Sunday, August 9, 2009

started, but not finished

Civilwarland in Bad Decline, by George Saunders
I read most of the short stories in this collection a week ago and already I'm having trouble remembering them. (I didn't get to the novella that takes up the second half of this small volume.) The writing is extremely flat and simple. No doubt there are good reasons for this — the world Saunders describes is stark and grotesque, his characters mostly boobs or sadists — but I find it hard to stay interested in flat writing. (Saunders's one stylistic novelty, the use of truly awful corporate jargon throughout his characters' interior monologues, was funny at first but then got boring.) And the plots were depressingly similar: they all involve a horrible, cartoonish accidental death. There's real misery in these stories — the characters hate their jobs, have no friends, get divorced — and in that context I didn't know what to make of the gruesome accidental death as the climax of each story. I was bored and bewildered. So I stopped. (Kaveri said the first short story was the best, and if I didn't like it I should stop. I soldiered on until I had read most of the stories, then gave up.)

Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky
Marion recommended this, and I eagerly went out and bought the French edition. Then I read Ruth Franklin's rather damning critique, and began to regret my purchase. But then I was still determined to read it, if only to practice my French.
I disliked it immediately. This is a novel in which a teenager goes into his room, slams the door and thinks, "I hate my family!" — and this counts as characterization. The mistress of a vain, selfish, snobbish writer sits on the floor gathering up the finished pages that he drops from his desk. And so on, one cliché after another. (So anti-semitism is only one aspect of her simple-mindedness.) Even the random observed details, contrasting the beauty of nature or the everyday concerns of people with the chaos of war seem drearily contrived, probably because the whole machinery is so creaky. (If I read the end of All Quiet on the Western Front fresh from Suite Française I'd probably be disgusted, even though I was very moved when I read it the first time.)
But I had read 97 pages, and was determined to finish at least the first novel in the volume (which consists of the first two of five projected novels on France at war, the ones Némirovsky completed). Then I re-read Franklin's review, and this sentence struck me:

There are many exquisite moments in Suite Française: the hypocritical generosity of Madame Péricand, her teenage son Hubert's reckless patriotism, the romance between Jean-Marie Michaud and the peasant girl who nurses him, and other indelible scenes.

I did not find the hypocritical generosity of Madame Péricand an exquisite moment; for me it was as revoltingly bad as everything else. If I like Némirovsky less than Ruth Franklin, I thought, I should stop. So I've stopped, as of now.

It was interesting to read Suite Française right after Atonement: one section of Atonement is set during the French collapse in June 1940. Némirovsky lived through it and McEwan didn't, but his description of the retreat is about a hundred times better than hers.

I was also reminded of Alice Kaplan's excellent analysis of the fiction of Robert Brasillach, another French anti-semite whose novels and journalism enjoyed great success in the 1930s. She writes that he has two modes, mawkishness and contempt, and never had the toughness of mind to achieve a synthesis. That's true of Némirovsky as well. Kaplan calls this the right-wing style (so did Kaveri, in another context!) and that makes sense to me.
Von Rezzori's Memoirs of an Anti-Semite also offered lots of insights into the mind of a reactionary, though he writes much better than Némirovsky, and turns the mirror on himself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting that Saunders himself realizes how tedious his style can be. I read an interview where he acknowledges that reading his stories all at once was tiresome even to him. He recommended reading one story at a time with long periods of rest in between.