On January 1st, I wrote in my notebook that it was “time to renew my usual promises and take artificial, arbitrary steps toward bettering myself and living a different life.” I made a list of aspirations, which included things like “Return writing to its centerpiece in your life,” and “Reduce temptations for distraction.” Fortunately, aspirations always take place in the future tense. I did, however, “read widely and daily,” and came close to learning “constantly.” Despite—or perhaps because of—2017’s relentlessness, I’ve read more books this year than any previous, and I do feel changed, somewhat, because of it.
Seeing—a subject I’ve been circling for years—seemed especially important after the simplistic, stupid, and reproducible narratives that followed the 2016 presidential election, and so I read more Susan Sontag (AIDS and Its Metaphors and Where the Stress Falls, but also: David Schreiber’s Susan Sontag; Sigrid Nunez’s brilliant and comforting Sempre Susan; and Phillip Lopate’s callow, insensitive Notes on Sontag—itself an accidental defense of mediocrity). I read more John Berger (About Looking), and more Teju Cole (the diaphanous Blind Spot as well as every “On Photography” column in The New York Times Magazine). Cole’s work led me to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which might be the most fun I’ve ever had not understanding a book, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. I read Peter Buse’s engaging history of the Polaroid, The Camera Does the Rest. (Funny story: Polaroid Corporation specifically discouraged the use of Polaroid as a noun, i.e. “check out this Polaroid.”) I read Patricia Morrisroe’s terrifying biography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; in both, the photographer is an agent of death.
In my reading and in my essays on the technologies of seeing, I’ve been looking for the places at which perception and politics intersect. The renewed popularity of fascism, which propagates and governs by aesthetics, has made these intersections much more obvious. Of course there’s Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which, in contemporary America, has made me feel like Cassandra, whose warnings of Troy’s destruction meet nothing but derision. Even more enthrallingly pessimistic is Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which I’d tried to read several times in years past, but didn’t quite “connect” with until this year. But then there was Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, a history of American culture as black culture, ever renewed and reinvented and repeatedly appropriated—and one of the best books on art I’ve ever read. There was Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which really is definitive. This, more than any other book I’ve read in 2017, is the one book I would hand to everyone, that I wish the entire nation would read. I read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, both brilliant missives that beg the reader to understand a particular and overwhelming political pain. And then there was Nato Thompson’s Culture as Weapon and David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, which both, in their detailed, patient ways, reveal the sinister sophistication behind structural inequality in the United States, and how fear and confusion destroy democracy in favor of profit. This is evident, too, in Peter Moskowitz’s rage-inducing study of gentrification, How to Kill a City, which led me to Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—right behind Kendi’s Stamped as “that book everyone should read.”
Beauty? I’m not so sure of that, anymore. It’s hard to look for beauty in 2017 without it feeling narcotic, or even violent. But feeling? There is so much to be felt, and I feel like I felt a great deal through reading, this year. Most recently, Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh left me shattered and quiet for days. It may have been a mistake to read it in November, when everyone I know seemed to be reliving, after Harvey Weinstein et. al., one form of trauma or another. More Sontag: The Volcano Lover, Debriefing, and In America. Many people dismiss her fiction outright, preferring her to have been one kind of writer and not several, but her latter novels and a handful of her stories are incredible contributions to literature, especially if we’re to remember that literature rarely offers itself in familiar forms. I read Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, which rivals Gabriel García Márquez in its creation and destruction of a separate, unique, and precious world. For the first time, I read Frank O’Hara—so I read everything he wrote. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead; Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human; 50 years of Louise Glück; Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas; Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves: I fell in love with so many new ways of seeing. I’d forgotten, for a while, how to read novels, but then Shirley Hazzard died and I learned, a few months later, that The Transit of Venus takes your breath away on almost every page, an incomparable masterpiece. I learned that Agota Kristof, in her triptych of novels—The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie—could carry a decade in one sentence. I learned that Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a war novel that made Ernest Hemingway’s look like Twitter activism.
If nothing else, my convalescence after last year’s psychological injuries has only been possible, bearable, through books. This is something writers say all the time, usually with an Instagram photo of #coffee or a cat. This is who I’d like to be, our shared photos often say, and it’s in books that I find it easiest to realize those aspirations. Despite everything, I won’t complain that this year’s difficulties have pushed me toward becoming that other version of myself. I don’t regret that I’ve grown closer to books, to their voices.
And they do have so much to say. In Compass, Mathias Énard reminded me that you could build an entire life—a gorgeous life—out of longing. And in his monograph of Polaroids, Fire Island Pines, Tom Bianchi assured me that queer utopias can exist, at least as long as we remember that a utopia is a moment in time—either an aspiration, out there in the future, or a snapshot we carry of the past, before things got so hard.
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June is sickly sweet; it’s insipid. Is that because it’s so warm, or because it rhymes so easily? June / moon / spoon / balloon… But while Robert Burns happily rhymed his “red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June” with a “melody / that’s sweetly played in tune,” Gwendolyn Brooks burned off any sugar in the terse rhythms of “We Real Cool”: the rhyme she finds for “Jazz June”? “Die soon.”
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
June is called “midsummer,” even though it’s the beginning, not the middle, of the season. It’s the traditional month for weddings — Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is overflowing with matrimony — but it’s also the home of another modern ritual, graduation day — or, as it’s more evocatively known, commencement, an ending that’s a beginning. It’s an occasion that brings out both hope and world-weariness in elders and advice givers. It brought David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address reprinted as This Is Water, perhaps as close as he ever came to the unironic statement his busy mind was striving for.
But the graduation speech is an especially potent scene in African American literature. There’s the narrator’s friend “Shiny” in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, speaking to a white audience like “a gladiator tossed into the arena and bade to fight for his life,” and there’s Richard Wright, in his memoir Black Boy, giving a rough speech he’d composed himself instead of the one written, cynically, for him. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is invited to give his class speech before the town’s leading white citizens, only to find himself instead pitted in a “battle royal” with his classmates, while in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a young student follows a white dignitary’s patronizing words to the graduates with an unprompted and subversive leading of the “Negro national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (whose lyrics, to bring the tradition full circle, were written by none other than James Weldon Johnson).
