Less a Wheel than a Wave
- Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith
Chatto, 403 pp, £16.99, March 2006, ISBN 0 7011 7896 5
In one of the ruminative, generalising passages interspersed among the domestic and public scenes in War and Peace (battles, a formal ball, the burning of Moscow and so forth), Tolstoy grapples with the question of what degree of free will a human being of any social class might be supposed to have. The paradoxical conclusion he comes to is that the higher the position an individual occupies in his society, the less free he is to act as he wishes. ‘A king,’ Tolstoy writes bluntly, ‘is the slave of history.’ How can this be? Because, he argues, kings, generals and others like them are so closely bound to what he calls ‘the elemental life of the swarm, in which a man has to follow the laws laid down for him . . . The more connections he has with others and the more power he has over them, the more conspicuous is the predestination and inevitability of every act he commits.’
In passages like these, one can see Tolstoy trying to catch in a network of abstract concepts the multifarious, tidal flow of his own novelistic imagination, within which his characters, acting in the belief that they are distinctive, self-driven individuals, reveal themselves to be subject to internal and external forces over which they have little or no control. This moment-by-moment melding together of the characters’ isolation and self-seeking, on the one hand, and their submission to irresistible compulsion on the other, is among the great secrets of the novel’s power. It is a condition that cannot be examined or explained discursively, not even by Tolstoy himself. Yet as a novelist he succeeds brilliantly in making it manifest to his readers: now in this ripple of life, now in that; continuing here, coming to an end there, appearing in different circumstances and in different guise elsewhere.
Tolstoy’s name recurs in the fragmentary diary Irène Némirovsky kept while trying to write Suite Française, but one hardly needs her prompting to detect his presence on almost every page of the first of the two novels published under a single title in this new volume. In effect, Némirovsky, too, set out to dramatise the ‘elemental life of the swarm’, and was plainly conscious of the daunting precedent she wished to emulate. The particular ‘swarm’ she felt compelled to write about was the panic-stricken flight of a large part of the population of eastern and northern France ahead of the invading German armies during the spring and early summer of 1940, when the blitzkrieg brought the ‘phoney war’ to an abrupt end. Anyone who has seen newsreel footage of that stampede westwards will have some idea of the chaos it produced: the miles of cars stalled or abandoned along tree-lined roads, the village squares emptied of their inhabitants, the frantic family groups taking shelter in ditches to escape the strafing of the Luftwaffe, or lying wounded or dead in those same ditches after the planes had gone. (Fuite Française, Némirovsky’s book might as well have been called.) The refugees fled on a common impulse and with no notion of where they might find shelter; by taking to the roads they generally exposed themselves to dangers that they might have avoided had they stayed put. In any case, once the French government had capitulated to the invaders, which it did in great haste, most of the fugitives had no choice but to try to get back as quickly as possible to the homes they had left behind.