Click to enlarge.
It stays with me....(scan by Melanie McDonald).
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. Cover. Published by Vintage 2007. ISBN 9780099488781.
It's Armistice Day today and everywhere is closed - in France the 11th of November is a bank holiday.
Today I thought it appropriate to mention a remarkable book I read during the summer, which has really stayed with me.
The book comprises of two stories - Storm in June and Dolce. The poignancy of the facts surrounding the book's survival and it's author's early death, make it a heartbreaking and painfully irresistible read.
Irene Nemirosky (1903 - 1942) died in Auschwitz. She started this ambitious book in 1941, however she doubted that it would be completed after a premonition that she didn't have long to live. Only two of the planned five parts were completed. She was arrested in July 1942 and sent to Auschwitz where she died on the 17th August.
I love the stories because they feel true - they have the spontaneity of a diary or blog. Irene is writing about her moment in time and she uses her characters (of which she says are linked by 'our times, solely our times', p355) to communicate her feelings. Historical facts are over shadowed by the ordinary daily lives and emotions of the families and individuals portrayed in the stories.
I found Storm, (a depiction of the mass exodus from Paris as the Nazis advance) particularly vivid. In it, Irene dramatically describes how the French upper classes prefer to save their linen and ornaments instead of the lives of their fellow people. (An incredibly controversial subject for the time - I presume this could not have been easily published in the 1950's).
I also found Irene's descriptions of nature throughout the stories very moving;
They heard the sound of an explosion ... She could feel a bell shaped pink flower brushing her lips. Later, she would remember that while they were stretched out on the ground, a small white butterfly was lazily flitting from one flower to another.
From Storm in June. Page 53.
After Irene was arrested, her husband Michel, did not realise that this meant certain death. He wrote in complete despair to Marshal Petain asking to take her place in Auschwitz. He was arrested in October 1942 and went straight to the gas chamber. Thankfully, the police were foiled in their attempts to arrest the two little Nemirovsky girls, who were hidden in cellars, convents and attics until the end of the war. Denise, the older child, had grabbed her mother's leather 'diary' before going into hiding. For years, Denise couldn't bring herself to open the book, only when it was nearly destroyed in a fire did she decide to decipher it.
The other book I read in the summer set in the same period is The Book Theif by Markus Zusak (click to read).
Also see Thinking about The Book Thief (click to read).