Here is a selection of June reading for the beginnings and endings that midsummer brings:
McTeague by Frank Norris (1899)
One of American literature’s most memorable — and most disastrous — weddings ends, after an orgy of oyster soup, stewed prunes, roast goose, and champagne, with Trina whispering to her groom, McTeague, “Oh, you must be very good to me — very, very good to me, dear, for you’re all that I have in the world now.”
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
Five days after Joyce met Nora Barnacle on a Dublin street, and one day after she stood him up, they went on their first date. Eighteen years later, he celebrated that day — June 16, 1904 — with a book.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (1942/2004)
After reading Colette’s account of the migration out of Paris forced by the German occupation, Némirovsky remarked, “If that’s all she could get out of June, I’m not worried,” and continued work on her own version, “Storm in June,” the first of the two sections of her fictional suite she’d survive the Nazis long enough to complete.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948)
It’s a “clear and sunny” morning on June 27 when the men, women, and children of an unnamed village assemble to conduct their annual choosing of lots.
“The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara (1959)
Writing during the lunch hour of his job at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara gathered the moments of his afternoon into a poem: the train schedule to Long Island, a shoeshine, the “quandariness” of choosing a book, the sweat of summer, and the memory of how Billie Holiday once took his breath away.
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin (1964) and “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” by Eudora Welty (1963)
On the day (June 12, 1963) Medgar Evers was assassinated, Baldwin vowed that “nothing under heaven would prevent” him from finishing the play he was working on, about another notorious murder of a black man in Mississippi, while Welty, on hearing of the murder in her hometown of Jackson, quickly wrote a story, told from the mind of the presumed killer, that was published in The New Yorker within weeks.
Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)
Is the greatest beach read the one that could keep you from ever wanting to go into the water again?
Blind Ambition by John Dean (197?)
We know the story of the June 1972 Watergate break-in best from All the President’s Men, but Dean’s insider’s memoir of how it quickly went wrong, co-written with future civil rights historian Taylor Branch, is an equally thrilling and well-told tale.
The Public Burning by Robert Coover (1977)
We’ve never quite known what to do with The Public Burning, Coover’s wild American pageant starring Nixon, a foul and folksy Uncle Sam, and the Rosenbergs, whose June execution is at its center: it’s too long, too angry, too crazy, and, for the publisher’s lawyers who said it couldn’t be released while its main character, the freshly deposed president, was still alive, it was too soon.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (1979)
Sleepless Nights begins in a hot, blinding June but soon fragments across time, into memories from the narrator’s life — which closely resembles Hardwick’s — and stories from the lives of others, a method that has the paradoxical effect of heightening time’s power.
Clockers by Richard Price (1992)
It’s often said that no modern novel can match the storytelling power of The Wire, but its creators drew inspiration from Price’s novel of an unsolved summertime murder in the low-level New Jersey crack trade, and for their third season they added Price to their scriptwriting team.
When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud (1995)
Bali is hot but dry in June, while the Isle of Skye is gray and wet, at least until the weather makes yet another change. Messud’s first novel follows two English sisters just on the far side of middle age who find themselves on those distant and different islands, reckoning with the choices they’ve made and suddenly open to the life around them.
“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx (1997)
Meeting again nearly four summers after they last parted on Brokeback Mountain, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are drawn together with such a jolt that Jack’s teeth draw blood from Ennis’s mouth.
Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)
Three Junes might well be called “Three Funerals”–each of its three sections, set in summers that stretch across a decade, takes place in the wake of a death. But the warmth of the month in Glass’s title hints at the story inside, and the way her characters hold on to life wherever they find it.
Image via circasassy/Flickr
Elisabeth Gille was only five years old when the authorities took her mother away.
It was July of 1942, the height of the German occupation of France. Her mother, Irène Némirovsky, was once the darling of the Parisian literati, but once the Germans arrived her fortunes fell. Her novels were no longer publishable, due to Nazi race law, and her literary friends abandoned her, hoping to gain the good graces of the occupiers. She fled with her family to the small village of Issy-l’Évêque, but in the end it did no good — she was specifically targeted by the Gestapo as a “degenerate artist of deluded Jewish hegemony,” a “stateless person of Jewish descent.” The writing was on the wall.
“I am going on a journey now,” she told her daughters. A long journey, as it turned out, although not the longest of her peripatetic life. As a girl she had come west from Russia with her parents, running from the Bolsheviks. Now the Gestapo took her east again — across Germany, into Poland, and finally to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where she was killed in the gas chambers.
She left behind the unfinished manuscript of Suite Française, a novel which detailed the downfall of Paris and the French countryside under the occupation. The book languished for decades in her unpublished papers, mistaken for a diary.
Her daughters survived the war. The eldest, Denise, became an archivist; Elisabeth Gille, the younger sister, had a long and productive career as an editor and a translator. Then, in 1991, when Elisabeth Gille was in her fifties, she wrote an odd sort of book: a fictional memoir about her mother, a book which could easily seem to the casual reader as if it were written by Irène Némirovsky herself.
Not that Gille was trying to put one over on anybody. In French the book was called La Mirador – Dreams Reves, which translates loosely to Dream Memories. It had Gille’s name on the cover, and hers was the book’s first voice:
The child is born in a beautiful Parisian apartment. One imagines her cradle surrounded by bright-eyed fairies: her mother, the famous writer, her sister… the servants, the nurse, the governess… her father, wearing a light-colored suit, with a tender expression on his face and a champagne flute in his hand.
