Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Suite Francaise and Suffering.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky requires some background information, as its journey to publication is quite extraordinary.  Nemirovsky was a well known writer in France throughout the thirties and at the beginning of World War Two.  She made a plan for a five novellas with overlapping characters about the war, as it was occurring, but only had time to write two of them, as she was arrested by the French Police during the German occupation and sent to Auschwitz, where she died.  Her daughter found the manuscript in a journal fifty years later, which is what now comprises Suite Francaise. I typically read appendices and any kind of editor or translator's notes after I read the novel, so some of the issues I had initially while reading the book vanished once I saw the notes she had for the plot and character arcs and understood that the novel I held in my hands was only 2 of the 5 planned novellas.

"Storm in June" is the first novella, which is centered around its portrayals of how different classes of people experienced and processed the war.  I wanted to punch some of the characters in the face; I'm not sure if they were overly flawed intentionally or just drove me insane, namely the ones who could think only of their beautiful material goods or of how vulgar the lower classes were.  This blatant self centeredness almost seemed unrealistic to me; that  suffering would arouse disgust and disdain rather than empathy.

The inner conflict that seemed so realistic was when a well-to-do mother smugly passed out treats to lower class children, feeling as though she were upholding her Christian duty.  My gut reaction to her was disgust.  But, she became more human as I read about the panic she felt when she realized that there wasn't food to go around, even for the wealthy.   Watching her hubris shrink and her maternal instinct of survival and protection rise made her more real in my mind.

I think that watching suffering, more often than not, brings out complex emotions that are difficult to wade through as an individual and even as a reader: when I am faced with homelessness everytime I get on a subway, it weighs on my heart.  Walking by feels so wrong and after living in the city for seven years I still don't know how to discern when and how to help.  But, I prefer living in a place where I am forced to wrestle with it, rather than forget that it exists...but does thinking make a difference? What I found while reading was that wartime only heightens the complexity of what to do with the suffering one sees.

And, just like the characters in the book, suffering will in time turn from voyeuristic to personal for all of us, and remind us of our own fragility, and, I think, help us to stand in solidarity with humankind.

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