An Honest French Novel And a Message for Today

The Frenchman was urgent. Still youngish, maybe 45, he had moved to New York City to catch his breath after a life spent in the intellectual atmosphere, antic but finally stultifying, of home. He did not use George Orwell’s phrase about “smelly little orthodoxies,” but that is clearly what he believed he had fled: a world of hostile coteries, consisting of professors, politicians and media stars, smelly, hermetic and unreal.

Why had the heirs of a great literature become so small? His explanation was political: No one had honestly faced the causes and consequences of France’s loss to Nazi Germany in 1940. This was worse than the debacles of Napoleon and Napoleon III, for this defeat had been followed by partition, occupation and collaboration. In all the years since, he said, there had been only one honest look at that time—French Suites, a novel by Irene Nemirovsky.

I dimly remembered the reviews, but praise like that made me read it.

The author’s bio is unusual; she won’t be appearing on Booknotes, at least not in this world. Irene Nemirovsky (b. 1903) was the daughter of a Russian Jewish banker who fled St. Petersburg after the Russian Revolution, settling ultimately in France. There Irene married, had children and became a successful novelist. After the fall of France, she sketched a five-part work on what her newfound countrymen were going through. Supported by covert gifts from her old publisher, she wrote away, finishing two of the five parts, until 1942, when she was murdered in Auschwitz. Her husband soon followed. Her two daughters, children, were saved, and kept their mother’s notebook as a talisman. A few years ago, the eldest finally felt willing to read it and discovered that it was not a journal but two finished, related novellas. It was published in France, now here.

It must speak with special power to a French reader, but because it is art, even in truncated form, it speaks to a wider audience—not just to abstract men in dimensionless time, but to flesh-and-blood men in different historic moments. What does it have to say to this moment?

The more obvious message is: Jew-hate, the song that never leaves the hit parade. New talents cover it in every generation; it’s been recorded more times than “St. James Infirmary.” Nemirovsky is no 10-thumbed journalist, so the Jew-hate depicted in French Suites is implied. Every writing school in the world tells its charges to write about what they know, yet there is not a Jewish character in Nemirovsky’s tale. She writes about what she knows—not as a Russian Jew, the identity that would send her to a death camp, but as a Frenchwoman, the identity she acquired as a teenager.

What she knows is how the French think, and what shortcuts (all cultures use them) they take instead of thinking. At some point, one of her characters, lost in the chaos of defeat, says he can’t possibly imagine what will happen next, since he’s neither a Jew nor a Mason. There you have the folk wisdom that, in the wrong hands, became extermination. Two in-groups, one a religion, one a secret society: as in-groups they must, by definition, have had knowledge denied to the ordinary honest Frenchman. In ordinary times, Jacques would shrug his shoulders; in extraordinary times, he might ask, “Why not round them up?”

How strange that, 30 years ago, when we guarded against anti-Semitism with strict social taboos, there was relatively little of it afoot. Who were the great anti-Semites of the 1970s? The Black Panthers? David Duke? Yet now, when Muslim dictatorships spew it out, and when multiculturalists, attentive to the Other, are willing to give it at least a respectful hearing, the taboos are AWOL. The New York Times reports that the Palestinian Contemporary Art Museum of Tehran, and the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri, are sponsoring a show of Holocaust cartoons—not anti-Jewish, claims the curator, only anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli. Well, that’s all right, then! These are the bumptious manners of a despotic regime. But when will such stuff appear—has it already appeared—on college campuses? Be careful what you say to yourself, or you may hear it on loudspeakers.

The second message of French Suites is central to the book. Social divisions that become hatreds lead to despair, and despair leads to madness. Any country can lose a war. But it loses the aftermath only if its citizens lose all respect for each other. French society as depicted by Nemirovsky is a ripe, poisoned fruit, watered by 150 years of bad politics: revolution, restoration, the June Days, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus Affair. There were moments along the way when France pulled together, in causes good (World War I) and not so good (Napoleon’s lucky streak). But the quarrels remained until, by 1940, the rich, the middle class and the poor disliked each other more, it turned out, than they disliked the enemy.

This moral gives a modern American, oddly, a feeling of hope. I say this in no French-bashing spirit. We lack their history, their virtues and their attendant vices, and so cannot imagine how we would walk in their shoes (though a great novelist can put us temporarily in them).

We have taken our own path. And despite the violence and injustices of American history, we do not seem to hate each other that much. Even the black-white relationship, the most cankered one in our past, has been eased in any number of ways. Poor Jefferson, the anti-slavery slave-owner, thought that if blacks were ever freed, they would have to be sent back to Africa, because their just resentment, and the fears of whites, could not be overcome. Wrong, Tom. A lot of shit has gone down, but only a handful of brothers have left for Liberia.

I will keep hold of this thought as I wander through the bright corridors of the Internet, humming with the fury of the comments sections on blogs. If you put someone at a lonely screen in a lonely room, he will scream. The world is better than that.