This is the familiar territory of memoir. “The child” is Gille herself; “the famous writer” is her mother, Irène Némirovsky. Consider the phrase “one imagines”; how many times have we read a memoir in which someone imagines childhood events which they themselves could not possibly have witnessed? Everyone runs up against some version of this when recollecting their own past: the point in which memory gives way to sense-images, sense-images to imaginings.
But Gille is only warming up. Soon her real narrative begins, and in a much different mode:
“I have always found the fragrance of linden blossoms aggressive, though it is in fact quite tender, at least in literature, inebriating the senses in the mild air of late-summer nights. Heady to the point of causing queasiness, it is the fragrance of village squares where young folk walk around and around in the evening air beneath the heavy-lidded gaze of old men perched on benches, fingers knotted over their canes … The fragrance of the promenade in Charleville at sundown or of Turgenev’s parks, where slender young women from the last century cling to their lovers’ arms. And a fragrance which has always brought on my worst migraines and driven my heart to gallop and thrash uncontrollably.”
Consider the sudden and somewhat shocking assumption of “I.” We are no longer in familiar territory. Is this an unpublished memoir? one wonders. Another of Némirovsky’s (highly autobiographical) novels? Or is it a journal entry, found in a drawer after years of neglect?
In fact, The Mirador is a combination of all these things. Throughout this fabulously hybrid text, Gille gives herself license to use whatever mode strikes her fancy, as long as it helps explicate the mother she never knew. She writes her mother’s memoirs for her, imagining her history. She discusses her mother’s novels in her mother’s own voice. She even quotes Némirovsky’s letters and journals, letting these quotes merge with the larger narrative so that the reader can no longer tell which text is Gille’s and which is her mother’s.
This is, to put it mildly, an audacious project. No matter how liberal we consider ourselves about the slippery line between memoir and autobiographical fiction – even if we are more Exley than Oprah on the matter – there is still something that seems suspicious about the enterprise of full-on fictional memoir. Is this allowable? Can one simply jump in and narrate the course of another person’s life?
Perhaps – if you do it right.
If the proof of any literary idea is in the execution – or, as Joan Didion writes, “the writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream” – then Gille’s book succeeds admirably. Her version of Némirovsky is curt, cynical, with just enough seductive lyricism to make her believable as a writer of fiction. She sulks and pouts her way through a pampered Russian girlhood, tries her best to fathom the 1917 Revolution, and then throws herself bodily into the Paris literati without so much as a hesitation.
“Bernard Grasset,” she writes of her first Parisian publisher, “was expecting a middle-aged man, perhaps a retired banker. Instead, standing before him he saw a petite, young, shy, and curiously dressed woman, peering at him nearsightedly.”
In fact, Gille’s version of her mother is so believable that when I write to you about Gille’s descriptions of people and places I am tempted to ascribe them to Némirovsky herself, as in this lovely description of an emigre ship bound from Finland to France:
“The ship, by one of those odd coincidences of which the period was so fond, was carrying theatrical sets, and during the entire ten-day crossing in turbulent waters, we had to continually push back the bundled-up stage curtains and backdrops that were constantly falling on us … Neither my father nor I suffered from seasickness and we were proud to be the only clients at the bar. I did my best to get closer to Andre by drowning my sorrows in drink, despite my father’s weak protests. The tiny bar had an upright piano on which the bartender, a Polish student, banged out Chopin pieces to pay his passage, struggling to be heard over the noise of the storm.”
The ship of Europe, a beleaguered stage set on stormy waters — it takes a writer, it seems, to fake another writer’s memoir.
Not that Gille’s version of her mother is perfect; as a child she sometimes behaves like a spoiled, self-hating brat, and as an adult she is deeply conflicted about her own Jewish identity. But it is a testament to Gille’s skill as a writer that the mother she creates is palpable and bristling. By the time the war comes, and the world begins to close in around her, you begin to feel for the woman, to understand her complexities and sympathize with her shortcomings. Most of all, you want to listen to her.
Which is just another way of saying that you want to listen to Gille — to listen to her dream. Ethical issues aside, The Mirador is an argument for fictional memoir as a fabulously flexible genre. (Perhaps it already is a genre — consider Stephen Elliot and Eric Martin’s hilarious and ruthless Donald.) The fictional nature of her enterprise allows Gille great latitude in painting scenes which are fundamentally novelistic, such as a scene in which frightened White Russians pass the time in the basement of a hotel requisitioned by the Red Army:
“After a night spent sleeping on the green felt of the billiard tables or cushions and overcoats on the floor, a few energetic souls attempted to establish a semblance of order. Young society ladies tore the fabric off of chairs and made armbands, offering their services to an amiable doctor who was nursing several dowagers suffering from fainting spells. A prince took it upon himself to remove all the lapdogs to a nearby room because their barking had becoming intolerable.”
Delightful, ironic description of the sort one would find in the best satirical French novelists.
Unburdened by absolute fact, Gille’s book is free to fulfill a myriad of fascinating functions. It is, in turn, a memoir (albeit a fictional one); an autobiographical novel (of someone other than the author); a history lesson; and an investigation into the literary process, as when the character of Némirovsky leafs feverishly through French industrial magazines and British books on the oil trade to provide adequate characterization for her creations. Each of these modes — with the possible exception of the literary investigations, which can sometimes seem a bit strained — is fundamentally successful; its remarkable how well The Mirador works as a whole, how it holds together.
The Mirador is so successful, in fact, that one gets to the end of the book before remembering that twinge of suspicion from the first page. Now that we have a handle on what Gille is doing — juggling memoir and fiction, criticism and text — we have to ask ourselves a stark question: what right does Gille have presenting this story, as if she could write her mother for the world?
Keep in in mind that when this book was first published Némirovsky had more or less faded from the literary world — it would take another 15 years for Suite Française to rehabilitate her international reputation — and some French readers would have approached the book as their first acquaintance with her work. Such readers could have easily mistaken Gille’s Némirovsky for the genuine article.
