Suite Française and my father

Bridge over Moselle River, Metz, France

The Moselle River in Metz, France. My father was wounded on November 14, 1944 in the weeks-long Battle of Metz. After the city was liberated, the Allies went on to break through to Germany in the Battle of the Bulge.

Storm in June and Dolce, by Irène Némirovsky

I brought Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky with me when we travelled to France just before V-E Day to visit our son, who had a work coop in Paris, and to explore the region near Metz in northern France, where my father was wounded in World War II.

Suite Française consists of two novels set during the early days of the French Occupation, with exquisitely drawn French and German characters that dramatize the complicated relationship between France and Germany at that time.

Suite Française book coverI don’t know how Némirovsky could write during the terrible days of the French Occupation. An acclaimed novelist from a wealthy Russian family and a member of the highest social circles in France, she was also Jewish. Némirovsky knew at any moment she could be deported to a concentration camp, separated from her husband and her two young daughters.

But write she did, and superbly. She was driven and disciplined, and the writing must have given structure to her days and helped her cope. She finished two of the five novels she’d intended for Suite FrançaiseStorm in June and Dolce–before she was, indeed, arrested and deported in July, 1942. Némirovsky died a month later of typhus in a concentration camp. Her husband, Michel, was deported that fall and died in the gas chambers.

The family’s devoted nanny hid the two young daughters, Élisabeth and Denise, who were being hunted by Vichy officials, and they managed to survive the war. Fifty years later, Denise discovered that the papers left behind in one of her mother’s suitcases were two novels–she had thought they were diaries and had been reluctant to read them. Storm in June and Dolce were finally published in 2004 as Suite Française, which became an international literary sensation.

Included in my edition of Suite Française are the journal Némirovsky kept as she wrote the novels, and the desperate correspondence of Irène and Michel with Némirovksy’s publisher and French officials as they tried to avoid deportation.

On fleeing Paris:

“…groups of people appeared outside their houses–women, old people and children, gesticulating to one another, trying, at first calmly and then with increasing agitation and a mad, dizzy excitement, to get the family and all the baggage into a Renault, a saloon, a sports car…Not a single light shone through the windows. The stars were coming out, springtime stars with a silvery glow. Paris had its sweetest smell, the smell of chestnut trees in bloom and of petrol with a few grains of dust that crack under your teeth like pepper.”

On being a young, married French woman with a German soldier billeted in her home:

“She felt a very feminine pleasure, an almost sensual, sweet sensation at seeing this childish look on a face that was, after all, the face of an implacable enemy, a hardened warrior. For we can’t pretend, she thought, that we aren’t all in his hands. We’re defenseless. If we still have our lives and our possessions, it’s only because of his goodwill. She was almost afraid of the feelings growing within her. It was like stroking a wild animal–an exquisitely intense sensation, a mixture of tenderness and terror.”

On the French villagers and the Germans:

“Little by little, darkness spread across the lawns; they could still make out the gold decorations on the uniforms, the Germans’ blond hair, the musicians’ brass instruments on the terrace…All the light of the day, fleeing the earth, seemed for one brief moment to take refuge in the sky: pink clouds spiraled round the full moon that was as green as pistachio sorbet and as clear as glass; it was reflected in the lake. Exquisite perfumes filled the air: grass, fresh hay, wild strawberries. The music kept playing. Suddenly, the torches were lit…There was the lively, happy sound of champagne corks popping.

“Oh, those bastards! And to think it’s our wine they’re drinking, the Frenchmen said, but without real bitterness, because all happiness is contagious and disarms the spirit of hatred.

And of course, the Germans seemed to like the champagne so much (and had paid so much for it!) that the Frenchmen were vaguely flattered by their good taste.”

From Némirovsky’s journal:

“I must create something great and stop wondering if there is any point. Have no illusions: this is not for now. So mustn’t hold back, must strike with a vengeance wherever I want.”

“Never forget that the war will be over and that the entire historical side will fade away. Try to create as much as possible things, debates…that will interest people in 1952 or 2052.”

“What lives on:

1. Our humble day-to-day lives

2. Art

3. God”

Suite Française has just been made into a movie but, as far as I can tell, a US release date is not yet known. I can’t vouch for its quality. A writer I know who lives in France told me many reviews have not been favorable. Usually, I don’t see movies adapted from books that I like unless I know the production is a good one. Nonetheless, below is the UK trailer. I do like Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas.

A personal connection

Cemetery with white crosses

The Lorraine American Cemetery in France, where many soldiers from the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Metz are buried.

White cross, gravesite

This soldier was in my father’s battalion. Perhaps they knew each other.

Cathedral and buildings, Metz

Cathedral of St. Etienne, Metz. My father was wounded before the Allies took Metz, so he never got to see the cathedral or this beautiful city.

I imagine the bells of St. Etienne rang on VE Day:

Moselle River, swans

Redeployment

Redeployment book cover

“Your wife takes you shopping in Wilmington. Last time you walked down a city street, your Marine on point went down the side of the road, checking ahead and scanning the roofs across from him. The Marine behind him checks the windows on the top levels of the buildings, the Marine behind him gets the windows a little lower, and so on down until your guys have the street level covered, and the Marine in back has the rear…

In Wilmington you don’t have a squad, you don’t have a battle buddy, you don’t even have a weapon. You startle ten times checking for it and it’s not there. You’re safe, so your alertness should be at white, but it’s not. 

