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Jewish World Review
March 8, 2006
/ 8 Adar 5766
The Shame of La Belle France
By Norman Lebrecht
When reports of this book first appeared in France, I knew it would be personal.
My mother's family lived in Paris. When the
Germans invaded in May 1940, her parents, two brothers and a sister made their way to the Vichy sector where they
somehow survived the next four years, my aunt's health irreparably impaired. Others were less fortunate. A cousin was shot in
the streets of Paris, several more were rounded up by gendarmes and deported to the extermination camps. No-one ever
discussed these events. When I tried to question the last of my uncles before his death two years ago, all Rene would say was: "Those were terrible times, life is better now."
Irene Nemirovsky, a fashionable novelist in her late 30s, was among the unlucky ones. Although she had led her family to the
Catholic font in February 1939 by way of false precaution, Nemirovsky was of Russian-Jewish birth and cultural eminence, a
marked woman. She sent her daughters to a village in the Loire in the care of their nanny's mother and began work
compendiously on a documentary novel that recorded the fall of France, knowing that not a word of it could be published.
When she and her husband were arrested separately in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, her little girls grabbed the manuscript and
kept it with them as they were moved from one hiding place to another, diligently pursued by French police.
After liberation the girls would go every day to the Gare de l'Est for several months hoping for news of their parents.
Reconciled at last to their tragic fate, they could not bring themselves to read the unfinished manuscript, let alone transcribe it
for an editor. When the novel was finally brought to print in 2004, La Belle France was shocked speechless by the multiple
perfidies and character flaws captured with careful detachment and a surprising degree of affection in Nemirovsky's careful
Suite Francaise follows the trail of Parisians great and small who flee Paris ahead of the Boche. Once in the countryside they
are abused, verbally and economically, by the peasantry; those tales one heard of farmers selling glasses of tap water to
parched fugitives appear to be true. Families are separated in the mayhem, a priest is murdered by the orphans he is escorting
to the south. Snobbery is rife. A celebrated writer can blag himself a room at the best hotel while others less distinguished are
forced to sleep rough, in the rain.
In the second section of an epic story structured along the lines of a Beethoven symphony but with just two movements intact,
Nemirovsky charts the beginnings of collaboration between rural landowners and the German administration, bored women
and the officers billeted in their homes. Her eye misses nothing, from under-counter transactions at the butcher's to a kitten
making its first leap from a drainpipe. The tone is neutral, cheerful, sympathetic. Only once does a young blood give vent to
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He recalled the cars full of officers running away with their beautiful yellow trunks and painted women, civil servants
abandoning their posts, panic-stricken politicians dropping files of secret papers along the road, young girls who had
diligently wept the day the armistice was signed being comforted in the arms of the Germans. And to think that Ö this
will be transformed into yet another glorious page in the history of France.
Deftly translated by Sandra Smith, this is possibly the most devastating indictment of French manners and morals
since Madame Bovary, as hypnotic as Proust at the biscuit tin, as gruelling as Genet on the prowl. Irene
Nemirovsky is, on this evidence, a novelist of the very first order, perceptive to a fault and sly in her emotional
restraint. One hungers to read more — her life of Chekhov; her pre-war chef d'oeuvre, David Golder; an imaginary
memoir by her daughter Elisabeth Gille titled Le Mirador, the watchtower.
My first reaction was right: this is personal. Reading Suite Francaise, I begin to get a sense of what my family
went through, how my mother in England got along without word of her loved ones for four years, how the past has
been rewritten and turned into a leisure park. The Loire, for me, will never look the same again.
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JWR contributor Norman Lebrecht is Assistant Editor of
London's Evening Standard and presenter of lebrecht.live on BBC Radio 3.
He has written ten books about music, which have been
translated into 13 languages. They include the international best-sellers
The Maestro Myth and When the Music Stops. His website is NormanLebrecht.com
To comment, please click here.
© 2006, Norman Lebrecht