To put it harshly: is this art, or is this theft?
Perhaps we can split the difference and say it is both. But I would argue that it is the sort of theft all of us engage in every day, whenever we read a novel: we take the work of a writer and we re-envision it in our own image. Many of us go a step further and re-envision it on personal terms. We imagine where the author was when he wrote it, what he was reading, what he ate for breakfast. Imagine the grubby hands of countless grad students poring over the dirty letters sent between James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, scurrying back and forth between their correspondence and the final chapter of Ulysses, trying to understand the relationship between Joyce’s literary production and his sex life.
Elisabeth Gille was five years old when her mother was taken away to be killed – they barely knew each other. To know her mother was to know the texts she left behind, the same way all of us imagine our authors. The difference with Gille is that she went a step further and narrated the picture she saw. She closed the circle; she used the tools of fiction to bring the dead writer to life.
So if Gille is only doing what everybody else is doing – except more skillfully, in a more writerly fashion — then why do we react so strongly to what she has done? What is it about this book that is both powerful and a little disturbing?
Maybe it’s because Gille’s book skillfully conceals its own hybrid nature. It is doing many things under the guise of one specific thing: it seems, at first glance, to be a memoir, and we all know how much Americans in particular cling to the supposed veracity of their memoirs. The Mirador can even be mistaken as a Holocaust memoir, if the reader isn’t careful. There are several snares here for the woeful misreader.
The Mirador is an extremely crafty book. So crafty, in fact, that much of its complexity — its intertextuality, even — is only revealed upon reading its acknowledgements.
“This book was imagined on the basis of other books,” Gille writes. (What book isn’t? — so the reader might wonder.) “Firstly, those of my mother, Irène Némirovsky … Also Sholem Asch’s trilogy, especially Petersburg and Moscow. The scenes I describe at the Hotel Metropol are inspired by the latter.”
Gille is speaking here of the vivid hotel scene mentioned earlier in this essay: the princes, the fainting ladies, the incorrigible lapdog. Here we have a fictional memoir, stealing from a novel to provide a sense of the real — hybridity at is finest.
Fiction begets life begets fiction — perhaps the best argument for accepting The Mirador on its own terms is that it’s less about Irène Némirovsky than it is about literature itself: its endurance, its continual spur to the imagination. When Gille writes about her mother, she is writing about her mother’s literary tradition, one that parallels her mother’s own movement from Russia to France — a tradition that encompasses Alexander Blok and Alexander Pushkin, Musset and Molière , all of whom are referenced or quoted in The Mirador.
Her mother is a book made up of other books, and Gille is reading her.
Consider the beautiful final scene, in which Némirovsky remembers a trip she took with her father to Yalta, where he told her a story about Chekhov:
“My father and I walked along the shore for a long time. He told me that when Chekhov began to notice the symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his beloved brother Nikolai, he traveled around the world and then, after a terrible attack of hemotypsis, went to live in Crimea. Vera Komissarzhevskaya came to see him … In the twilight, the sandy-bearded, sickly Chekhov, wearing a pince-nez, and the lady with the enormous tragic eyes had paced up and down this beach just as we were doing, surrounded by the fragrance of roses and the ethereal melody of the waves. At his request, she recited Nina’s final monologue from The Seagull, which had been created for her.”
Time seems to collapse, and we are aware — if we have read the book correctly — of several layers of imagination. Gille imagines Némirovsky, Némirovsky imagines her father, her father imagines Chekhov. By imagining her mother and setting the cycle in motion, Gille is bringing us into a larger conversation, not just with her mother’s ghost, but with the inexhaustible world of writing.
It is fitting, then, that the book ends with the quote from the end of The Seagull:
“It was nice in the old days, Kostya! Do you remember? How clear, warm, joyous and pure life was, what feelings we had – feelings like tender exquisite flowers… Do you remember? ‘Men, lions, eagles, and partridges, horned deer, geese, spiders, silent fish that dwell in the water, star-fishes, all living things, all living things, have completed their cycle of sorrow, are extinct… For thousands of years the earth has borne no living creature on its surface, and this poor moon lights its lamp in vain. On the meadow the cranes no longer waken with a cry and there is no sound of the May beetles in the linden trees.”
A mournful speech, but not without hope. Note those linden trees: the same ones we found in The Mirador’s opening pages. Here we thought that Gille was talking about her mother in those early lines, when she was really talking about the ever-expanding library of literature: a library from which everyone is permitted to steal.
1. Suite Française
In 1941, the celebrated French novelist Irène Némirovsky began work on her final novel. She was thirty-nine years old. Suite Française was to be a wildly ambitious work, a novel of a thousand pages. “To do it well,” she wrote in her notebook, “need to make 5 parts:”
The first part of the novel, “Storm in June,” is an ensemble piece concerned largely with the civilian exodus from Paris as the Nazis approached the city. Paris is emptying out, the train stations in pandemonium and the roads clogged with refugees. In a series of short chapters alternating between various perspectives, the chaotic flight is made human.
There are the Michauds, a lower-middle-class couple whose love for one another sustains them through the anguish of not knowing what has become of their only child — Jean-Marie, a French soldier, vanished with so many others as the French army collapsed in disarray — who are promised a ride out of Paris by the director of the bank where both are employed, but are forced to walk when the director gives their seats in the car to his mistress and her luggage. The Péricands, a wealthy family run by a matriarch whose idea of wartime sacrifice is going without lunch “to personally supervise the packing of the linen.” Charles Langelot, a wealthy man who loves nothing but his porcelain collection. Gabriel Corte, a horrifically self-absorbed and utterly insufferable writer. Arlette Corail, the aging dancer who took the Michauds’ place in the bank director’s car.
