I wanted to let this one sit a while, because I have some pretty intense feelings about it.
That, and I’m lazy.
Spoilers for both book and film of the same name.
The good thing about reaching this part of my reading list is that I’m finally into the books I started adding in 2016, so go me! Hahaha I’m never going to read all the books I want to and perhaps it is futile to try.
Anyway, for people who have seen the film and wish to read the book, whether in French or in the English translation by Sandra Smith (or any other translation, I suppose), something to be aware of: the film only focused on one plot thread in the second novella, so don’t get worried when you don’t see Bruno and Lucille at the beginning. I didn’t realise when I started reading that the book was comprised of two novellas (of a planned five). I also didn’t realise the author was an established author, I was under this weird misconception that Némirovsky was, like, a secret hobby writer? I think because of the “manuscript in the attic” aspect. Anyway, she was patently not.
More non-story nonsense to get out of the way: if you’re interested in reading in the original French but have the British Kindle store, I can confirm that the French version on there is perfectly fine. I was a bit leery because it looks a bit… pirated? but I think it’s just that the publishing house deals with ebook versions of other things for different markets. Anyway, it’s decently formatted and generally typo-free.
And a quick final disclaimer: I am not a native French speaker! I’m not even decently well-read in French, so there’s not going to be a lot about style, and what there is will be incredibly subjective because as a non-native speaker, I read for comprehension, not nuance. It’s very possible that what I think of as expressive and complex may come across to a well-read French speaker as trite and melodramatic!
So, to begin, I really enjoyed this. Némirovsky must have written these stories while the dust was still settling. The first novella, Tempête en juin, follows a number of characters through the Paris Exodus of 1940, when millions of people fled Paris as the Germans arrived, from the well-to-do Péricand family, a bundle of children and servants and aged father-in-law headed by the fierce Madame Péricand to Charlie Langelet, supremely rich and misanthropic, who loves only his collection of porcelain statues, to the snobbish author Gabriel Corte and his mistress, who can’t bear the suffering of the populace because it is simply so ugly and inconvenient, to the elderly Michauds, undertaking impossible journeys at the whim of a particularly callous employer.
Némirovsky perhaps focuses a little too much for my taste on the wealthy, but there’s still a wide enough range of characters who undergo a wide range of experiences and react in a wide range of ways. Madame Péricand, one of those ulterior-motively Good Daughters-in-Law who does more of the messy work of looking after her grumpy, wealthy, capricious father-in-law than she would be expected to do, given the servants, and an ostentatious patron of charities, has a moment in a café. The family are on their way to stay with relatives in Vichy, and are able to continue living in a relatively comfortable manner through their monetary reserves… until the shops run out of goods to sell. Suddenly, the sweets and biscuits she’s set her younger children to distributing among the poor kids aren’t that disposable. Suddenly, charity means giving away things that mean something. And she snaps at the kids to stop giving their stuff away.
The Exodus brings out hidden depths in the characters, and sometimes hidden flaws. Characters who pride themselves on being distant and sanguine and cool suddenly find that their endurance has limits. Some characters find that they’re stronger than they ever knew, and others that they’re weaker. People are lost and found, killed and miraculously recovered.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the Exodus is the end. Because it did end. Some characters reached their destinations, and others simply cannot leave or are turned back home. There’s this sort of anticlimax for some characters, when they get back home after a horrible, stressful time on the road and their house is there waiting for them, all the furniture covered up and the cupboards swept bare.
The second novella, Dolce, deals with the invasion that followed. German soldiers are stationed in villages and towns, living in the houses of the French inhabitants, sharing their lives intimately and at the same time living totally different lives. This is Bruno and Lucille’s story, but it’s also the story of a whole village – and Némirovsky’s weather and scenery writing is sublime, by the way. I feel like I spent winters and summers in that village. It’s all about the atmosphere, the capturing of what it was like to have an invader living in your house, what it was like to be an invader living in someone else’s house, and all the complicated feelings surrounding it. The getting used to it, and being jarred back into the sharp reality. The almost tourist nature of some of the soldiers in some senses, and yet all the posters prohibiting this and that on pain of death. The language issues, the meeting of common humanity and the uncrossable gulfs of victor and vanquished. It’s a shorter novella than the first, and a much quieter plot, but it’s bursting at the seams with the unsaid.
This is a book that’s hard to read without thinking of the circumstances of its writing. The language must be absolutely contemporary, as there was no chance for later revision. The portrayal of life is so intricate and detailed that it has the ring of truth (though of course I wasn’t there). There’s even a rawness here and there where I wonder if she would have edited it or had it edited if she’d had the chance. Of course there’s a huge absence that you can’t really ignore, as well. Némirovsky was killed for being Jewish (though she seems to have converted to Roman Catholicism at some point), but there’s no mention of Jewishness in the book. None of the characters are Jewish, none of them mention Jewishness except as an aside when Corte is thinking of all of his friends who’ve fled the country long before the Exodus. It’s left entirely out of the war, and I genuinely don’t know if this is because Némirovsky made the concrete choice not to write about it (either because she didn’t think of herself as Jewish after her conversion, or because she didn’t want to tell that story, or because she was the “self-hating Jew*” some critics paint her as) or whether this wasn’t a widely known part of the war outside Germany? I don’t know enough about WW2 to say, but I’m sure there are people out there who’ll have a better idea of how things were.
I can’t tell if the story feels so immediate because I don’t know much about the French experience of WW2, or because Némirovsky wrote it as everything was happening and it’s managed to retain some of the feeling of not knowing what will happen and how everything will end. But it does feel immediate, and reading from the future, where we know how everything will end, doesn’t diminish that. Perhaps it’s because the story was never finished, so we’re put into the position of the characters in the story who don’t know the fate of their loved ones. At the end of Dolce, we don’t know what the war will bring for the characters we’ve followed thus far. All we can do is hope fate will be kind to them.
* Given the evidence/reasoning and from a very non-Jewish, non-researched point of view, I have to say that if anything, she might have been trying to protect herself and her family from a lot of abuse, and also that it’s a bit rich to criticise Jewish people who distanced themselves from the faith and culture to avoid a society’s anti-Semitism (and, you know, murder) that was, after all, created by non-Jewish people. I don’t feel comfortable judging people for making survival choices in hostile environments, which goes double given what actually happened to her.