Tuesday, January 3, 2012

fiction in context

I read an interesting and well-written book over the holidays Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. She writes about France in WWII. The first novella, Storm, describes the chaotic flight from Paris when its citizens believe the Germans are coming to destroy the city. This novella is primarily about greed and fear and how the French people treat each other. The second novella, Dolce, tells of French people living in a small German-occupied town. Again, it is primarily about the French class struggle, the haves versus the have-nots, with the occupying Germans portrayed surprisingly humanely. As a reader, I did find it somewhat disconcerting that there was essentially no mention of Nazis or Jewish persecution.

What makes this book more interesting is we also have the author's notes about the book. For example, she writes, If I want to create something striking, it is not misery I will show but the prosperity that contrasts with it. and Think about as well: the famous "impersonality" of Flaubert and his kind lies only in the greater fact with which they express their feelings--dramatising them, embodying them in living form, instead of stating them directly and Have no illusions: this is not for now. So mustn't hold back, must strike with a vengeance wherever I want. There's a lot of good writing advice here.

Nemirovsky also outlines 3 additional novellas she plans to complete the book.

However... she does not finish the book.

While working on it, in July of 1942 Nemirovsky was arrested as a foreign Jew by French police (she was born in Russia), detained at Pithiviers and then taken to Auschwitz where she was murdered in the gas chamber within a month. Her last known letter, smuggled out of the transit camp, was: Thursday morning--July 1942 Pithiviers. My dearest love, my cherished children, I think we are leaving today. Courage & hope. You are in my heart, my loved ones. May God help us all.

What is particularly mind-boggling is according to the letters and supplementary materials included, it appears no one in France knew was going on at Auschwitz. Nemirovsky's friends and family wrote many letters (after she was murdered) trying to find out what happened to her so they could send her money, clothing, food, and blankets.

Tragically, during all this, the author's husband offered to take her place in the camp and thus attracted the attention of Nazi authorities. They hauled him to Auschwitz and murdered him immediately in the gas chamber.

As a reader, it is very difficult to consider this book without taking into account the historical context. In my opinion, in context, it is poignant, tragic, agonizing, and frankly, heartbreaking.

I'll leave you with one more quote from Nemirovsky's notebook:
June 28, 1941. ...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.

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