Last week when I was in Florida, I indulged in one of my favorite pastimes – beach reading. I took my book, my sand umbrella, and my tinted reading glasses, and parked myself where I could hear the Gulf of Mexico’s gently lapping waves. I took a break from reading to stroll down the beach a ways, doing a little people watching, and was really surprised to notice someone reading Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (this month’s selection for the Third Day Book Club). This historical novel was written in the thick of World War II; Part I, Storm in June, chronicles the mass exodus from Paris just prior to the Nazi invasion in 1940, while Part II, Dolce, depicts the complex lives of residents in a small occupied village. Not exactly what I’d call light beach reading.
“I just finished that book myself,” I said to my sun worshipping neighbor. “What do you think of it?”
“I was hoping it was more of a love story,” she said with obvious disappointment. “I mean, this picture on the cover is very misleading, don’t you think? I didn’t realize it was so much about the war, and all these horrible things happening!”
“It is certainly a realistic look at that time period,” I agreed. “After all, the author lived through it herself, you know, and actually died in a concentration camp.”
“Oh, I know all that,” she said dismissively. “I was just hoping for a little more romance. I’m just not really into all this history stuff.”
“Mmm,” I replied vaguely, wondering how to extract myself from this dead end converstation. “Well, enjoy your day!”
“Thanks, you too!” she replied, and went back to reading.
Suite Francaise is certainly not a romance, despite the cover photograph of a man and woman in 40’s dress, his cheek pressed to her forehead. It is a fascinating, heartbreaking, extremely realistic account of what it meant to be a resident of France between 1940-1942. War affected everyone, from the wealthy Pericand family, to the Michaud’s, a lowly bank clerk and his quiet wife. Everyone’s life was changed as they took to the streets on foot or to the highways in their cars packed to the gills with their most prized possessions.
This book was hastily written as Nemirovsky and her husband tried to keep their two daughters safe from the Nazi regime. She intended the book to be more than 1000 pages, planning to construct it like a musical composition, in five movements based on theme and tone.
It has the feel of a rough draft, a real sense of the author writing everything that comes into her head in an effort to get it all down on paper. When she was arrested in 1942, her young daughter managed to salvage the manuscript she had watched her mother spend so much time writing.
As I read the book, particularly Storm, I found myself thinking about the leveling factor of war, and of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Rich or poor, upper class or lower class, suddenly everyone has the same goal -survival for themselves and their family.
“Who cared about the tragedy of their country? Not these people, not the people who were leaving that night. Panic obliterated everything that wasn’t animal instinct, involuntary physical reaction. Grab the most valuable things you own in the world and then…! And on that night, only people – the living and breathing, the crying and the loving- were precious. Rare was the person who cared about their possessions; everyone wrapped their arms tightly round their wife or child and nothing else mattered; the rest could go up in flames.”
My fellow reader on the beach in Naples was about my age, but, judging from her designer swim wear, chic haircut, and quietly understated makeup, she was probably a lot richer than I am. Perhaps she even lived in one of the multi million dollar high rises that litter this beachfront, or was a guest at the Ritz Carlton, only one of many resort hotels on the same path. However, come national disaster, like a 9/11 or a category five hurricane, she and I could end up in much the same position – just trying to save our lives, and the lives of those we love. Perhaps that is one of the great lessons of war, and one Nemirovsky makes perfectly clear ~ we come to know what is most valuable to us, and to what lengths we’ll go to save it.