Sunday, 31 December 2006

Suite Française

I finished reading Suite Française, having seen all the reviews saying what a wonderful book, a masterpiece etc etc. It was certrainly thought provoking but I suspect I am alone in being disappointed in finding it was not great literature. Good, but not great. As far as I am concerned, the reason it is an exceptional book is how and when it was written rather than the substance.

What makes it fascinating and something not to be missed is the fact that it is a picture of World War II from a point of view we rarely witness, occupied France, and it was written while the story was unfolding. I think it is the small detail which brings the book to life and this would have been fresh in the mind of Irène Némirovski. It feels vivid and immediate. It gives a new perspective of what it would be like to live in an occupied country, something I don’t think I really properly considered before.

The first section “Storm in June” I found a little difficult to follow with so many different characters and several different points of view, but it seemed in a way to be a reflection of the chaos of war, the turmoil surrounding the flight from Paris. It seemed we didn’t really get to know the characters very well but they were well drawn. You need also to read the Appendices to realise the full potential of the book, and where it was going. It was intended to be a five part work. Of course if the following volumes had been written as intended no doubt the characters would have become fuller. The least pleasant of them seemed to be best equipped for survival (débrouillard I suppose). The second section “Dolce” is much quieter, more peaceful and the characters seem pleasanter. One of the reviewers, from The Independent, thinks the first part better than the second. I’m not sure. I don’t know whether it was better or not, but I preferred the second part, possibly because it was easier to empathise with the characters.

Collaboration has always been portrayed as something to despise and yet here we see that the occupiers are people too. You can relate to people on a personal level and forget they are occupying forces. In my mind I need to redefine collaboration with occupying forces. It is one thing to relate on a personal level and quite another to sympathise with their ideologies. It brings to mind when I was on an exchange visit with an Austrian family. They were lovely people but when the father, who had been a doctor during the war, did mention the war, and said “Of course I think we were a little bit right and you will think you were a little bit right”, I was horrified.

It would be interesting to read a few other books of the same period eg
Rosemary Sullivan - VILLA AIR-BEL: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille.
Richard Vinen - The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation.
Charles Rearick - The French in Love and War: Popular Culture in France, 1914-1945 (Hardcover).
Possibly also Christopher Lloyd - Collaboration and Resistance in Occupied France: Representing Treason and Sacrifice , though this is an academic book and very expensive

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