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.
Among those involved in the exodus were Némirovsky, her husband, their two daughters, then aged 5 and 13, and a nanny. The children had been sent out of Paris as soon as the war broke out; the parents followed later, after German troops had entered the capital. The family had more reason than most to try to escape the advancing Germans, since both husband and wife were Russian and Jewish by birth: about as bad a combination from the Nazis’ point of view as could be imagined. They were also wealthy, for the adults belonged to banking families that had made good their flight to France after the Bolshevik Revolution. Possibly that experience led them to hope that their wealth might, in the long run, help them escape from the Nazis – but it didn’t. Doubtless they hoped, too, that their belated conversion to Catholicism, which took place just before the war broke out, might be of assistance to them. But that move turned out to be of no more use to the adults than their money had been – though it may well have saved their daughters from the attention of the Nazis and the local collaborators who soon appeared like another swarm all over France.
The girls took shelter with the mother of their nanny; moving from one house to another, they survived the war and managed to keep with them the suitcase containing the manuscript of the two interconnected novels (‘Storm in June’ and ‘Dolce’) that their mother had been working on when she was arrested and turned over by the French police to the Nazis. Some 64 years later, the elder, surviving daughter set about transcribing for the first time Némirovsky’s much-corrected pages, something she had simply never had the heart to do previously. The two stories appear in this volume together with a brief biography of the author, her fragmentary diary, various letters written by her and her husband, and letters from gentile friends who tried to help them. Among the latter is a ‘To Whom It May Concern’ note from a German sergeant, describing the family as ‘very respectable and obliging’, asking for them to be treated ‘accordingly’, and concluding with his name, rank, number and an obligatory Heil Hitler!
It goes without saying that that Feldwebel Hammberger, 23599A, could do no more to help the family than anyone else. In the extracts from the parents’ letters one can sense the dread that overcame them once they were compelled to wear the yellow star and to await the summons that would carry them, like countless others, eastwards. Nevertheless, even then it was impossible for them to comprehend wholly their own helplessness. How could they? How could anyone? In what terms could a wife and mother in Irène’s position write to her family other than those adopted by her, in July 1942, in the last message she sent to them? ‘My dearest love, my cherished children, I think we are leaving today. Courage and hope. You are in my heart, my loved ones. May God help us all.’ She was the first to go; her husband, who had been left behind for some unexplained reason, went on writing to everyone he could think of, hoping to be told where she had been sent and how she might be helped. This he continued to do for several months, long after she had been killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Then it was his turn to go through the horrors of the same journey to the same end.
Several laudatory reviewers have (understandably) felt obliged to insist that their praise was not dictated by their knowledge of what happened to its writer or by the extraordinary discovery of the manuscript after it had lain unread in an unopened trunk for six decades. The book is worth reading, they maintain, because of what it is, because of the story it tells, not because of the story that can now be told retrospectively about it. For my part I confess that nothing in either part of Suite Française moved me as much as that last letter from Némirovsky to her family, or the frantic letters her husband wrote in trying to ‘trace’ his murdered wife’s whereabouts. Almost as painful is the thought of this 40-year-old mother, hurled out of her comfortable, successful, haut bourgeois life, turned into a refugee again, finding herself among hordes of other desperate and displaced people – and trying to settle down to write a sequence of four or five interrelated novels that would take in this latest turn in her own life and the lives of so many others. As any other novelist would, she uses her diary to sketch out characters and scenes, to urge herself to work harder, to jot down plausible names and to note critically what she perceives as failures in the work she has already done. The pattern she is looking for in this projected sequence, she tells herself at one point, is ‘less a wheel than a wave that rises and falls, and sometimes on its crest appears a seagull, sometimes the Spirit of Evil and sometimes a dead rat’.
