4.06.2009

suite française: "our parents practice no religion; as for us, we are catholic..."

I recently blogged about Suite Française, the novel about Nazi-occupied France, written by a woman who was living the nightmare. The "suite" was meant to be five novels; the author wrote two before being arrested, imprisoned, and murdered at Auschwitz.

Yesterday I read the appendices to the novels. The first appendix is the English translation of Némirovsky's handwritten notes. She writes about the situation in France, and about her plans for her books. It begins:
My God! what is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honour and its life. And the other countries? What are they to me? Empires are dying. Nothing matters. Whether you look at it from a mystical or a personal point of view, it's just the same. Let us keep a cool head. Let us harden our heart. Let us wait.

The author's notes are even more riveting than the book itself. The entries on what is happening in France are impossibly tragic, as the reader knows the ending, but the writer did not. Naturally, The Diary of Anne Frank comes to mind, but this is written by a mature woman, now stripped of her means of providing for her family, struggling to survive.

The entries about the book itself are fascinating to me as a writer. Némirovsky sounds flush with discovery and joy; I recognize the excitement of the creative process, the questions she wrestles with. She believes she is creating a masterpiece. (She did.)

In Dolce, the second book of Suite Française, Némirovsky writes about the ordinary German soldiers with a great deal of sympathy, distinguishing between the individual soldier and the regime that sent him there. She has infinitely more sympathy for the German soldiers than she does for the French upper-class who couldn't capitulate fast enough in order to maintain their own comfort. In her notebook she writes about the Germans that were occupying the town.
They're leaving. They were depressed for twenty-four hours, now they're cheerful, especially when they're together. The little dear one sadly said, "The happy times are over." They're sending their packages home. They're overexcited, that's obvious. Admirably disciplined and, I think, no rebellion in their hearts. I swear here and now never again to take out my bitterness, no matter how justifiable, on a group of people, whatever their race, religion, convictions, prejudices, errors. I feel sorry for these poor children. But I cannot forgive certain individuals, those who reject me, those who coldly abandon us, those who are prepared to stab you in the back. Those people...if I could just get my hands on them... When will it all end? The troops that were here last summer said "Christmas," then July. Now end '41.

The second appendix is correspondence: Némirovsky's to her publisher, Némirovsky's husband, Michel Epstein, trying to save her. He naively believes that his wife's specific circumstances will save her.
My wife, Madame M. Epstein, is a very famous novelist, I. Némirovsky. Her books have been translated in a great many countries and two of them at least - David Golder and Le Bal - in Germany. . . . [He details how their families fled the Russian Revolution.] All this must satisfy you that we feel nothing but hatred for the Bolshevik regime.

In France, not a single member of our family has ever been involved in politics. I was a bank manager and as for my wife, she became a highly esteemed novelist. In none of her books (which moreover have not been banned by the occupying authorities) will you find a single word against Germany, and, even though my wife is of Jewish descent, she does not speak of the Jews with any affection whatsoever in her works. My wife's grandparents, as well as my own, were Jewish; our parents practice no religion; as for us, we are Catholic and so are our children, who were born in Paris and are French.

If I may also take the liberty of point out out to you that my wife has always avoided belonging to any political party...

Finally, for many years my wife has been suffering from chronic asthma . . . and internment in a concentration camp would be fatal to her.

I know, Ambassador, that you are one of the most eminent men in your country's government. I am convinced you are also a just man. And it seems to me both unjust and illogical that the Germans should imprison a woman who, despite being of Jewish descent, has no sympathy whatsoever - all her books prove this - either for Judaism or the Bolshevik regime.

Although this letter is clearly written as a plea - it's doubtful that he really thinks the German ambassador is a just man - Epstein writes many other letters, to everyone and anyone who might be in a position to help. The correspondence is gruesome to read, because you know the ending.

There is also an afterward, which was the preface to the French edition, and gives the chronology of Némirovsky's life, her exile, her arrest, and what happened to her and her family afterwards. About her husband's letters, it explains:
When Irène was taken away, Michel [her husband] did not understand that to be arrested and deported meant certain death. Every day he expected her to come home and insisted, at mealtimes, that her place be set at the table. In complete despair, he wrote to Marshal Petain to explain that his wife had a delicate constitution and to request permission to take her place in the labour camp.

In October 1942, the Vichy government responded by arresting him. He was first imprisoned at Creusot, then Drancy, where his search document shows that 8,500 francs were taken from him. On 6 November 1942, he too was deported to Auschwitz and was sent straight to the gas chamber.

10 comments:

Cid said...

I agree, reading the additional notes was heart-wrenching. I am sure that, at the time, no one could imagine what was happening to those who were being sent to the camps.

James said...

I am sure that, at the time, no one could imagine what was happening to those who were being sent to the camps.

Art Spiegleman's amazing Maus, a graphic novel about Spiegleman's parents' experiences in WWII, including Auschwitz, addresses this, talking about how many Jews were in deep denial over the rumours that were making it out of the camps.

On a somewhat related note, Daily Kos had a posting a couple of days back by someone who's father had been an enthusiastic member of Hitler Youth before wising up. They recently had this exchange:

One day, we had the TV on, and for whatever reason (that I have forgotten), we were watching Fox News. My father watched for about ten minutes, then he said, "What is this?"
"Fox News," I answered.
"This is some kind of joke, right?"
"Uhm, no."
"You mean this is an actual news show? Not satire?" My father obviously thought I was pulling his leg.
"No, it's not satire. Why are you asking?" I said.
"Because all you have to do is change a few adjectives, and it's Nazi talk."

L-girl said...

talking about how many Jews were in deep denial over the rumours that were making it out of the camps.

Of course, many European Jews fled. And for many others, being in denial might have been the only way to cope, since after a certain point, there was nothing to be done anyway.

But your point about denial is important. I have felt that USians have been doing the same thing for a long time now.

Thanks for that re Fox News.

James said...

Of course, many European Jews fled. And for many others, being in denial might have been the only way to cope, since after a certain point, there was nothing to be done anyway.

I'm certainly not criticizing! The stories coming out were so horrific that it was not unreasonable to think they were enemy propaganda. And even the Jews who were fleeing often didn't believe these stories -- things were bad enough to make them flee even without death camps.

L-girl said...

I'm certainly not criticizing!

Oh, I knew that. :)

I meant that only as more commentary.

The very worst things in the world always do seem exaggerated for effect. Hitler's concentration camps - Abu Ghraib - Khmer Rouge - Rwanda - the stadiums and torture regimes of South America - they all seem too impossible to be real, yet they happened.

redsock said...

"This is some kind of joke, right?"

This should replace "Fair and Balanced" as Fox's tag line.

Cornelia said...

Do these political accomplices of Bush and the Republicans really advertise for themselves by calling them "the fair and balanced network", Allan? Before I always thought that's just irony. Of course that erroneous subtitle should be removed asap!! It sounds like some fairy tales used in commercials...

redsock said...

Cornelia: Right up there in the upper left corner.

Cornelia said...

O yeah, Allan. OMG!!

Cornelia said...

But thanks for the info, now I know that, too!