Eventually, I will move on from this fascination with things French. But for now, I can’t seem to stop. At the moment, I’m reading the excellent novel Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. This is a remarkable book for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it is a historical novel written while the history was still in progress: the Nazi occupation of France starting in 1940. As the New York Times notes, it is likely the first work of fiction to be written about World War II.
It is also among the best. Better reviewers than I have praised this book, and I won’t attempt to pile on more superlatives. But the fact that Némirovsky wrote this without the luxury of historical hindsight makes it even more remarkable. The knowledge that she died at Auschwitz not long after makes it poignant beyond words.
Maybe it’s a trivial note, but having just been to Paris I was struck by Némirovsky’s humane, incisive observations of how things unfold when civilization is withdrawn from the most civilized society on earth: Nobility and barbarity in varying proportions, and no small amount of cluelessness. Just as it would be for any other society, I think. When the Nazis come to town, whether in Paris or Peoria, the center cannot hold.
I’m pleased to see that Suite Française currently resides at No. 7 on the New York Times’ paperback trade fiction list. And that’s without an endorsement from Oprah’s staff of readers. I’d love to see it at No. 1.