Their lives intersect here and there in the flight out of Paris, and the perspective begins to shift between the various refugees and Jean-Marie Michaud, recovering from his wounds in a farmhouse with no means of contacting his parents. The village near the farm where he recovers is the setting of “Dolce,” Suite Française’s second section; the family who tends to him are on the periphery of the second book. It’s an effective and thoughtful structure.
In “Dolce,” a year has passed since the fall of France, and a regiment of German soldiers is to occupy the village of Bussy for three months. In an echo of the opening of “Storm in June,” the villagers are locking away their valuables. “Dolce” chronicles the period of the German occupation in all its tension and its sadness, its terrible risks and its unexpected moments of joy, a period wherein the villagers and the occupying soldiers slowly come to know one another as individuals. Her Germans are never less than human — “The Germans marched in rows of eight; they wore their field dress and metal helmets. Their faces maintained the impenetrable and impersonal expression of professional soldiers, but their eyes glanced furtively, inquisitively, at the grey facades of the town that was to be their home.”
Némirovsky writes with tremendous compassion, particularly for the utterly blameless Michauds, but she is unsparing in her assessment of her crueler and more thoughtless characters. Following the exodus in “Storm in June,” the second-oldest Péricand child — Hubert, a teenager — sits in a church and contemplates his family’s behavior during their flight from the city:
He judged his family with bitterness and a painful harshness. His grievances whirled around in his mind in the form of brief, violent images, without him being able to express them clearly: …their cars full to bursting with fine linen and silver caught up among the refugees, and his mother, pointing to women and children forced to walk with just a few bits of clothing wrapped in a piece of cloth, saying, “Do you see how good our Lord Jesus is? Just think, we could be those unfortunate wretches!” Hypocrites, frauds!
It’s a cliché to say that times of disaster and upheaval reveal us for who we are, but I believe there’s some truth to it. Irène Némirovsky’s characters are variously revealed by war and dangerous politics to be weak, courageous, venal, or honorable, and she knew of what she wrote.
She was Jewish, born in Russia, the daughter of a fantastically successful banker. The Némirovskys had fled the Bolsheviks and arrived in a country where they believed they’d be safe. Irène Némirovsky embraced France completely, and for a time, at least, France seemed to embrace her. She found fame as a novelist at twenty-six and was catapulted into French literary society. But by the time she began Suite Française in 1941, the same editors and critics who’d celebrated her before the war had turned away. Her letters went unanswered. Anti-Semitic tirades were published by her former friends. Her books were removed from her first publisher’s catalogue.
Words written in her notebook in 1941: “My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honor and its life. And the other countries? What are they to me? Empires are dying. Nothing matters.” The betrayal was absolute.
In 1942 she was living with her husband and two daughters in a village in the French countryside, working feverishly on her fiction and engaged in correspondence with anyone who she thought might possibly help her. Finances had become a problem.
Excerpts from her notebook appear at the back of the first Vintage international edition of Suite Française. She liked to work outdoors in good weather, and in the final entry she’d walked out of the village into a nearby forest—
Maie woods: 11 July 1942. The pine trees all around me. I am sitting on my blue cardigan in the middle of an ocean of leaves, wet and rotting from last night’s storm as if I were on a raft, my legs tucked under me! In my bag, I have put Volume II of Anna Karenina, the diary of K.M. and an orange. My friends the bumblebees, delightful insects, seem pleased with themselves and their buzzing is profound and grave.
She discusses her plans for Suite Française, and the last paragraph reads as follows:
The most important 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.
The first two sections of Suite Française are a masterpiece. The planned third, fourth, and fifth sections— “Captivity,” “Battle,” “Peace” — were never written. Two days after she sat listening to bumblebees in the Maie woods, Irène Némirovsky was arrested. Her family never saw her again. She died just over a month later in Auschwitz.
2. The Mirador
When she disappeared in 1942, Irène Némirovsky left two daughters behind. Denise was thirteen and Elisabeth was five. Their father, Michel Epstein, was arrested and deported a few months after their mother disappeared. He died at Auschwitz that November. The girls fled with their governess and survived the war.
In her fifties, Elisabeth — who now went by the name Elisabeth Gille — wrote The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irène Némirovsky By Her Daughter. She had worked for years as an editor, but The Mirador was the first book she wrote. She was in poor health, René de Ceccatty writes in the book’s Afterword, “and the cancer that would eventually kill her was beginning to spread.” She had only a few years left to live. Elisabeth had no memory of her mother. She had complicated feelings about the choices her mother had made.
This is the part of the story that confounds: Irène Némirovsky, a highly intelligent woman with two dependent children and a devoted husband, seemingly made no particular effort to save herself. By the summer of 1942 she was resigned to her death. On July 11th, the day when she sat in the woods on the raft of her cardigan and wrote of Suite Française and bumblebees, she also wrote a letter to her editor: “My dear friend… think of me sometimes. I have done a lot of writing. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but it helps pass the time.” She knew by then that her arrest was only a matter of time. She had written her will the month before.
But before that final summer, there were any number of opportunities for escape. She came from enormous wealth, and could easily have emigrated. Friends begged her to join them in America. She could have slipped into Switzerland, or otherwise gone into hiding. Her initial reluctance to abandon France can be explained partly, I believe, by the fact that Némirovsky didn’t think of herself as a Jew. She had converted to Catholicism, along with her husband, and saw her family’s Judaism as a relic of the past. She was fully assimilated into French society. She published her work in far-right publications.
“When I was an adolescent,” Elisabeth Gille told an interviewer for the Italian publication Il Messaggero in 1992, “I was angry with her for her lack of political sense. It would have been easy for her to have saved herself, but she didn’t even try, and by staying she put my sister and me in danger. …She was criminally blind.”
But even after Némirovsky’s arrest, there was one more chance to live and she failed to take it. “Apparently,” Gille said in the same interview, “the officer who escorted her to police headquarters in 1942 even gave her a chance to escape. She said she wasn’t going into exile again. She was French, and that was that.”
