I finished Suite Francaise yesterday. Too engrossed to stop and find a box of tissues I, once again, gave my t-shirt a bit of a soaking. It wasn't the author's fiction that had me in tears but Appendix II full of letters from the author and her husband to agents, friends, and people with political clout. Anyone who could help Irene in the days leading up to her arrest and eventual deportation to Aushwitz where she soon died. Just when I didn't think the behaviour of human beings could shock me any further I read that after the war, Irene's young daughters sought out their grandmother. Arriving at a very comfortable home in Paris, Denise and Elisabeth, were told through a closed door to take themselves off to an orphanage. Unfathomable.
For decades, Denise moved a suitcase containing her mother's notebooks around with her. Thinking they were full of diary entries of the days leading up to the war, the idea of reading them was too painful. After her sister had become an editor in a publishing house they decided to type up the notes before submitting them to an organization which documents these memories.
'Soon she discovered that these were not simply notes or a private diary, as she had thought, but a violent masterpiece, a fresco of extraordinary lucidity, a vivid snapshot of France and the French - spineless, defeated and occupied: here was the exodus from Paris; villages invaded by exhausted, hungry women and children battling to find a place to sleep, if only a chair in a country inn; cars piled high with furniture, mattresses and pots and pans...'
The first few chapters of the book are full of moments when upper-class Jewish families, with the Germans edging ever closer, finally decide to flee their homes. There is almost a hilarity in the sorts of things they pack such as expensive china or the family's pet bird in an elaborate cage. But then again hindsight is 20/20, as they say. Class structure is also very much at play here, such as when Charles Langelet runs out of petrol in the middle of a forest in a makeshift campsite of people fleeing the city...
'"How did I end up here?" Had chance brought him together with the inhabitants of one of the worst neighbourhoods in Paris, or had Charlie's vivid, anxious imagination got the better of him? All the men looked like bandits, the women like con artists.
He was extremely relieved when a little car pulled up next to him with a young man and woman who were clearly a better class of people than the other refugees.'
The lack of any idea that people's situation could get so much worse than the class people are from is so utterly authentic. It's what makes these writings from the immediate atmosphere of war so riveting.
The second half of the book entitled Dolce takes place in a village setting, mostly in the home of Madame Angellier. A young German soldier is billeted there which drives the matriarch absolutely crazy with fury. The thought that her son is knee-deep in the trenches while the enemy sleeps in his bed, warm and dry, eats away at her every fibre. The glances between Bruno and her daughter-in-law, Lucile, do little to ease the tension. Just writing about this storyline makes me want to go back and read the book all over again!
Knowing very little about this story other than it was about occupied France during World War II, my colleagues and I were a bit frustrated by the fractured events and somewhat minimal character development in the first half. Knowing what I do now, about this being a work-in-progress, I am so thankful not to have packed it in. In fact, I'm more than a bit ashamed that it has taken me ten years to get around to reading this truly astounding work but better late than never.