An Unfinished Symphony

“Irène read and wrote constantly. Every day, after breakfast, she would go out, sometimes walking for ten kilometres before finding a spot she liked. Then she would start work.” preface, Suite Française. Image: 'Forest and Light' by dan, courtesy

“Irène read and wrote constantly. Every day, after breakfast, she would go out, sometimes walking for ten kilometres before finding a spot she liked. Then she would start work.” preface, Suite Française. Image: ‘Forest and Light’ by dan, courtesy

At the moment, I am researching WWII in France for Bk IV of my Master of Illusion series. Normally, I use non-fiction, personal or first hand experience and video/television documentary for this. Once I am able to feel myself in the era, smell the earth, the trees, the flowers, then I can go on with my story.

In my search, have come across the most remarkable book, Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky, a beautiful, intelligent writer who, in real life, just happened to move in the same privileged circles as my characters.

It is a work of fiction, yet I would rather call it creative non-fiction, because here is a record of what it is like to live in occupied France during WWII, a precious record from a consummate writer who was subjected to the worst horror that anyone can experience: the loss of human dignity and ultimately, her life.

Her talented pen evokes all the reader’s senses. She has you smelling the woods, wincing as a cat’s claws enter the heart of a tiny bird, cowering at the sound of an air raid, then becoming fatalistic, defiantly exposing yourself to the bombs: ‘Here I am – just get it over with.’

She describes, in vivid detail, a kaleidoscope of emotions and character traits, ranging from hatred to love, treachery to honour, modesty to arrogance, sometimes all in the one person!

Interestingly, she saw the occupying German soldiers mainly as wholesome young farm boys doing their duty, just wanting to go home; by and large with an integrity exceeding that of the French, whose characters she depicted as anything from the vilest, self-interested collaborator to the most insanely noble and courageous patriot. All the small day to day struggles, defeats and triumphs that make up the full picture.

And all of this from only 2 parts of a 5 part novel, comprising only the first draft. To find a first draft so compelling, so depictive, with such clever and poetic turn of phrase, is amazing in itself. What would it have been like had she been given time to finish and polish it?

I took a long time to read this novel, suspended by tears often. To read her precious words, knowing the tragedy behind them, was an emotionally draining experience. But I regard it as a labour of love, because I have to know what my characters faced when, in the midst of carrying out their daily lives, they were plunged into the worst darkness the world has ever known.

Irène Némirovsky was a great writer and best-selling author. She was also of Jewish descent, in a time when the most shameful and horrific treatment of Jews was already a fact; and her notes show that she had a premonition that she did not have long to live.

Sadly, she never got to write the last three movements of this wartime symphony and the world lost a consummate author. In July 1942 she was taken to Auschwitz and died in dreadful conditions at Bikenau.

Her husband, with the kind of love that defies all boundaries, not knowing she was already dead, lobbied the Vichy government to free her and let him take her place. Callously, they sent him to Auschwitz and straight to the gas chamber. To add to its depravity, the Vichy government then spent time trying to hunt down their small daughters to send with them.

Having been acquainted with the bravery of Marshal Pétain during the carnage that was WWI, it twists a particular knife in my heart that he presided over a craven government that would stoop to such brutal depths of inhumanity as to persecute and murder innocent civilians and their children.

I will always cry for you, Irène Némirovsky. But I salute you, too: a shining spirit holding up the truth. I feel so honoured that your hand reached out through time to show me what my characters have to face as they enter the 1940s.

Your words, so beautifully crafted, your courage, your love and the love of your husband, Michel Epstein, will live forever.

Suite Française, a remarkable, heart-rending snapshot in time. Unforgettable.