Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

This is a book that's probably better known for its author, who died at the hands of the Nazis, than the plot, which was to be a huge, five volume undertaking about the Nazi occupation of France. Why a biological Jew was writing a book about life in occupied France instead of getting the hell out of France is a mystery, one that probably will never be answered. While her husband, who was also killed, tried desperately to save them, Nemirovsky seemed fated to passing away.

Ironically, her last, unfinished book, uncovered after decades, seemed to be more favorable to the Germans who would kill her than her own countrymen. This is probably partly due to hoping to stay alive and partly because she was not a native of France, and probably had some resentment of the natives.

At any rate, this book is really two books--an introduction to all the characters she'd intended to use, and also a second book, more readable than the first, concentrating on a small part of them, and in particular the relationship between a German officer and a French woman who does not particularly care for her missing husband or mother-in-law.

The main problem I have with this one is that, in wishing to respect the dead author, the editor made no attempt, especially in the first half, to make the book more legible. There are a lot of places where "he said" and "she said" dominate, and with so many characters passing through, I frequently had no idea who was speaking.

Even in the second part, this was a problem. There are also a few times where it's clear there was placeholder sections, and even a few, "this is what I'm going to do with X" passages. For some people, this makes it an impossible book for them to read. That's a fair argument, and I don't fault them for it. I fumbled with the first half for quite awhile, and considered giving up myself. The dense text and obvious need for revision do tend to make this something you read more for historical purposes than for pure enjoyment.

It also doesn't help that Nemirovsky appears to be a tell, don't show type of writer. There's a lot of times where a lengthy piece of text stands in where dialog or a short scene could have done better. I haven't read any of her other work, so I don't know if this is a trait or just a quirk of being unedited, but for someone who really prefers the characters to just talk a lot, her endless scenes of telling us what her cast was intending, doing, or failing to do really just didn't grab me.

All in all, I feel like this is a book better suited for those looking for a historical oddity than a good story. It seems like the popularity of the work derives more from the tragedy of the writer's life than the quality of the work itself. Though I know it got a lot of buzz at the time, I just don't think this one is worth it unless you are looking it at from a cultural standpoint instead of a literary standpoint.

I appreciate those who want to read it as such, and I am glad Nemirovsky's family was able to get some closure with its publication. But it's obviously not something that was intended in this form for publication. I just don't really enjoy reading work that wasn't meant for/ready for publication--that's not what I want out of my fiction as a general rule. I read far too much non-fiction to analyze my fiction from a cultural standpoint. If you read fiction for fiction's sake, I think you're probably best served elsewhere. If you want to see a writer struggle with writing a narrative that expresses her frustrations but tries to keep the "winning" side happy, then give this a shot, but be prepared to read a story that wasn't even at workshop quality by the time it had to be abandoned.