The plots and characterization of highly episodic novels often strike me as somehow "thin," and I often have trouble appreciating them as a result. So I was surprised, partway through Irène Némirovsky's Suite française (a tapestry of vignettes set during the German invasion of Paris and occupation of rural France), to find that I was not only liking but loving it. What differentiated this, then, from other episodic novels? For me, it was Némirovsky's unerring ability to pinpoint the tactile quality of a moment in time, suspended motionless but with all its past baggage and future uncertainty still intact, rendering her vignettes eloquent enough to stand on their own or as part of a larger narrative. Tempête en juin, in particular—the first section of this projected five-part novel, of which only two parts were ever completed—was constantly surprising me with the unexpectedness of its emotional insight. Take, for example, the Michaud couple, husband and wife, middle-class bank employees preparing to flee the city with the rest of the Parisians as the Germans advance. Némirovsky describes the process of lovingly cleaning and cleaning the flat, even in the full knowledge that it will likely be bombed or otherwise destroyed before they ever see it again:
Les Michaud s'étaient levés à cinq heures du matin pour avoir le temps de faire l'appartement à fond avant de le quitter. Il était évidemment étrange de prendre tant de soin de choses sans valeur et condamnées, selon toutes probabilités, à disparaître dès que les premières bombes tomberaient sur Paris. Mais, pensait Mme Michaud, on habille et on pare bien les morts qui sont destinés à pourrir dans la terre. C'est un denier homage, une preuve suprème d'amour à ce qui fut cher.
[The Michauds got up at five o'clock in the morning so that they would have time to put the apartment to rights before leaving it. It was undoubtedly strange to take such care of objects without value, and condemned, in all probability, to disappear as soon as the first bombs fell on Paris. But, thought Mme Michaud, one clothes and arrays the dead who are destined to rot in the ground. It's one last homage, a supreme proof of love for that which was dear.
It's the psychology of small moments such as this one, when people act in unexpected ways, or continue to act in expected ways even when that behavior has ceased to make sense, that struck me so forcibly about Némirovsky's writing. Particularly in the sentence about clothing and arraying the dead, her substance as well as her style reminds me of the way Virginia Woolf intermingles outer activity with inner psychological portraits—pretty much the best compliment I could offer.
But whereas novels like Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse take place on ordinary days, reflecting the grand events of the outside world only obliquely, the characters of Suite française are in the midst of a direct collision with the forces of history. The actions required of them—fleeing en masse from their homes in Paris; accommodating themselves to German troops living in their homes and their village—are cataclysmic, and yet these people more or less continue in their accustomed mental and emotional habits as long as they can. The bourgeois Péricand family, for example, is delayed in leaving their house by the servants' insistence on ironing all the handkerchiefs like they always do before anyone leaves on vacation; the writer Gabriel Corte, accustomed to thinking of himself as the absolute center of the universe, is incensed that the war would dare to encroach on his home. Occasionally the characters change and learn over the course of the novel; most often, they really don't. I like that about Suite française: there are no pat epiphanies tied up for the reader with a bow at the end of either section.
Which is not to say that the characters do not journey. Némirovsky portrays the mental and emotional lives of her characters with a quiet precision that offsets perfectly her chaotic, upsetting subject matter, and her characterizations struck me as absolutely believable—even, despite never having been through anything remotely like a foreign invasion of my home, familiar. The way in which one often finds oneself reacting in the "wrong" way to a traumatic experience: thinking odd, disconnected thoughts, experiencing and even expressing inappropriate emotions. It's a quiet portrait of a whole country in violent shock, whose individuals are often unable or unwilling to make the effort involved in donning the customary cloak of civilization and politesse.
I've read quite a few reviews of this book that dwell on how unlikeable the characters are, and there are indeed a few that are totally despicable. Most are what I would consider average people: often selfish; bad under pressure; with their pettinesses and their loyalties that percolate through their lives in predictable and unpredictable ways. Perhaps it speaks to my own worldview (I am sometimes accused of being a cynic), but I found Némirovsky's characterizations accurate and insightful, rather than overly dark. True, there are few real "heroes," but I found almost everyone in the book somewhat likable, if only by virtue of recognizing myself in their actions. Even in the case of Gabriel Corte, surely one of the least sympathetic characters in the novel, I often found myself smiling or grimacing in recognition, as in this scene when he explodes with frustration at having to share the roads with the unwashed masses:
— Si des épisodes aussi douloureux qu'une défaite et un exode ne sont pas rehaussees de quelque noblesse, de quelque grandeur, ils ne méritent pas d'être! Je n'admets pas que ces boutiquiers, ces concierges, ces mal-lavés avec leurs pleurnicheries, leurs ragots, leur grossièreté, avilissent un climat de tragédie. Mais regarde-les! regarde-les!
"If events as painful as a defeat and an exodus are not set off by some nobility, by some grandeur, they don't deserve to exist! I will not accept these shop-keepers, these janitors, these unwashed with their whining, their gossip, their rudeness, debasing the climate of tragedy. Just look at them! look at them!"
What he's saying is obviously despicable—would he have the roads guarded, allowing only those of sufficient "nobility" to save their own lives? And yet he's also so ridiculous as to be darkly funny: does he believe that he himself is acting nobly by complaining that the poor people are messing up his tragic atmosphere? Does he really believe that the universe owes him some kind of meaning in the way it unfolds its events? OF COURSE military defeats and exoduses don't deserve to exist! And yet, can you honestly guarantee that thoughts like these would never pass through your own mind, if you were similarly bored, terrified and grief-stricken, stuck on a hot, dusty road with a huge crowd of panicky people you neither knew nor cared about, but who were impeding your progress toward a place of safety? I certainly can't guarantee they wouldn't pass through mine—or even, if I were exhausted and scared enough, that I wouldn't say them out loud.
Furthermore, to crown this whole complex little episode, a couple of pages later we see one of the despised band of shopkeepers and janitors delivering a grief-stricken little speech of true pathos and nobility. And indeed, I'm eager to seek out Némirovsky's short stories, because she does such an excellent job of creating, in each chapter, a miniature, self-contained journey for the reader, often one whose final paragraphs cause a shift of perspective. Not what I would call a "twist" exactly; more like a turning, as if one were pelting forward on a path only to stop and turn around, glimpsing a different view of the way one had come. She has a developed sense of the irony of life (one character, for example, survives all the dangers of the Paris exodus only to be run down by a car on his safe return), but it never feels gimmicky or overly pat; on the contrary, this is a complex, deeply felt, yet unsentimental portrait, and one I won't soon forget.
All above translations are mine, but there are probably better versions of them available in Sandra Smith's English translation of this book.