I admit that in my last post I complained that I would be put off by another book that focused the Second World War, but Suite Francaise is a bit different as it was written during in 1941 (but the manuscript was kept by Nemirovsky’s daughter and actually read about half a century later). It is also worth noting that the author was gassed in a concentration camp 1942.
Due to this bizarre story, Suite Francaise is considered a publishing phenomenon , however does the story actually live up to it’s history?
As such I would say yes, but I admit that a part of me is holding back and I’ll explain why
‘Suite Francaise’ is divided into two parts (it was originally going to be five) the first half is called ‘Storm in June’ and it is absolutely fantastic. A well written account of people leaving Paris and undertaking a long journey to the countryside. Nemirovsky focuses on certain individuals (mostly from the upper classes) and how they cope with this exodus, by turns grotesque,humorous and charming this is virtually perfect. According to the appendix on my edition this section was planned out very carefully and it shows.
The second part, called ‘Dolce’ is not as good. It concerns a small French village that is occupied by Germans. Most of it focuses on a romance between a German soldier and a country girl. Although it is not too bad I felt that it needed some editing, maybe from the publishers side as well.
The thing that amazed me was that Nemirovsky’s writing style is very contemporary and it takes a while before you realise that everything is taking place in 1940’s France and not contemporary France. Also her chapters are bite sized and very readable. In fact the only other French author (as I have an A level in French we were exposed to a lot of literature ) who manages evoke the same contemporary feelings is Maupaussant. Not only that but Nemirovsky also creates the same creepy/black humor feel that Maupassant perfected.
Considering that Suite Francaise is considered the very first fiction book written about WWII ( I don’t know how valid that claim is but certain websites have stated this) and that it is unfinished makes me wonder what Nemirovsky would be capable of writing had she lived. Already in this state Suite Francaise, does indeed have the makings of a classic.
I had a feeling that after reading Philip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America’ I would be disappointed by any book that followed it, no matter how much it was praised and loved. Such is the case when I read Toibin’s ‘The Master’.
‘The Master’ (as that is what he’s called among literary circles) chronicles the life of Henry James. The novels begins with his theatrical failure ‘Guy Domville and ends with James’ older brother William visiting him. In between we get a lot of flashbacks of James’ life and what influenced his writing, his releationships with his cousin Minnie, novelist friend Constance Fenimore Woolson and sculptor Henrik Andersen (as rumours go that James was a closet homosexual). We also get snapshots of his childhood relations with his brothers and sister ( I would also say this is the highlight of the book . As well we get glimpses of the present and James is plotting out ‘The Turn of the Screw’
The way Toibin merges past with present is nothing short of exquisite. Both entwine each other so delicately that the reader doesn’t even notice that there is a flashback until a bographical detail crops up and after rearching on James I found out that the majority of the episodes in the book did actually happen so it’s a historically correct novel.
However I admit I fond the prose dry and, at times stilted so I did lose patience with some passages, it moves at a dreary pace and sometimes the extra details can be tiresome. Again this could be because I expected this piece of faction to be similar to the Roth book that I read so maybe my expectations were too high. Plus there have been way too many ‘ historical novels’ in the list and I am wanting something a bit more contemporary now (in fact the next novel is set in the second World War so I’m wondering how i’ll react to it)
With the exception of ‘Portney’s Complaint’ and the superb collection of stories ‘Goodbye Columbus’ , I never was a big fan of Philip Roth. I have read about six of his novels and I find his plots – The plight of the American Jew- too self indulgent. In fact I had attempted to read ‘The Plot Against America’ back in 2004 and abandoned it halfway through. (incidentally I won it for writing a review on Franz Ferdinand’s second album). Now after re-attempting it for a second time, I am super pleased to have finished it and I can safely say that this is one of those books that impressed me greatly and during the last few days, had TONS of trouble putting down.
In essence ‘The Plot…’ plays with a what if situation. In this case it is ‘What if famous pilot Charles Lindbergh was elected as President of the United States?’ for those who do not know Lindbergh did have Nazi connections and did make public announcements that had antiSemite undertones, he was also a promoter of peace though and the novel protrays these aspects of his character perfectly. The year is 1940 and the second world war and consequently the persecution of European Jews is in full swing.
The novel focuses on the Roth family and how Lindbergh’s election affects them and this is where Roth’s craft as a writer really works. In normal hands the book would be about persecutions and violent horrors but Roth steers away from that and documents the amount of paranoia that the father Herman Roth suffers from and it is his actions which actually cause disruptions, rather than Lindbergh’s policies. Through his irrational fear he cuts off relations with his relatives and friends and all of this is told through the son Philip Roth. Again do not expect childlike naivety. One gets the impression that the elder Roth is reeling off memoirs to an audience every fact is is correct and shows no innocence whatsoever.
Towards the end of the novel the real problems start to occur and Lindbergh’s real schemes are exposed and this is when anti Semite killings and violence takes precedence and the book itself ends on a sort of cliffhanger, but in this case It’s not important, what Roth is showing us is how fear can make a human do things to disrupt his daily routine and becomeanimalistic.
There is great subtlety here, nothing is in your face or, until later on, shocking. Disturbing,yes but there is never anything to make you react. This is a novel that creeps up on you and embraces you fully. Yet it is powerful and packs quite a wallop.
It is funny that after writing books for nearly fifty years Roth still hasn’t lost his touch and is still able to entrance people with his writing. One can see that by writing a novel as fantastic as The Plot against America, Roth is one of the few living writers who can be branded as abona fide genius.
The most dominant theme in tis book, and is pondered upon by the the author is love. Here love takes on many forms whether one sided, lustful , failed or pure. Enquist examines how it effects the two main protagonists of the novel’s title.
Blanche Wittman was one of the patients of the neurologist J.M. Charcot and ended up as an assistant to Marie Curie. The book details both women’s love affairs including the slight lesbianic one they had with each other. Along in this historical soap opera there are appearances by other famous scientists of the late 1800’s such as Freud, Tourette and Becquerel. Eventually Blanche is amputated and lives in a box (as really happened) and Curie died of over radiation and both transferring their love to their people who adored them the most. In Wittman’s case it was Charcot and in Curie’s case it was Pierre. The whole book takes the form of the author narrating all the details from three notebooks that Wittman left behind.
Historically the book is extremely accurate and the way Enquist manages to make characters interact has to be read. Also the sheer fluidity of the novel’s writing (or at least the translation) is another thing to behold. But, to be honest I found The Book about Blanche and Marie to be rather dull, plus enquist drives his point home by constant repetition, something which irritated me. By the end I was terribly disappointed as I had high hopes for this novel.