Thursday, February 01, 2007

[Book Club] Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky, Sandra Smith (Translator)

I will admit, albeit sheepishly, that I still don't know how to properly pronounce the title of this book. But you'll be glad to know, I'm sure, that it has not stopped me from trying out every possible variation while I suggested it to everyone under the sun. As it turns out, even the so-called French speakers that surround me in my daily life can't consistently pronounce the book's name, so I have stopped feeling guilty and started just being happy that I came across Suite Francaise in the first place.

I was totally drawn in by the history of the book before I even ordered it. I had been doing my usual prowl around Amazon, testing the whole "Recommendations for You" business and finding it mostly horseshitty since it was making recommendations based on kids movies I'd bought for my little cousins and books that had previously been Recommended for Me and had sucked the bag. For some reason (unadulterated procrastination) I went through and did some fixing up of my recommendations (marking Not Interested next to Batman Begins, for instance) and a scant hour later, I was actually able to see some marked improvement. Oh, so this thing does work. Huh.

And the title that kept floating to the top, a recommendation based on books I'd actually liked, turned out to be a total keeper.

To me, Suite Francaise has nearly all the elements that I find enjoyable in a read. Rich history, an interesting author, elements of history that I can recall from my neglected childhood textbooks, mild voyeurism, deranged behavior, blatant humanity and murder.

Had the book been perched on a chocolate cake and made me laugh out loud, I probably would have married it.

I thought the unbiased mirroring of individuals fleeing their homeland (France) during the German invasion of WWII was simply stare-worthy. I'm sure there were times that Bubba looked across the living room at me and instead of seeing his wife, saw a bug-eyed, slack-jawed drooling fiend thumbing page corners anxiously while waiting to flip.

I simply couldn't look away. Like sitting in an airport watching all the freaks go by in their bizarre flying attire (why tie so many sweaters around your waist?), I was just riveted by the raw representation of the characters and their many personal flaws. Not to mention the fact that the author was ripped from her home and shipped to Auschwitz before she was able to finish the third, and what I'd imagine would be, the most excruciating section of the book, never left my mind.

BTW, did anyone else find the section with the priest horrifyingly fresh? No neat happy endings around here.

A quote from her journal a few weeks before she was arrested and taken to Auschwitz, read that she meant to describe " daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides."

Now, there isn't much comedy lying around in the stories of WWII, fleeing of homelands, loss of life during war, genocide, etc. But there's plenty of irony. And so, perhaps this is more of a "Haha ironic" kind of comedy rather than "Haha funny". That's just me though. I've been known to miss a joke or two before.

The section (Dolce) that she devoted to unmasking the lives of people living under German occupation was bold and honest. At no point in the book did I feel like she was siding with one viewpoint or another, simply pulling back the curtain on reality and what people do to survive and maintain their sanity. I totally appreciated that. I never felt pandered to. And there was some stuff in there that wasn't all that pretty.

In the end, I felt more like I was watching the sections of the book from a second story window than flipping through pages of a novel. Wretchedly honest and unforgiving, she gives you an authentic feeling for what people go through during situations as severe as escaping invasion and enduring occupation.

And with that under our belts, I'm ready for something weird.

And no one does weird like Christopher Moore.

You Suck: A Love Story

See you in a month and a half (let's say 3/15). Happy honking.



  1. It's easier for me to just tell you to read the review on this that I wrote on my book blog. That woman stayed with me though.

  2. Barb - after reading your review (which was incredible)...I think you really hit on something with your observation that she was optimistic throughout the writing of the novel. Highlighting the sunlight as it shone down or the croaking of the frogs.

    I agree, she did give off a sense of hope and optimism throughout the book. Like she always felt that the misery was just about to be lifted and they would be back to their normal lives.

    I get the impression that this was her point - to let you feel that sense of anxiety and expectation that people get during war - that this is merely a temporary situation that, at any moment, could disappear and return them to their daily lives.

  3. I wrote this before Finny posted her article but then had trouble posting it on the 1st! Bad Blogger!

    First I admit that I procrastinated on this selection because 400 pages was overwhelming to me. I didn’t crack it open until I went to the dentist a couple weeks ago, where I always have to wait a REALLY long time. I was hooked in the first few pages. Pure poetry. I usually don’t read fiction and that’s mainly because a lot of it fails to touch me, but this book is definitely an exception. The writing is truly gifted, poetic, and engulfs you completely.

    I was also procrastinating because I didn’t want to read a book about Hitler, the Nazis, concentration camps, etc. I just don’t handle reading or hearing about suffering very well, I am overly sensitive and it stays with me. Although this book takes place during the German occupation of France, like the author mentions in her notes which are printed in the back of the book: “Must have people, and human reactions, and that’s all….” You get a true sense of these characters and what they go through, but you see it from their perspective in terms of the “collective destiny” that the author talks about in her notes… you get a feel for the bigger picture and how human beings in general might react and perhaps did react (since the author wrote this during the period she was writing about, while in exile herself in the French countryside) when faced with a catastrophe like this.

    I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone. It’s a fairly quick read. The correspondence printed in the back of the book that details the author’s husband’s struggle to find out his wife’s whereabouts after she is taken away to a concentration camp is gut-wrenching to read but I feel very historically important. It gives you a sense of immediacy and takes you into what it must have been like to not know from one minute to the next where your life was going, or the lives of your loved ones.

    I think this book along with the author’s notes and correspondence in the appendices is an important historical and literary work. It’s just such a shame that her plan to finish the series of volumes was not accomplished. And even more poignant that the author herself realizes this as a distinct possibility in several places in her notes. I can’t imagine that kind of anguish, and to think that this was the work that came out of it! It’s really amazing.

    I had never heard of this book before. Good choice, Jess.

  4. Shelley - I'm glad you commented on the notes in the appendices. At first I wasn't going to read them, since I was born without the gene that gives one the patience to endure epilogues, prologues, source logs, footnotes, etc. However, I found myself on the long end of a flight delay sitting on the tarmac in Dallas when I reached the end of the book, so into the notes I went.

    I'm so glad I did.

    The perspective that you get from the book is incredible to begin with - but when the extra layer of perspective from her husband's point of view is introduced, it's hard not to feel his frustration and desperation. This really put the "real" into the story and helped her achieve the emotional daily life that she was striving to portray in her novel.

    I'd say that it's almost her daughters' way of paying respects to their mother by following the vision of her novel in the first place.

    So glad you enjoyed it.


[2013 update: You can't comment as an anonymous person anymore. Too many douchebags were leaving bullshit SPAM comments and my inbox was getting flooded, but if you're here to comment in a real way like a real person, go to it.]

Look at you commenting, that's fun.

So, here's the thing with commenting, unless you have an email address associated with your own profile, your comment will still post, but I won't have an email address with which to reply to you personally.

Sucks, right?

Anyway, to remedy this, I usually come back to my posts and post replies in the comment field with you.

But, if you ever want to email me directly to talk about pumpkins or shoes or what it's like to spend a good part of your day Swiffering - shoot me an email to finnyknitsATgmailDOTcom.