Tuesday, August 25, 2009

9: Suite Francaise

Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française

There’s something funny about animals in books. Some authors just mention random pets haphazardly, to be sure, but I’ve read a lot of books where the mention of the animal reoccurs and is symbolic of the main characters in some way. For example, there’s the admirable example of Chanticleer and his two wives, from The House of the Seven Gables. The Pyncheons, having drooped from their prosperous status of previous generations, keep only a remnant of their prized chickens, locally renowned for their size and princely deportment. Of these remaining chickens, Chanticleer is the rooster, thin and gouty, but he, nevertheless, retains the proud strut of his ancestors and does various human things, like telling off Hepzibah in loud shrieks for taking the egg that the usually barren hen laid to make an omelette. I personally think the name “Chanticleer” just about says it all.

In Suite Française, there is likewise a cat. In the first part of Suite Française, Némirovsky describes the exodus of Parisian, all abandoning Paris in the wake of German air strikes of WWII. Several different groups of people are followed by the story. There’s the writer Corte and Florence, his mistress, the Michauds, the Péricands, and Charles Langelet. The cat belongs to the Péricands, an upper middle-class family. He is introduced almost as soon as we meet the Péricands as follows: “A cat held a little piece of bony fish tentatively between its sharp teeth. He was afraid to swallow it, but he couldn’t bring himself to spit it out either”. Immediately, we know that it’s not just about the cat; all of Paris is afraid to stay in the comforts of their homes, but couldn’t quite bring themselves to leave it either.

The adventures of the cat are followed. As Mme Péricand packs up her family – the baby, Jacqueline the little daughter, Hubert the clumsy teenage son, the rich, ailing, fussy father-in-law constantly threatening to leave his fortune to a charity that is most notable to Mme Péricand for not being herself and her husband – the cat is also remarked to be captured and stuffed into a travelling basket. While staying in makeshift lodging along the way to their place of refuge, the cat is noticed to have snuck away in the night, for some country fresh air and mice, by the little girl crying “Albert’s run away!” and “I want Albert! Find Albert for me! The Germans will take him! He’ll be bombed, stolen, killed! Albert! Albert! Albert!” It’s summarizes the entire outpouring of people from Paris with all the usual customs of civility completely abandoned and fear of the incoming invaders, doesn’t it? (Nope, no sarcasm. Seriously, it really does make you think of the panic of fleeing one’s home.)

Not to worry, just like the family being scuttled to and fro, the cat is fine and continued to be dragged along with his family; Némirovsky is very careful to give updates about the state of the cat. She has a later chapter devoted to Albert exploring the French village at night (but back in Jacqueline’s bed before morning, we are assured) and a line in the Péricands’ hasty departure from the village under air raid attacks which details that Jacqueline had managed to pack the cat, even as surprised as they had been, and towed him along in his basket.

This little attention to Albert the cat is part of why this book is so good! It covers great breadth in that it follows a great number of threads (just like the other book I love), but each with attention to detail and insightful observations, sometimes expressed through description of peripheral things. Like the cat.

The second part of the book, Dolce, is very aptly named. It is about a little French village, called Bussy, during the German occupation. A French woman falls gently and subtly in love with the German officer lodging in her absent husband’s house. The love story is told through events like shy evenings by the piano (the German, who is almost always referred to as just that “the German”, is a musician) and a passionate conversation as overheard by a little girl, often distracted and not catching every word. She’s pretty, her husband keeps a mistress in a separate household, and he is wide-eyed and handsome. “The officer smiled. ‘They think you’re Judith going to murder Holofernes in his tent.’” This is said as the pair walk along a street while on an errand to retrieve some items belonging to a family who had abandoned their house. It’s altogether ... beautifully written , subtle and lovely.

1 comment:

  1. Kay,
    I just finished Suite Francais in a German translation no less and I found your review when I was looking for something on Jules Blanc on the net. Anyway I wanted to say that your review was very good and I enjoyed it.