This was a woman who had prepared her last will and testament, had written to her publisher in terms of posthumous works, and had prepared a detailed letter for her children’s governess outlining instructions for their care in the event of her death. It seems unlikely that she had any illusions as to the fate that awaited her.
Elisabeth Gille wrote The Mirador in part, perhaps, in an effort to understand. It’s an accomplished and beautifully written work. At times uneven, but nonetheless a remarkable portrait of a woman known to her youngest daughter only by the evidence she left behind — the publications, the journal notes — and by her older sister’s memories, and by photographs.
A challenge in writing The Mirador, Elisabeth Gille told the Il Messaggero interviewer, was that there was no documentation of her mother’s life from her birth in 1903 until 1930. Perhaps because of the freedom a lack of documentation allowed her, the sections describing Némirovsky’s childhood strike me as the most vivid and alive in the book. Her descriptions of a privileged Russian childhood, and of the landscapes the child moved through, are lovely and meticulously imagined. A carriage ride with her father—
We cut down narrow lanes that descended into ravines filled with pine trees and birches, penetrated by cool air and shadows in which I took refuge from the blinding glare of the sun. The horses slowed. We could hear a stream bubbling nearby. Twigs caught in my hair when I poked my head out of the opening in the hood.
Irène lives with her parents — a kind but mostly absent father, a monstrous beauty of a mother — and her adored French governess, Mademoiselle Rose, in an atmosphere of immense wealth. At ten she watches Anna Pavlova perform Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre. As a teenager the Revolution breaks out all around her and the family flees for the border. Her first kiss is in Finland. A perilous sea voyage brings her eventually to France, to her beloved Paris.
Where the book falters, it seems to me, is when Gille moves from the personal to the political, when she pulls the camera back from her mother’s life to engage in sometimes-lengthy explications of the political storms that surrounded her. Impossible, of course, to consider a life like Némirovsky’s outside of the context of politics, but I’m reminded of Némirovsky’s directives to herself for Suite Française. (“…The historical, revolutionary facts etc. must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life… must be described in detail.”) But for all that, The Mirador is a striking and fascinating work.
3. The Notebook
Némirovsky’s older daughter, Denise Epstein, had often seen her mother writing in the leatherbound notebook. Irène Némirovsky wrote in pencil, in a tiny script to save paper. When Denise’s parents were arrested and it became necessary to flee the village with her governess and her tiny sister Elisabeth, Denise took the notebook with her as a memento.
In the dangerous years that followed the girls were moved between boarding schools and cellars, seemingly never far ahead of the authorities. Through all of it, Denise carried the suitcase with her mother’s notebook with her, but even after the war neither Denise nor Elisabeth could bring themselves to read it. Finally, in the 1990s, they decided to entrust the notebook to L’Institut mémoires de l’édition contemporaine: an organization, Myriam Anissimov wrote in her preface to the French edition of Suite Française, “dedicated to documenting memories of the war, in order to preserve it.
Before giving it up, Denise decided to type it out. With the help of a large magnifying glass, she began the long, difficult task of deciphering the minuscule handwriting. Soon she discovered that these were not simply notes or a private diary, as she had thought, but a violent masterpiece…”
Denise sent the work to the French publisher Denoël, who published it in 2004. She felt, Anissimov writes, “tremendous sadness that her sister Elisabeth Gille, who died in 1996, had not been able to read it.”
Of Lists, Generally
Most Emailed Articles. Most Beautiful People. 100 Best Singles. 50 Greatest Novelists Between the Ages of 31 and 33. Verily, as William H. Gass observes in his wonderful essay collection Tests of Time – which made the New York Times Notable Books List even as it missed Bestsellers by a mile – we are nowadays “obsessed by hierarchies in the form of lists.”
The etiology of this obsession is elaborate enough that a list of the Top 10 causes would not begin to exhaust it. Still, near the head of such a list, as Gass suggests, would have to be “our egalitarian and plural society,” which renders questions of value both vital and vexed. And somewhere nearby (just above, or below, or beside?) would be our access to a venue where the itch to list can be almost continuously scratched: the Internet. Online tools for the gathering and measuring and dissemination of data have made list-making so ridiculously easy as to be ubiquitous. Kissing listservs and bookmarks and blogrolls goodbye would be something like turning your back on the Internet altogether.
Still, for a certain kind of mind, the lists Gass is referring to – lists that not only collect objects but rank them – would seem to give rise to at least three problems (which appear here in no particular order):
They are always incomplete – either arbitrarily circumscribed or made on the basis of incomplete information. Who has time to listen to every Single of the Decade? To gawk at every Beautiful Person?
They present a false picture of the world, wherein “best” appears to be a fixed and ascertainable property, like the color of money, rather than, like its value, a contingency. What does “Third Best Living Drummer” mean, exactly?
They involve judgment, and therefore judges. Who has the authority to say what makes the cut and what doesn’t? Who has the audacity? Who has the right?
Thus, every list carries with it, as a built-in feature, the seeds of its own refutation. Indeed, it’s probably its hospitality to debate that makes the “Best Of” list so popular in the first place. In a familiar online dynamic, passions get stirred – one can agree (yes! great list!) or dissent (Where is x? Why no y?) or inveigh against list-making itself – but nothing is finally settled. In any case, the list, like the broader medium, holds up a mirror to one’s own preoccupations. As with any mirror, it is fearsomely hard to look away.
Of One List, More Particularly
We at The Millions have experienced first-hand what one might call “the fascination of the list.” (Fascination, n. From the Latin for bewitchment; same root as fascism.) For the better part of a decade, we’ve watched other venues trot out their literary lists, and, in addition to grumbling about the arbitrariness and banality of the results, have wondered why they didn’t resemble more closely the lists we ourselves would have made. A more principled (not to say puritanical) editorial posture might have led us to eschew the whole list-making enterprise. Yet when we noticed that the first decade of the Aughts was drawing to a close, we decided, rather than leaving the “Best of the Decade” cataloguing to institutions we didn’t quite trust, to do it ourselves. Almost immediately we discovered, or remembered, what may be the number one reason for the proliferation of lists. Making lists, – as Gass knows – is fun.
