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Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008

COUNTERPOINT

Past events' bloodstained light casts a long and lasting shadow


On Dec. 7, the day of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 in Hawaii, the thoughts of many turn to wars, how they begin and the course they take.

Wars are like perpetual tornadoes: They may depart one place, but only to appear in another with the same ravaging force. War sacks the whole Earth.

Reviewing the ravages of the 20th century, what we we see is a century-long perfect storm. The scale of annihilation and depth of trauma from the constant warfare was, due to technology's destructive power, unprecedented in history.

Normally we look to nonfiction to give us the bloody sweep of history, but it is in fiction that we can best view the personal wounds — deep, excruciatingly painful, and unhealing.

I have written before in Counterpoint about the fiction of the Russian-born French author Irene Nemirovsky. Now a new work of hers has been superbly translated into English (by Sandra Smith) and published by Chatto & Windus.

The adjective "new" is still applicable to Nemirovsky's work, although she died in Auschwitz a mere month after her arrest in July 1942.

"All Our Worldly Goods" first appeared in French in 1947, titled "Les Biens de ce monde." It is set in France and spans two or three generations of two families from the false idyll of peaceful Europe in 1911 until the beginning of the German occupation in 1940.

But, as Nemirovsky herself writes in the novel, "The events of the past cast a long shadow and their bloodstained light colored the times they were living through."

This fact alone makes her story new, even as our own new century approaches the end of its first bloodstained decade.

Nemirovsky, born in 1903 into a wealthy Jewish family in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, was acutely aware of how the upheavals of war and revolution play the game of great havoc with people's lives.

Thanks to the immense popularity of her posthumously published novel "Suite Francaise," her other novels and short fiction works are now being translated and read around the world. I know of no other author from that period between the world wars whose portrait of people affected by war rings so true.

And why is that?

For one thing, Nemirovsky's histories are not written from the point of view of any national or ethnic bias. In fact, she doesn't even have a gender bias: Some of her women are rawly drawn with a brutally pointed nib. And though she was Jewish, her Jews are devoid of the quaint Jewish piety and soppy traditionalism that passes for wisdom.

Nemirovsky was truly an outsider, and the glaring light she shines on her characters exposes them so clearly for this very reason. She sees them for what they are, not as ethnic ideals or caricatures. There is, too, an end-of-an-era feel to all of her literature. She saw that Europe's class-based societies, and many of its stifling conventions, were doomed after World War I.

The love of the two main protagonists, Pierre and Agnes, sustained through every possible tragedy of war, forms the unifying theme of "All Our Worldly Goods." At the beginning of both world wars, she has someone remarking that "this war won't last long" — because no one wants it to. But we know from history that in actuality there are always a few who don't share that feeling — and it is those few who call fire above all of us.

Then, all of a sudden, like Agnes during World War I, we are "engulfed by the profound darkness of war, a darkness from which it seemed there would be no escape, a war that would last until the end of time itself."

In war, hope turns to despair and love to hate, pivoting on a single gesture . . . minute, ultra-personal, secretive. This is where the pity and horror lie. As for Nemirovsky herself, she wasn't even given the courtesy of a 24-hour goodbye. She was so rushed, flustered and terrified upon her arrest that she left her reading glasses and pen behind. "Books please," she wrote to Michael Epstein, her husband, on that day — July 13, 1942 — "and a little salted butter, if possible. Au revoir, my love!" Epstein, who was also Jewish, was later to share her fate in an Auschwitz gas chamber — even though both, in what some have seen as a survival ploy, had converted to Catholicism.

In fact, however, Nemirovsky had never deeply identified with her Jewish past, and she had shunned contact with the Russian and Jewish emigre communities. Like a lot of Jewish people — and many people of other religious groups as well — her origins mattered much less to her than did her adopted allegiances, and she saw herself as French through and through, though her era was to draw a black pall over the mirror before her.

The other reason behind the ultimate truth in her fiction stems from the fact that she is writing, in her own words, "on the burning lava" of war. She did not live to see the volcano subside, but if we need a lesson from our reading of her it is this: All joy in war is sham; all pride hollows out in the end.

"The war will end," she wrote, "we will all disappear, but these humble and innocent gifts will remain: the cool air, the sun, a red apple, a fire in winter, a woman, children, the life we lead each day. The crash and din of war will fade away. The rest endures . . . but will it endure for me, or for others?"



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