From that sentence alone one can see that Némirovsky was anything but an amateur or accidental writer. She had been writing novels for almost two decades before the war broke out (all of them were written in French, not Russian), and had enjoyed considerable success with them. ‘Storm in June’ and ‘Dolce’ are plainly the work of a novelist with an alert eye for self-deceit, a tender regard for the natural world, and a forlorn gift for describing the crumbling, sliding descent of an entire society into catastrophic disorder. There are many sustained scenes and sharply caught moments – especially in ‘Storm in June’, the first of the two novels to be written – that no subsequent rewriting (had the author been given the opportunity) could have improved on. There is, for example, the portrait of Mme Michaud, one of the few wholly sympathetic characters in the story, fleeing from Paris with her husband, but consumed throughout with anxiety over the fate of her only son, Jean-Marie, last heard of serving in a front-line unit somewhere in France. A level-headed woman usually, she is horrified to find that she cannot stop herself from suddenly ‘recognising’ her beloved Jean-Marie in this or that dishevelled, broken young soldier among the crowds they pass through. Or there is the moment when, with the sound of distant gunfire in the air, another mother struggles to stop her schoolboy son from turning quixotically back and going towards the advancing Germans, in order to show them not all Frenchmen are cowards.
At that moment they heard Jacqueline’s piercing screams from upstairs. ‘Mummy, Mummy, come quickly! Albert’s run away!’
‘Albert, is that your other son? Oh, my God!’ exclaimed the spinsters.
‘No, no, Albert’s the cat,’ said Madame Péricand, who thought she was going mad.
And there is the long-presaged yet somehow wholly unforeseen arrival of German troops in a village to which the author does not even assign a name.
There were so many! Silently, cautiously, people came out onto their doorsteps again. They tried in vain to count the flood of soldiers. Germans were coming from all directions. They filled the squares and streets – more and more of them, endlessly. The villagers . . . were stunned by the noise emerging from this wave of green uniforms, by the scent of these healthy young men, their young flesh, and especially by the sound of this foreign language . . . They asked for food and drink. They stroked the children as they went by . . . Their obvious happiness, their delight at being conquerors, their feverish bliss . . . contained such drama, such excitement, that the defeated villagers forgot their sadness and bitterness for a few seconds. They just stood and watched, speechless.
Later, the boy who had threatened to throw himself single-handedly on the German army makes a simple comparison in his own mind between these troops and ‘the winning team at a rugby match’.
Such examples of the writer’s capacity to portray convincingly human beings acting under great stress could be multiplied many times over. Yet I must say that overall neither ‘Storm in June’ nor ‘Dolce’ seems to me to work satisfactorily as a novel. With its rapid movement in many directions (humanly and geographically speaking), ‘Storm in June’ suffers from what becomes the iron maiden embrace of its mode of narration, whereby each family or couple we see setting out in panic from Paris is given more or less equal time in subsequent chapters to pursue its particular fate, with occasional, accidental, tangential overlaps between itself and the others in the same plight. As a result their individual trajectories are difficult to follow; repeatedly, I found myself turning back the pages in order to recall what exactly the nature and circumstances of this or that little group had been initially and how its members have come to be where they are when the author turns her attention to them once again. One might well ask: how else could the story of a rout be told? How else could the randomness and dread, the disconnections and sudden conjunctions of this swarm-like experience be dramatised? These questions are impossible to answer; all I can say is that though Némirovsky is truly seized by her subject, she does not seem to have found the form that would have enabled her to carry through the Tolstoyan task she had set herself. If she had, ‘Storm in June’ would indeed be the masterpiece which some of its more generous reviewers have declared it to be.
By contrast with the earlier piece, ‘Dolce’ is set almost entirely in the subdued, unreal stillness of a small town during the Occupation. Things have settled down, people have adjusted to the new situation, the Germans are still unpopular, but by and large their presence is accepted as one of those things, like the weather, that nobody can do anything about. ‘Dolce’ is much shorter than its predecessor; in large part it is devoted to telling in wholly uncensorious fashion the story of the awkward, burgeoning love between a young married woman, Lucile, and a German officer who is billeted in the house with her and her mother-in-law. Lucile’s husband – whom she has never much cared for – is a prisoner of war in Germany, and the mother-in-law, with whom she shares the family house, watches her like a hawk. The situation is resolved, pro tem, not by an act of God but by an act of Hitler: Germany invades Russia and the garrison packs up and leaves for the Eastern Front. Only then can the two young people haltingly declare something of their love for one another, and seal their declaration with a handshake.
More later. That, one can be sure, was Némirovsky’s intention. But there was never to be a ‘later’, not for the author, not for these figments of her imagination.