Thursday, April 26, 2007

Retirement and a a great book

I should have retired years ago. This is great – I’d highly recommend it. I’m busy packing up the house in which I’ve lived for 23 years and raised three children, and it’s a lot of work. I’m trying to be ruthless – if I haven’t used it for 22.5 years, I probably don’t need it any more. Next week I’m off to Virginia for Malice Domestic and then to Pittsburg for the Festival of Mystery. It is great knowing that I can take as long as I like, with no need to hurry home. Then the week following, it’s off on the big road trip.

For my retirement party I asked all my friends to give me a book – their favourite book. I knew that I didn’t want presents that I’d have to pack away and I wanted something that would be special between the friend and me. Some of my friends spent months deciding what to give. Trying to choose one book made them think about themselves, and to think of me. My eldest daughter said “One book! Are you kidding?” and gave me three. I got a wonderful variety, and surprisingly only one book that I’ve already read. The one I decided to read first is Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. Wow, what a book. The story behind it is amazing: it was written in 1941-42, Nemirovsky died in Auschwitz in August 1942; her two daughters survived the war and kept their mother’s papers but didn’t want to read them, thinking that it would be to painful. Only in the late 1990’s did the surviving daughter read what she thought were her mother’s notes, and find a fully realized novel. Suite Francaise was intended to be a novel in five parts, but only the first two were completed before the author’s death. Selections of Nemirovsky’s notes are in the appendix and give us a bit of an idea of what she intended for her characters. Reading this book I find myself stopping every once in a while to remember that this is not a historical novel: it was written as these events were actually happening. The novel begins as people are fleeing Paris in the face of the Nazi invasion, and continues through the occupation of France. But not only is the book fascinating because of its history it’s a truly exceptional piece of writing. Nemirovsky was a famous author before the war, and I can see why. It has its faults, in particular I find the characters to be a bit stereotyped – the members of the wealthy, aristocratic families are pretty much indistinguishable in their arrogant contempt and sense of privilege. But the writing is exceptionally beautiful. A couple of passage stood out and I want to quote them here:

In her notes to part 3 (never written): Naturally he (referring to Jean Marie, a French soldier from a lower-middle-class family wounded in the invasion and later arrested for resisting the Germans) would like France to have its revenge but he realizes that this is not a goal because whoever speaks of revenge speaks of hatred and vengeance, eternal war, and the Christian is upset by the idea of hell and eternal punishment; he is upset at this idea that there will always be someone strong and someone weaker…

From Dolce, the second book: “That Willy who asked permission to kiss my kid, saying he had one the same age in Bavaria, that Fritz who helped me take care of my sick husband… if tomorrow he was given the order, he’d arrest me, he’d kill me with his own hands without thinking twice. War… yes everyone knows what war is like. But occupation is more terrible in a way, because people get used to one another. We’ll tell ourselves “They’re just like us, after all,’" but they’re not at all the same. We’re two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever.

Read it.

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