Monday, May 21, 2007

Suite française, and sleeping with the enemy

Irène Némirovsky, a French Jewish writer of extraordinary frankness, brilliant wit and rare insight was gassed to death at the age of 39 at Auschwitz.

In the years before her murder, on the run and hiding with her young family in Burgundy, she wrote a novel that was to be in five parts (hence its title Suite française) but in the event only reached two. With this is mind, it is even more remarkable, perhaps, that in her novel she divides French society under German occupation into two groups; not the occupied and the occupiers, but the lovers and those that want to punish the lovers. Or to put it another way, the young and lustful and playful and hopeful, versus the old and frigid and vengeful.

In Part Two, Dolce, the beautiful, sensitive and educated protagonist, Lucile, the wife of a prisoner of war - a spoilt and passionless man of property, calls on her dressmaker and notices a German soldier's belt on the bed:

"'How can you?' murmured Lucile.
"The dressmaker wavered between several attitudes. Her expression was a mixture of insolence, confusion and deceit. Then suddenly she lowered her head. 'So what? German or French, friend or enemy, he's first and foremost a man and I'm a woman. He's good to me, kind and attentive [...] Our lives are complicated enough with all these wars and bombings. Between a man and woman, none of that's important. I couldn't care less if the man I fancy is English or black - I'd still offer myself to him if I got the opportunity. Do I disgust you? [...] On the one side there's me and him; on the other side there's everyone else. People don't care about us: they bomb us and make us suffer, and kill us worse than if we were rabbits. And as for us, well, we don't care about them."

The cover of the English edition is both off-putting and disingenuous. Unlike the French edition from which the author's strong, sensuous eyes stare directly at the reader from a black and white portrait photo, the English edition features a different kind of 'stock' black and white photograph: in the background, a crowd of working men in their flat caps, and in the foreground digitally tinted, is a couple in an innocent embrace, the pretty young woman's head slightly bowed towards his chest, so she appears considerably shorter than her lover, and he looks up humbly, yet defiantly as if challenging any enemy to take away/rape/steal his French woman. Their refugee status is suggested by the simple valise at their feet.

Yet this novel does not feature a woman that in any way resembles the young girl on the cover. The woman are resourceful, independent, sensuous or vain, but rarely so naive and vulnerable. And several of them fantasise about absent lovers or take illicit lovers. They sleep with the enemy. Imagine, then, if the cover featured a French woman straddling a soldier in German uniform?

As the uptight and frightful Viscountess, "who knew there was no hope of the Viscount satisfying her, since he had little interest in women in general" exclaims, "'It's scandalous!". While Lucile says, "'It's sad' [...] thinking of all the girls whose youth was passing them by in vain: the men were gone, prisoners or dead. the enemy took their place. It was deplorable, but no one would even know in the future. It would be one of those things posterity would never find out, or would refuse to see out of a sense of shame."

We must sleep with the enemy; so as not to see our youth and beauty slip by, and because it is not always our most obvious enemies that are trying to destroy us: "'How revolting!'" exclaims the Viscountess on hearing the melodious singing voices of women with German soldiers that drifts on the still night through Lucile's open window, "'I'd really like to know who those shameless girls are. I'd make sure the priest knew their names.' She leaned forward and eagerly leaned into the night."

In the future they/us will choose to forget such politically inconvenient 'scandals', of course.

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