We realized from the get-go, of course, that listing the best books published in the first 10 years of the 21st Century would be an act of hubris. Why not soft-pedal it? We decided, however (and tried to state explicitly in our introduction to the series), that the spirit of the exercise was not to put to rest a conversation about taste and literary merit, but to provoke one. “Some More or Less Recent Books Some People Like,” an accurate if unwieldy title, was less likely to generate debate than “Best of the Millennium,” so we braced ourselves and went for it.
Our next challenge was figuring out how to assemble the list. Being the little-d democrats we are, we decided that any list of “The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)” should be arrived at by voting. This meant – logically, unfairly – that books a lot of people had read were more likely to appear on our list than the unjustly neglected classics-in-the-making some other list might discover. But it didn’t mean, as the omissions of Zadie Smith, Claire Messud, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Chabon attested, that popularity alone was sufficient to get them there.
Notwithstanding this constraint, we hoped to honor works in translation. However, because our readership is overwhelmingly English-speaking, we chose to restrict our list to books available in English. This raised a whole set of issues about the speed and frequency of translation – natürlich. On the other hand, readers who elected to call us on it would also be calling attention to the parlous state of translation in the U.S. And perhaps someone better equipped than ourselves would undertake a list of the untranslated books that should have appeared.
Now for a starting point. Jan. 1, 2000 seemed a nice, round number, but proved to have odd properties. It eliminated from contention The Savage Detectives and The Elementary Particles, which found their way into English after that date, but not Suite Française, which seemed somehow less millennial.
To assemble a panel of voters, we contacted novelists, critics, novelist-critics, and editors who knew The Millions well enough to return our emails. (We forbid them from voting for themselves.) The resulting panel was destined to be demographically skewed in all sorts of important ways. It skewed coastal, it skewed white, it skewed thirtysomething and fortysomething, and it skewed toward writers and reviewers working in the genre of literary fiction. It skewed, that is, much as our site and our readership skews. This seemed to us both a minus and a plus.
We also decided, doubtless due to some unexamined numerological prejudice, to limit the number of votes each panelist got to five.
Can Anything Be Learned from a List?
For all that, the results of our survey pleased us in three ways. First, the ballots were more heterogenous than anything we’d have come up with on our own. Roughly 160 titles got mentioned in the balloting, a number of which none of us had heard of. The most frequently mentioned book by a substantial margin, The Corrections, only received a plurality of votes. Appearing alongside it among the Top 20 vote-getters were three works in translation (from three different languages), four paperback originals, five short-story collections, and five books originated by independent presses. From the point-of-view of the possible, rather than the ideal, our Top 20 and Readers Survey and Honorable Mention and Best of the Rest lists seemed evidence of more diversity and life in the novel than has been widely rumored to exist.
Where it was homogeneous (70% of the writers have been published in The New Yorker), the Top 20 list seemed to document a number of tendencies that have been noted elsewhere, and to mark them as worth discussion. Perhaps most interesting was the preponderance of titles that cross-bred the realist patrimony of literary fiction with elements of other genres – science fiction, detective novels, and fantasy. Less widely noticed was how many of our top 20 titles made free – for better or for worse – with techniques that would as recently as the Clinton Administration have been considered avant-garde.
Moreover, the Best of the Millennium lists sparked conversations, both in our comment-threads and elsewhere. Conversations about translation. Conversations about corporate publishing. Conversations about who the hell did we think we were. Where these conversations were in progress already, the proximity of a list – a piece of potential evidence to mull over – seemed to increase the volume and the heat.
Among these conversations were, as we had hoped, many about books that didn’t make the Top 20. Some readers took up the gauntlet we’d thrown down and compiled their own lists. Others supplied overlooked titles: Gould’s Book of Fish; Tree of Smoke; The Last Samurai. (I would have liked to vote for these last two myself. And The Line of Beauty. And Against the Day. And The Wire. And True History of the Kelly Gang.) I can’t speak for our readers, but I don’t think there’s a single Millions contributor whose personal “To Be Read” list wasn’t shaken up as a result of this series.
Even some readers who rejected outright the listing impulse couldn’t resist commenting at length, as a lengthy debate between Andrew Seal and Edmond Caldwell (later continued at Dan Green’s The Reading Experience) illustrated. This back-and-forth, which had proceeded from the suggestion that our Top 20 reflected a certain parochialism, grew more and more parochial itself. It seemed by turns to confirm the theory that lists offer a mirror of the beholder’s preoccupations, to demarcate the narrowness and/or breadth of online literary discourse, and to do all of the above at the same time. Yet it was impassioned, and alive.
Of Lists, Personally
As the “Best of the Millennium” discussion went on, however, I began to think that the most interesting datum to arise from the whole project spoke volumes about our current understanding of aesthetic experience. It was this: while I could grant dissenters their passions, some of them were unable to grant mine. “The panelists can’t possibly have felt the way they claimed to have felt The Corrections” was the tenor of these comments. It was not the first time I’d heard this line of reasoning, if that’s the right word.
As Carl Wilson notes in Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, there’s a tendency among the commentariat to view aesthetic experience through the prism of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction – to assume (brace yourself: I’m about to vulgarize this) that people mostly love the things they love for what loving those things says about them. This may be true, in a sense broad enough to be almost tautological. People who responded to The Corrections – people who were, yes, moved by it – may have been united, among other things, by their desire to be united by a novel that moved them, and moved by a novel that united them. But to push this anodyne observation into an accusation of illegitimacy or blindness is to fashion it into a boomerang: it redounds upon the one hurling it, and promptly plants itself in her forehead. That is, it makes her appear far more attuned to where a work sits on the popularity-backlash curve – and far more anxious about what her own position thereupon may say about her – than the reader who simply allows herself to be, or not to be, seduced.
