Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Nemirovsky: Suite Francaise

Within five seconds of starting this book, you are in Paris, flurrying with the Parisians. It’s hot, it’s June, it’s 1940 and the Germans are coming, it is time to get out of town. We are in the middle of preparations to evacuate, with several families, couples and individuals as they make their preparations.

Have you ever been evacuated from a house or hotel due to sudden fire? Have you ever wondered why, in the seconds you had to prepare to leave, you made the choices you did? I groaned as I lived with people carefully packing their linen tablecloths and bird cages; but it’s different when it is not YOU. What I admire so much about Irene Nemirovsky’s book is that you are THERE, you feel so much a part of it. I can tell you what it was like, the desperation as “we” evacuated Paris, and later, as we lived with the enemy using our house for billeting.

The Suite Francaise is two parts, Storm and Dolce. As you reach the end of Dolce, you have a strong feeling that there should be more, and indeed, as you read, seeking satisfaction, the appendices, you discover the book was intended to have four or five sections. The interpreter who put the manuscript together, filling in from Nemirovsky’s notes, has done a masterful job on the two sections that were somewhat complete, but, unfortunately, Nemirovsky, a Catholic, had a Jewish parent, and that was enough to get her arrested, transported to a concentration camp and executed, all within a very short time. The correspondence between her husband had the authorities, in the short time between her arrest and death, is desperate, and chilling.

You can’t help but be heartsick at the loss to this world of such great talent. You can’t help but wonder what this book, as good at it is, might have been as a larger whole?

Nemirovsky, above all, has an acute eye for French thinking, French manners, French mannerisms, and above all, for French class distinctions. The dialogues are SO perfectly believable, as are the depictions of the manner in which people under the worst kind of stress can behave with both inhuman kindness and insensitive cruelty toward one another.

You know how I am always wondering what my cat is thinking. . . I share an excerpt of the book with you. I believe Nemirovsky knows what a cat is thinking!

The cat poked his nose through the fringes of the armchair and studied the scene with a dreamy expression. He was a very young cat who had only ever lived in the city, where the scent of such June nights was far away. Occasionally he had caught a whiff of something warm and intoxicating, but nothing like here, where the smell rose up to his whiskers and took hold of him, making his head spin. Eyes half closed, he could feel waves of powerful, sweet perfume running through him: the pungent smell of the last lilacs, the sap running through the trees, the cool, dark earth, the animals, birds, moles, mice, all the prey, the musky scent of fur, or skin, the smell of blood . . . His mouth gaping with longing, he jumped on to the window sill and walked slowly along the drainpipe. This was where a strong hand had grabbed him the night before and thrown him back . . . but he would not allow himself to be caught tonight.

He eyed the distance from the drainpipe to the ground. It was an easy jump, but he appeared to want to flatter himself by exaggerating the difficulty of the leap. He balanced his hindquarters, looking fierce and confident, swept his long black tail across the drainpipe and, ears pulled back, leapt forward, landing on the freshly tilled earth. He hesitated for a moment, then buried his muzzle in the ground. Now he was in the very black of night, at the heart of it, at the darkest point. He needed to sniff the earth: here, between the roots and the pebbles, were smells untainted by the scent of humans, smells that had yet to waft into the air and vanish. They were warm, secretive, eloquent. Alive. Each and every scent meant there was some small living creature, hiding, happy, edible . . . June bugs, field mice, crickets and that small toad whose voice seemed full of crystallized tears . . . The cat’s long ears – pink triangles tinged with silver, pointed and delicately curly inside like the flower on bindweed – suddenly shot up. He was listening to faint noises in the shadows, so delicate, so mysterious, but, to him alone, so clear: the rustling wisps of straw in nests where birds watch over their young, the flutter of feathers, the sound of pecking on bark, the beating of insect wings, the patter of mice gently scratching the ground, even the faint bursting of seeds opening. Golden eyes flashed by in the darkness. There were sparrows sleeping under the leaves, fat blackbirds, nightingales; the male nightingales were already awake, singing to one another in the forest and along the river banks.

And I imagine that the above all took place in the space of about 15 – 30 seconds!

If Nemirovsky can capture a cat’s thoughts so eloquently, just imagine what she can do with the French!

