By: Irene Nemirovsky
By the early l940s, when Ukrainian-born Irène Némirovsky began working on what would become Suite Française-the first two parts of a planned five-part novel-she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz: a month later she was dead at the age of thirty-nine. Two years earlier, living in a small village in central France-where she, her husband, and their two small daughters had fled in a vain attempt to elude the Nazis-she’d begun her novel, a luminous portrayal of a human drama in which she herself would become a victim. When she was arrested, she had completed two parts of the epic, the handwritten manuscripts of which were hidden in a suitcase that her daughters would take with them into hiding and eventually into freedom. Sixty-four years later, at long last, we can read Némirovsky’s literary masterpiece
The first part, “A Storm in June,” opens in the chaos of the massive 1940 exodus from Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion during which several families and individuals are thrown together under circumstances beyond their control. They share nothing but the harsh demands of survival-some trying to maintain lives of privilege, others struggling simply to preserve their lives-but soon, all together, they will be forced to face the awful exigencies of physical and emotional displacement, and the annihilation of the world they know. In the second part, “Dolce,” we enter the increasingly complex life of a German-occupied provincial village. Coexisting uneasily with the soldiers billeted among them, the villagers-from aristocrats to shopkeepers to peasants-cope as best they can. Some choose resistance, others collaboration, and as their community is transformed by these acts, the lives of these these men and women reveal nothing less than the very essence of humanity.
Suite Française is a singularly piercing evocation-at once subtle and severe, deeply compassionate and fiercely ironic-of life and death in occupied France, and a brilliant, profoundly moving work of art.
This book came at the recommendation of a friend who read it a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I kept it in my radar but actually got around to reading All Our Worldly Goods first before this novel (which I also enjoyed, though I don’t think I had time to type up a review of sorts). I got a hold of a copy last year but didn’t have time to read it until now. Major spoilers ahead!
By: Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy”s tumultuous tale of passion and self-discovery marks a turning point in the author”s career. His compelling, emotional saga recounts the effects of nonconformist behavior–a society woman”s adulterous affair and a landowner”s unconventional quest for a meaningful existence–against a backdrop of
late 19th-century Russia.
Backstory: I read War and Peace some three summers ago and quite enjoyed it so I noted to myself that I’d read Anna Karenina as well. For some reason though I had put it off since; I don’t know if it was the size or the nature of the story that kept me back (both of which shouldn’t). I finally got a copy of the book last year with all intent of reading it but didn’t get around to it again (though to be fair, I was busy with my research, my Russian classes and was out of the country at the end of last summer) so one of my New Year’s book resolutions was to read it this year. Given that I have three Russian classic novels on my TBR pile (the other two are by Dostoevsky—I’m not including my Russian version of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin because my Russian isn’t so fluent right now), I finally decided to start reading it =)
I should also note that when I started reading it, my only gripe was the translation itself; I thought it was odd that some words were completely Anglocised but later found out that a) the copy I have used the 1918 translation previously used by Oxford Classics (my edition is actually the Dover Thrifts edition) and b) the character’s nickname really is “Betsy”, which to me is sooooo un-Russian and even un-French (as the Russian court in the nineteenth century was heavily influenced by the French). But that was an aside. Major spoilers ahead!
My shot inside the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris, France (August 2010)
I’m in the midst of writing my political science paper on the Basques in Spain but I’m also multi-tasking with skimming through the Guardian. The Guardian is doing a series at the moment, focusing on one European country each week. One of spheres they covered are books and so far they’ve covered the following places:
These podcasts are fantastic to listen to because you learn a lot about the literary and bestselling trends in these countries. I’m still listening to the Germany podcast but they’ve also discussed German identity and culture, which is totally up my alley xD Their trends are actually pretty close to North America (vampires are big, international bestsellers are also big but then you have massive tomes on history and the current state of Germany and a lot of health-related books), which is interesting. The podcast on French literature was also fantastic because their literary culture is so different; in a sense, the sort of culture of Voltaire and Rousseau has continued to the present day with the French public’s love of essays. Prices and sales of books are also quite different from the UK or North America (they have a fixed rate) and just the volume and types of books that people read are also very different. So if you’re into European literature and book trends, these podcasts are worth checking out.
This week the Guardian is focusing on Spain, which is exciting because a) I’m writing a paper on them at the moment, b) Spain fascinates me in general and c) I love Spanish literature and poetry (Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Federico Garcia Lorca, etc.) <3
The Club Dumas
By: Arturo Perez-Reverte
Lucas Corso, middle-aged, tired, and cynical, is a book detective, a mercenary hired to hunt down rare editions for wealthy and unscrupulous clients. When a well-known bibliophile is found hanged, leaving behind part of the original manuscript of Alexandre Dumas”s The Three Musketeers, Corso is brought in to authenticate the fragment.
The task seems straightforward, but the unsuspecting Corso is soon drawn into a swirling plot involving devil worship, occult practices, and swashbuckling derring-do among a cast of characters bearing a suspicious resemblance to those of Dumas”s masterpiece. Aided by a mysterious beauty named for a Conan Doyle heroine, Corso travels from Madrid to Toledo to Paris in pursuit of a sinister and seemingly omniscient killer.
I picked this book up as a result of my search for books with similar themes to Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind: love of books, a mystery, focus on a particular classic—what’s not to draw me in? Spoilers ahead!
My friend/program colleague/dorm neighbour/fellow avid reader had been recommending me this book for some time now but I hadn’t picked it up because of the number of books I had lugged along with me from home. I managed to get through them so I finally borrowed the copy off her. When I saw the cover, I realised I have come across this book in the bookstores whenever I’m browsing the shelves (favourite past time of mine, lol) but didn’t flip through it. But I digress…
We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renee, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renee is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.
Then there is Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.
Paloma and Renee hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renee’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
Massive Spoilers Lie Ahead as I Wrote Too Much About This Book, LOL; it really provoked a lot of thought out of me 😀