father Pericand, escorting a group of orphaned boys out of the city, which causes the contemporary reader the first ripples of unease. Like William Golding after her, Némirovsky knew that young boys are not innocents. Initially docile, her orphans casually murder their idealistic guide while rampaging through a deserted country house. Among all the acts of petty cruelty and selfishness that she describes, this is the most shocking. But what shocks you most is the knowledge that she sees the wrong enemy.
Némirovsky was a writer of her time, and what the 1930s most feared was the Mob. The boys who kill Philippe Pericand with the same casual cruelty that they kill two lizards are 'docile' until they riot. When we think of how the Holocaust was allowed to happen, we tend to think of the propaganda the Nazis employed and not of the false security that trapped so many Jews, the fatal belief that if they kept their heads down, wore yellow stars and obeyed the new rules, they would be allowed to live. Némirovsky's family had fled the Russian Revolution, but they thought of themselves as White Russians, not as Jews. They had every reason to fear the Mob. They didn't understand that they had even more to fear from Hitler.
It is horrible to read 'Dolce' in the light of what we now know - horrible, but wonderful, too. It is an attempt by an artist and a woman to understand the enemy as human beings, capable of civility, culture, even compassion - as we must believe some were. The love between Lucille and Bruno, and the physical attraction between the young of both sides, is as much spiritual as sensual, and immensely daring. She has her Frenchmen thinking, 'We tell ourselves, "They're just like us, after all," but they're not at all the same. We're two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever."
Just how different, though, Némirovsky did not understand, even when she and her two daughters had to wear yellow stars on their coats, even when her earnings as a writer were put into a 'blocked' bank account which, like all Jews, she could not access. Perhaps none of those deported understood, until they were herded like cattle into the camps. There are many novels written after the Holocaust that have acquired status by presenting their work, in the manner of Old Masters, against the darkness of annihilation. This one achieves the same thing partly because its author was, despite all her intelligence and talent and sophistication, so innocent. She did not see what was coming up behind her, and this is what makes her novel so fascinating, and so tragic. She was writing about the present, with every nerve alert, save the nerve that should have told her to pick up her daughters and run. She was not as powerless as Anne Frank. Even her children's governess had more sense about how to survive.
But as a work of art, Suite Française moves me in the same way that Michelangelo's 'Slaves' moves me. The agonized, unfinished nature of both, struggling out of the element from which they are carved, is more powerful and more truthful than the polished perfection of a completed work - embodying the way we get so much of life wrong, exemplifying the monumental struggle to translate life as it is being lived into art. Suite Française does not give readers the measured, considered virtues of the long view; but only such novels, written in the heat and confusion of the present, tell the future about what it was like to live in the past.