It’s not that unusual in fiction for dramatic events in an author’s life to enter into the work of fiction that they are creating. It’s perhaps a lot less common when that real life drama is happening at the same time that the work is being written and that the tragic outcome for the author, in this case execution in a Nazi death camp, leads both to a sudden interruption in the narrative and to the manuscript only being discovered and published sixty four years after the author’s death. That alone is perhaps enough to make Irene Némirovsky’s book, Suite Française, an extraordinary story – not enough, perhaps, to make it a great novel and for that you have to add i
n Némirovsky’s incredible skills as a writer and observer of human behaviour. Given that she was writing the novel with an ever deepening sense of her own death at the hands of the Nazis it is all the more extraordinary that she handles their presence in her novel, and the occupation of France by the Germans, with such humanity and sensitivity and decides to tackle themes in the novel which are far larger than her own personal story.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road – the story of a father and son escaping from the North through a horribly desolate and scorched landscape and heading toward what they hoped to be a safer and less damaged South. The first part of Némirovsky’s book describes the exodus from Paris on the eve of the German invasion and there were many moments while I was reading this part of her novel when I thought of the The Road – a very different book but one that was also able to throw a brilliant light on how human’s can behave when all of the social and cultural props have been removed.
As this blog is about the English language I really concentrated in that post on talking a little about how the rules of English can be bent by an author to achieve certain effects. In this post, along the same lines, I don’t really want to talk about the story or even about the tragic real-life background which it so brilliantly describes – I really think that this is a bitter-sweet pleasure best left up to you as the reader. What I do want to have a quick look at are some of the notes in the Appendix 1 of the book which give an insight into Némirovsky’s writing process and which provide invaluable lessons for anyone who would like to write and that I am hoping all our English4Today Creative Writing Course students will read. Again, I am going to talk about one or two isolated notes that I found revealing about the writing process and after that I’m hoping that you will be interested enough to read the book yourself.
These notes are all taken from Némirovsky’s jottings for the Suite Française and are in Appendix 1 of the book. They need no extra comment from me so I have added them here for you to read and think about in terms of your own writing:
Treating her theme:
- If I want to create something striking, it is not misery I will show but the prosperity that contrasts with it… Contrasts! Yes, there’s something to that, something that can be very powerful and very new.
- …it’s like music when you sometimes hear the whole orchestra, sometimes just the violin.
- What interests me here is the history of the world.
- I must create something great and stop wondering if there’s any point
- In spite of everything, the thing that links all of these people together is our times, solely our times. Is that really enough? I mean: is this link sufficiently felt?
- On the one hand, I would like a kind of general idea. On the other … Tolstoy, for example, with one idea spoils everything. Must have people, human reactions, and that’s all…
- What’s important – the relationship between the different parts of the work…..
- All in all, make sure to have variety on one hand and harmony on the other…Pursuit – people in love – laughter, tears etc. It’s this type of rhythm I want to achieve.
- The movement of the masses must give the book its worth.
- What would be good all in all (but is it doable?) is to always show the advance of the German army in the scenes not seen from the perspective of the characters.
- By unifying, always simplifying the book (in its entirety) must result in a struggle between individual destiny and collective destiny. Must not take sides.
- The most important thing and most interesting thing here is the following: the historical, revolutionary facts etc. must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides must be described in detail.
What I need to have:
- an extremely detailed map of France or Michelin Guide
- the complete collection of several French and foreign newspapers between 1 June and 1 July
- a work on porcelain
- June birds, their names and songs
- A mystical book (belonging to the godfather) Father Brechard
Comments on her text and characters:
- Will – he talks for too long
- Death of the priest – schmaltzy
- Nimes? Why not Toulouse which I know?
- In general, not enough simplicity
– keep it simple. Tell what happens to people and that’s all
… convince yourself that the sequences in Storm, if I may say so, must be, are a masterpiece. Work on it tirelessly.
I think I should replace the strawberries with forget-me-nots. It seems impossible tobring cherry trees in blossom and ripe strawberries together in the same season.
Adagio: Must rediscover all these musical terms …
This, as I’ve said, is a small sampling of her notes while writing Suite Française and I’d encourage you to get hold of the book and read both the novel and her notes to see just how carefully crafted the book is. In any case, I think that this sampling shows that the writing process is one of constant revision and questioning, testing of ideas, reduction of the complex to the simple and of careful research.
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