Author: Irene Nemirovsky
Finished reading on 8/4/17
I read this novel for two reasons: the film and the story behind the novel. They say this novel is perhaps the first work of fiction every written about WWII. The author was a Jew living in France and in 1942 she was caught by the Germans, sent to a death camp and died there. This novel that she was in the midst of writing at the time remained lost, hidden in a suitcase for over 60 years. It was found and published in 2004. According to Nemirosky’s notes, the final novel was to have 5 parts but she only had time to finish part 1 and part 2. From what I gather, the novel was to be along the same vein as something like The Joy Luck Club. A collection of novellas or short stories that all overlap and tell a greater story of life in France during WWII. So even though the reader isn’t left hanging with a bunch loose ends when part 2 is finished there is still a definite sense that the greater vision is lacking. And because of this, the film, which focuses only on part 2 and turns that part into its own stand-alone story, gives a more satisfying and complete experience.
Part 1, however, taken on its own is an extremely fascinating piece of literature. It’s all about the mass exodus from Paris as the Germans advance through France. The refugees crawl through the countryside trying to stay ahead of the German forces. The narrative follows 4 families fleeing from Paris during the summer months as bombs, air raids and battles keep everyone in a state of panic. What’s truly fascinating is seeing people’s reactions to reality. As it has been said before, trauma reveals your true self like an opaque class spilling it’s liquid. The reader sees a famous writer show his true shallowness, a cultured man become a common thief, a teenage boy run to and then flees from a battle, a Christian family leave behind their ailing grandfather unattended and forgotten and more. The thousands of years of civilization and culture and tradition all melt away in the face of a frightening, horrific, tragedy. Humans are humans and humans are mostly, ultimately petty when you get right down to it. The brilliant bit is that not everything is so hopeless unredeemable. And that’s what makes this piece such a layered tapestry of the human condition and the human spirit.
Part 2 though is the really thought provoking and heart touching story. This part of the novel is set in a rural village during the German occupation of France. A regiment of German troops moves into the village, Bussy, for three months. The main character, Lucile, who lives with her mother-in-law (her husband is a POW in Germany) in the best house in town is billeted an officer. Of course at first there is hostility between herself and the officer, naturally as they are enemies. However, as she gets to know him, her heart warms to him for he isn’t just an enemy is a human, a man, and an artist. This isn’t just the case for Lucile but the case for the whole town who eventually grow used to their conquerors and perhaps there is even a sense of friendship between them. This story certainly brings to light a lot of ambiguity that we often try to sweep under the rug when thinking about the Nazis of Nazi Germany. Is there any place for empathy or even sympathy in regards to them? Is it just possible that a good man, nay more than one good man was a part of the Nazi army? Should we condemn Lucile, whose marriage was a cold one indeed her husband was openly having an affair with another woman, for falling in a love with a man who shared affinities with her and who actually cared about her though he was part of an army that we vehemently denounce to this day? I find it interesting that the film is much more black and white. They write Bruno (the German officer) as a one of a kind man in the German army who has nothing in common with his colleagues and indeed does things for Lucile in stark contradiction to his duty, though certainly not everything he does is admirable. The film also picks out a German villain which the novel refrains from doing. Interesting how our sensitive 21st century conscience adds these elements.
I certainly recommend this novel and film if you are a person interested in the history and literature surrounding WWII. It’s not as much of a romantic novel as the film but it is still touching and does have one of the more unique love stories I’ve come across.