To put it another way, the Bourdieuvian posture – I’ve come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism – may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art. And it seems to prompt the very flocking pattern – hype, backlash, counterbacklash – it purports to expose. At any rate, insofar as it annihilates its own object, it is transparently poor ground for any debate about value.
I prefer Kant’s definition of aesthetic experience, which, being unequal to The Critique of Pure Reason, I’ve nicked from another Gass essay: the experience of
purposiveness without purpose – either in the look of a utility that has been retired or in an accidental object that seems rationally shaped to perform an undefined task.
That last bit – an object “rationally shaped to perform an undefined task” seems to me a fair descriptor of the five books I’ve loved the most this decade: The Corrections, Twilight of the Superheroes, The Known World, Mortals, 2666. And, to the extent that our “Best of the Millennium” experiment has proceeded by accident and happenstance, it seems a decent sketch of the series itself. Perhaps we gravitate toward lists because they are themselves a kind of aesthetic experience, whether pleasurable or infuriating. At any rate, we hope you’ve found ours useful, though for what we wouldn’t presume to say.
With year nearly half over, it’s time once again to look ahead at books that will be arriving in the coming months. 2007 was very much a front-loaded year in terms of big-name literary releases with heavyweights like Delillo, McEwan, Murakami, Lethem, and Chabon all dropping new titles early in the year. The second half of 2007, while it doesn’t have as many headline grabbers (excluding Harry Potter, of course), does have a number of interesting books on offer.September: I’ve already written about the Junot Diaz book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Here’s what I said “The reason I’m so excited about this is that Diaz’s story by the same title in the New Yorker’s 2000 end-of-year fiction issue was one of the best stories that’s appeared in the magazine in the ten years I’ve been reading it. It is a story so good that I still remember talking to various people about it in my then home city of Los Angeles, people with whom I never before or after talked fiction. It was a story that got around. And now, finally, it has blossomed into a book.” Since then, the New Yorker has published another excerpt from the book, in the June 11 & 18 Summer Fiction issue, but the story isn’t available online.Suite Francaise, a posthumously published work by a Russian-born, French novelist who died in the Holocaust was a surprise bestseller in 2006. Though Irene Nemirovsky was a celebrated writer in the 1930s, she had been largely unknown to today’s readers. Now, however, her work is returning to the spotlight. Like Suite Francaise, Fire in the Blood was written during the early years of the war, but only published decades later. Unlike Suite Francaise, Fire in the Blood does not center on the war, instead “it dwells on intense, often repressed emotional conflict set against bucolic country life,” according to the International Herald Tribune where more about the book and Nemirovsky can be found.Songs Without Words is Ann Packer’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. Based on some reports from BEA, the book has generated some buzz, but I haven’t seen any early reviews. Publisher Knopf describes the book as a chronicle of a friendship between two women that is shaken when an “adolescent daughter enters dangerous waters” and “the fault lines in the women’s friendship are revealed.” An excerpt from the book is available, too.Denis Johnson has a hefty new tome (600+ pgs) on the way. As Garth pointed out to me when he snagged a galley of the book at BEA, Tree of Smoke has garnered some serious praise from FSG head Jonathan Galassi. His letter from the front of the galley says: “The novel you’re holding is Denis Johnson’s finest work, I believe, and one of the very best books we have ever had the honor to publish. Tree of Smoke has haunted me in the sense that I’ve thought about it and dreamed about it since I finished reading it, and the impression it left has only deepened over time. I think it is a great book, and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have.” (via SoT)Richard Russo is taking something of a departure from his usual terrain in upstate New York with his new novel Bridge of Sighs. The book’s protagonist Louis Charles “Lucy” Lynch hales from upstate Thomaston, but the book’s action takes place partly in Venice where Lucy goes with his wife to find a childhood friend. From the sound of it, Russo stays true to the themes and tone of his past books but broadens the geography a bit.October: Ann Patchett, author of big seller Bel Canto has a new book coming out called Run. Patchett recently told Amazon the book is “about a man who is the former mayor of Boston, who has three sons and who has political ambitions for his sons that perhaps one of them would go on to be president, and he pushes them in that direction.” Or if you want a snappier blurb: “Joe Kennedy meets The Brothers Karamazov,” which sounds more than a little intriguing. Curious readers can listen to Patchett reading from the book courtesy WGBH Boston.In my early days as a bookseller, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was one of the first bestsellers I encountered from that side of the retail equation. I came to understand that this meant having a copy of the book within reach at all times since requests for it came unabated. At one point I even had the book’s ISBN memorized from ringing it up so frequently. Sebold and her publisher will undoubtedly be hoping for similar success with her follow-up novel The Almost Moon. USA Today recently ratcheted up the hype by revealing the book’s first sentence: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”Tom Perotta’s last book, Little Children got noticed both because of good reviews and because Pepperidge Farm made publisher St. Martin’s take its goldfish crackers off the cover (they were replaced by chocolate chip cookies). Perrotta’s new book, The Abstinence Teacher depicts no food whatsoever on the cover. The book treads Perrotta’s usual turf: the raw underbelly of suburbia. Following in the footsteps of Election, another Perrotta novel, a film version of The Abstinence Teacher is said to be in the works.Perhaps the “biggest” book yet to come out during the second half of this year, though, will be Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost. Billed as the final Zuckerman novel, Exit Ghost follows Zuckerman back to New York where he is seeing a doctor but is waylaid when chance encounters stir things up in the way things get stirred up in Roth novels. An early look from PW is less than impressed – “the plot is contrived.” A random blogger offers a different opinion. With the publication date several months away, the jury is still out.The above are the forthcoming books that have caught my eye, but I’m sure I’ve missed some good ones. Tell us about them in the comments.