Instead, you’re stuck in an American Eagle Outfitters. Your wife gives you some clothes to try on and you walk into the tiny dressing room. You close the door, and you don’t want to open it again.”      Redeployment, by Phil Klay

 

Redeployment, Phil Klay’s collection of short stories, won this year’s National Book Award. It’s been hailed as THE literary work that captures the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, destined to become a classic of war literature.

Klay served during the Surge as a public affairs officer in Anbar (Iraq), which has now been infiltrated by ISIS. All the stories in this collection are written from the first person point of view: a military chaplain, a Mortuary Affairs officer, a Marine home on leave, and others because, as Klay said in an interview, each person has a different experience of war. He wanted to capture those varied perspectives.

If you read Redeployment, you’ll encounter stark realism, much profanity, and a bewildering array of acronyms: SITREP (Situation Report), RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade), CASEVAC (Casualty Evacuation), EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), UXO (Unexploded Ordnance).  There is no glossary, of course. Reading along without knowing what the acronyms mean has a confusing and disorienting effect that adds to the sense of overwhelming fear and danger.

Klay is a master at conveying situation and character through dialogue and idiosyncratic points of view. These soldiers are strangers in an utterly baffling land. They return home as aliens, isolated and unable to relate to “normal” American life. They are ciphers to an American public tragically disengaged from the war being conducted by their own country. I, myself, do not know a single Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran.

There have been a number of interesting interviews with Klay, especially since he won the National Book Award. An NPR interview by Terry Gross is one of my favorites. Terry is adept at asking the hard questions, and Phil Klay is an intense, thoughtful man, a Catholic who attended Jesuit schools. He does not come out in favor of or against the wars, although it’s clear he does not like incompetent leaders or clueless, insensitive civilians.  As any good writer does, he lets character and situation tell the stories, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

In one interview, Klay says that when he returned from Iraq he ran into a friend who said she couldn’t possibly imagine what he’d been through. That did not sit well with Klay. He in fact wanted very much for his friends and American civilians to imagine and understand, which is one of the reasons he wrote the stories.

Klay has also said that asking veterans if they ever killed someone is “the most obscene question you can ask.”

After reading (surviving!) Redeployment, I feel as though saying “Thank you for your service” to military personnel I might encounter would be incredibly lame. I’m not sure I could come up with the right words to show I have even a semblance of an understanding and thatI want to understand more.

Redeployment is not comfortable or comforting reading, but necessary if we civilians want to pay attention.

Prayer of a military chaplain in Iraq:  “I asked God to protect the battalion from further harm. I knew He would not. I asked Him to bring abuses to light. I knew He would not. I asked him, finally, for grace. When I turned back to the Divine Office, I read the words with empty disengagement.”    from “Prayer in the Furnace,” Redeployment

 

All the Light We Cannot See

“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.”     All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeWhen she is six, Marie-Laure LeBlanc goes blind. Her widowed father, a locksmith at the Natural History Museum, constructs a miniature replica of the Paris neighborhood where they live so Marie-Laure can memorize nearby streets and landmarks.

Some years later, when she and Monsieur LeBlanc flee to the coastal city of Saint-Malo during the Nazi occupation, Marie-Laure’s father constructs a replica of that city, too, so Marie-Laure can make her way around independently. Eventually, Marie-Laure joins the resistance, along with her uncle, Etienne, who is a shell-shocked World War I veteran. She finds herself quite alone on the eve of the massive American bombing of Saint-Malo in August of 1944.

In the meantime, German orphan Werner Pfennig takes a keen interest in building and fixing radios. Eventually, he is recruited by the academy for Hitler Youth. During the war, Werner tracks the resistance by searching for secret radio broadcasts. Werner detects illegal broadcasts coming from Saint-Malo, and the very street where Marie-Laure lives.

All the Light We Cannot See was a 2014 National Book Award finalist. Anthony Doerr, who grew up in Cleveland but now lives in Idaho, is a writer I intend to follow. I’ve put his memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, on my holiday wish list, and am enjoying his collection of short stories, The Shell Collector. His prose is breathtaking, poetic. (I’m studying favorite sentences from the novel as a writing exercise.)

When I read World War II European-front fiction I try to imagine where my father would have been at the time. He arrived in France and Luxembourg a few months after the bombing of Saint-Milo and fought during the weeks leading to the Battle of the Bulge.

Here is a 9-minute video I found on YouTube of Americans bombing and entering Saint-Malo. There were about 850 buildings in the town, and after the bombing only 150 or so remained standing.

A couple of my favorite passages from All the Light We Cannot See:

“She places a ration coupon on the counter. ‘One ordinary loaf, please.’

‘And how is your uncle?’ The words are the same, but the voice of Madame Ruelle is different. Galvanized.

‘My uncle is well, thank you.’

Madame Ruelle…reaches across the counter and cups Marie-Laure’s face in her floury palms. ‘You amazing child.’

…the loaf comes to her: heavy, warm, larger than normal. ‘Tell your uncle that the hour has come. That the mermaids have bleached hair.’

‘The mermaids, Madame?’

‘They are coming dear. Within the week.'”

++++++++++++++++++++++

“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama…

Inside each airplane, a bombardier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty. Four five six seven. To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”

++++++++++++++++++++++

“But God is only a white, cold eye, a quarter-moon poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking as the city is gradually pounded to dust.”

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