The second part of the Suite, Dolce, takes place in a small farming village and ties many of the evacuees from Storm loosely with the village and subsequent events. In Dolce, we live with a young married Frenchwoman in the home of her mother-in-law who blames her for enjoying life while her own son, the young woman’s husband, is a prisoner of war in Germany. If that weren’t bad enough, soon a young German officer is sent to live with them.

We have lived among the evacuating Parisians, in Storm, and now, in Dolce, we are living in the provinces, with it’s stultifying conventions. There are whole passages where the restrictions of polite French countryside society make it so suffocating, you almost have trouble breathing. And yet, as they do in every society, the young find ways around the conventions, risk their lives, risk their reputations, and live thinking that no-one sees what they are doing, while the elders bite their lips in horror. Fascinating reading. Nemirovsky’s genius to to make you feel you really are THERE.

September 9, 2007 Posted by | Books, Bureaucracy, Community, Cross Cultural, Family Issues, France, Generational, Living Conditions, Poetry/Literature, Political Issues, Relationships, Social Issues | 9 Comments

Donna Leon: Death in a Strange Country

Recently I discovered, to my disgust, that I have purchased two Donna Leon books I have already read. I bought them from England, and now they have been published in the US under different titles. Aaaarrrgh! I hate it when that happens.

I have a good friend I want to pass these books along to, an amazing woman who has no idea how amazing she is. When she talks about her early years as a private detective, she refers to herself, with a perfectly straight face, as a “Dickless Dick.”

After I read this book, I passed it along to Adventure Man, who loved it. He aloud to me from it late at night, and we both laughed. Here is the the excerpt he liked, he could identify with it:

In their bedroom, he saw that she had placed a long red dress across the bed. He didn’t remember the dress, but he seldom did remember them and he thought it best not to mention it. If it turned out to be a new dress and he remarked on it, he would sound like he thought she was buying too many clothes, and if it was something she had worn before, he would sound like he paid no attention to her and hadn’t bothered to notice it before. He sighed at the eternal inequality of marriage, opened the closed, and decided that the grey suit would be better.

He, of course, is Commissario Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon’s chief investigator, consumately Venetian, very married, and fighting a lonely battle against the louche corruption of the Italian bureaucracy.

And this book is about the death of an American military man in Venice, except that of course, it turns out to be about something much much bigger. Leon has several axes grinding in this one, but the biggest is illegal dumping, and the arrogance of countries who dump their toxic wastes on smaller countries, eyes wide open, knowing full well that horrorific consequences may result – and not caring.

My favorite part is when Commissario Brunetti visits the American base outside of Venice for the first time:

He left the place and went to stand outside, content to get a sense of the post while waiting for his driver to return. He sat on a bench in front of the shops and watched the people walking past.

A few glanced at him as he sat there, dressed in suit and tie and clearly out of place among them. Many of the people who walked past him, men and women alike, wore uniform. Most of the others wore shorts and tennis shoes, and many of the women, too often those who shouldn’t have, wore halter tops. They appeared to be dressed either for war or for the beach. Many of the men were fit and powerful; many of the women were enormously, terrifyingly fat.

Cars drove by slowly, their drivers searching for parking spaces: big cars, Japanese cars, cars with that same AFI number plate. Most had the windows raised, while from the air-conditioned interiors blared rock music in varying degrees of loudness.

They strolled by, amiable and friendly, greeting one another and exchanging pleasant words, thoroughly at home in their little American village here in Italy.

Donna Leon has a sharp eye for detail, doesn’t she? Don’t you feel like you were sitting there on the bench with Commissario Brunetti, seeing through his eyes?

Reading Donna Leon transports you to another world, Venice, and the joy of reading has less to do with solving the crime than being able, for a short time, to stop and drink coffee while tracking down a criminal, eating a meal or two with Brunetti and his family, experiencing the frustrations of the Venetian bureaucracy in all its radiant corruption, walking along the canals so early in the morning that the delivery men haven’t even begun yet making their deliveries . . .

And yet the problems addressed in the Leon books are part of a greater world picture, and Leon has an enormous capability to draw blurry lines with increasing clarity as we watch how international corruption works hand in hand blindly taking profits while dribble by dribble degrading the world for future inhabitants.

September 9, 2007 Posted by | Books, Bureaucracy, Community, Crime, Cross Cultural, Detective/Mystery, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Italy, Living Conditions, Political Issues, Relationships, Social Issues | 6 Comments