I’m sure some of you have already read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. For those of you who have not, you must go out and get it.
Némirovsky was a Russian Jew who had lived in Paris for twenty years by the time the Nazis invaded France. She was a successful novelist and mother to two young girls. After the Nazis occupied Paris, Némirovsky fled with her husband, Michel, to Issy-l’Evêque, the hometown of their girls’ nanny, where the girls had been living for several months. Life was increasingly difficult for them because although they were all baptized Catholic, they were still Jews.
During this time, Némirovsky was at work on what she thought would be her masterpiece—a thousand-page novel in five sections, constructed like a symphony. The interesting thing about the way Némirovsky wrote is that she made notes about her characters, getting to know major and minor characters and plotting out the book before she actually wrote it. After she knew as much as she could about her characters, she wrote the book. This is amazing, especially for someone (me) whose first drafts are usually crappy. I write, then rewrite, then rethink, then re-vision almost everything. And indeed, I tell my students that they MUST revise, that through revision they will find the true subjects of their essays and stories.
Vladimir Nabokov said, “I have re-written—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” And Raymond Carver wrote 20-30 drafts of every story he published.
I know not every writer revises, but it’s so much a part of what I must do, that writers like Némirovsky blow me away. Suite Française is amazing. Her prose is lovely, her understanding of human nature is uncanny, and her characters are drawn so carefully that you know them within a few pages. It’s remarkable, also, that she could write so clearly about the times through which she lived in the midst of actually living them.
Suite Française contains only two of the five sections that Némirovsky intended. In 1942, she was arrested, deported, and murdered at Auschwitz. (Her husband was also gassed there.) The nanny fled with their daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, who took with them their mother’s leather-bound notebook as a memento, and made it through the war hiding in various parts of occupied France.
It was 64 years before Denise opened the notebook, 64 years before she realized that it was a novel her mother had been writing.
There are several appendices, which explain Némirovsky life’s and include notes on what she thought would happen in the book. (So although you don’t know have all five sections of the book, you have a sense of what she intended for the last three.) These notes are fascinating because she had such a clear sense of what she wanted the book to be while she was still in the midst of it.
For me, the middle of a book is a messy time. I’m sloshing around in there, almost blindly. I have no idea if what I’m writing will be cohesive or coherent. Not Némirovsky. She knew exactly what she wanted to do: write a book dealing with the “struggle between individual destiny and collective destiny.” And she did it, even though she wasn’t able to finish it.
There has been some controversy about her and her posthumous success because she turned her back on the Jewish community. Pre-war, she moved in anti-Semitic circles, and during the war, she and her whole family converted to Catholicism. You would not know Suite Française was written by a Jew. Nowhere in the book will you find the word “Jewish.” There is no mention of the plight of the Jews during WWII.
I’m not sure how I feel about this, and I feel ill-equipped to comment on what I would have done in the same situation. (How can we really know?) But I’ll ask this: if you thought baptizing your children as Catholic would save their lives, would you do it?