Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

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Until they took her away

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I’m right in the middle of Suite Francaise, the celebrated, unfinished novel by the late Russian/French writer Iréne Némirovsky that transports you into the turmoil of French civilians’ experiences as the German army overran France in June 1940. It’s been said that this book is the first great literary work to have emerged from the war, because Némirovsky composed it in the midst of everything; she was deported from Paris to Auschwitz in 1942, and soon after died of typhus there, at age 39.

Like Anne Frank’s diary, this work survived the war in a notebook that a relative later found, read, and got published. The Diary of a Young Girl is nonfiction, and simpler; Suite Francaise sets in motion a whole array of characters, from all parts of society, as the Nazis are approaching Paris. In its first of two parts — Nemirovsky planned to write four — these characters lurch and stumble through the chaos of flight, violence, greed, death, survival. And although The Diary of a Young Girl is a more personal story and affects us more personally, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book that does better than Suite Francaise at putting me into an overwhelmingly panoramic drama, and making it all feel like my own lived experience.

How can a writer be so observant, then apply imagination and develop something so completely and precisely alive? For example, right in the middle of the first section, it’s deep in the night and the novel suddenly, for one short chapter, shifts to the viewpoint of a cat. He's the pampered pet of a prominent family that has joined the exodus, and now he leaves his comfortable bed in a house where the family has landed for the night. Slipping outdoors, he sees and hears what a cat might, in very vivid detail — “here, between the roots and the pebbles, were smells untainted by the scent of humans ... They were warm, secretive, eloquent. Alive. Each and every scent meant there was some small living creature, hiding, happy, edible ... June bugs, field mice, crickets and that small toad whose voice seemed full of crystallized tears ...”

How does a writer observe so minutely, so penetratingly? I sure never could. But then Némirovsky extends this, applying imagination to the situation of war:

There were other sounds as well: the steady thud of explosions, rising and bursting forth like flowers and, when the noise stopped, the rattling of every window-pane in the village, the banging of shutters being opened and closed, anxious words flying from window to window. At first, the cat had started every time he heard an explosion, his tail stiff, his fur bristling, his whiskers tense with fear. But he had got used to the rumble came closer and closer, no doubt imagining it was thunder. He leapt about in the flower beds ... at the end of a branch he began a savage, arrogant dance, taunting in his bold, warlike way, the sky, the earth, the animals, the moon.

So much of really great narrative writing is not, I think, so much about the writing — it’s about observancy. In this case, the overwhelming experience of war, of being suddenly conquered and taking flight along with uncountable others, somehow focused Némirovsky: she took in everything. For most of us, ordinary daily life is more than we can truly pay attention to, yet somehow she did this. And then she died in a concentration camp, and many years later the book found its way to print. You have to wonder what Némirovsky might have done with Suite Francaise if she’d had time to work with it, to take it through many drafts and raise it, the way writers can, to be the best work she could do.

You can only wonder. And then you can try, in your own small distractable way, to pay attention to what’s here and now, as this woman did when chaos was engulfing her. She observed and experienced with her whole attention; and then she wrote, and wrote, and kept writing until they took her away.

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Guest Tuesday, 18 September 2018
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