27 June 2014

Madame Némirovsky's Unfinished Symphony

A few months ago, I started reading Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française in French, but then decided to switch to English about a quarter of the way through.  The French version had been given to me, a gift at the bottom of a box of donated French teaching supplies from a retired teacher.  I really didn’t want to give up on the French and felt a little ashamed at how much I was struggling.  After a few chapters in English, though, I was no longer ashamed.  Némirovsky is often compared to Tolstoy, an apt descriptor for this Russian-born author who fled the communists there, eventually landing in France.  Although the English version was a translation, it was incredible, and even more so when I realized that what I was reading was essentially a rough draft, as the author was unable to complete her story as she envisioned it.  (I just learned that a movie version is in the works as well.)

Némirovsky wrote the first two movements of Suite Française as the German Army was sweeping through France and during the subsequent Nazi Occupation.  These two historical events also provide the setting of her story, which she intended as a literary symphony of five parts.  She wrote about these events as they were unfolding, and indeed as she was caught up in them, incorporating the reactions and sentiments as Parisiens fled their beloved city in the first portion of the book.  Those fortunate enough to leave in their cars soon ran out of fuel, and those who were able to procure tickets on the trains encountered bombed-out railway lines, and so people of all classes and means found themselves on foot, wandering into villages overrun with refugees like themselves, in desperate search of limited food and shelter.  These throngs of people, who found themselves carrying useless but sentimental items, were routinely strafed by German planes, which killed a number of them and terrified the rest.

The second part deals with the Occupation as it affected various residents of a large village.  Here, women, mostly, were obliged to provide lodging to Nazi officers while coping with the realization that their conscripted soldier husbands were likely prisoners of the German Army.  The underlying class divisions and political tensions typical of any small town in any age created a lot of conflict as the residents struggled with the shame of defeat, their fears for the future, and concerns about the unknown fates of their loved ones.  Some are frightened of the Germans, others are defiant, and much of the upper crust acquiesce and collaborate, wanting to keep their social standing with the powers-that-be. 

The descriptions of the various settings are vivid and nearly every character is well drawn and nuanced.  The plot moves along slowly and deliberately (just like a Russian novel, yes?) with attention to detail and motive.  The French characters are complex.  Not one is pure and wholesome; they are as real and warty as any of us with strengths and flaws and personal agendas.  In short, they are human.  It is interesting to note that the German soldiers, when individualized, are equally treated:  not one is evil incarnate, but perhaps a husband and father and musician with as compelling a backstory to return home to as anyone.

The book ends with Russia being invaded by the Nazis in June of 1941.  At this point, the war in Europe was not even two years old, and unbeknownst to them will carry on for four more years, but many of the French characters believe the war is nearly over.  Throughout the book, character after character reveals a sense that the struggles they are dealing with are likely as bad as they are ever going to get.  There is a sense that they feel that they might as well accept what is happening because this is the worst that will happen, not unlike the attitude of many of the Jews in Europe prior to being deported to the concentration camps.  Suite Française is a perspective of World War II without benefit of hindsight into the most terrible of acts, such as death camps, kamikazes, and nuclear weapons, the likes of which had never been seen prior.  With the backdrop of the Great War, as World War I was then called, the main sentiment seems to be here we go again.

Némirovsky herself, an exile of the Russian Revolution and a Jew, eventually was deported to Poland, where she died of typhus at Auschwitz.  While it is impossible to place a value on any human life, it is most devastating to learn of lives cut far short, like Némirovsky’s.  She was not without controversy, even during her lifetime, and was a successful published author in her 20s and the mother of two daughters before World War II began.  In spite of her conversion to Catholicism, she was refused French citizenship.  By 1940, her husband had lost his job and her work was no longer publishable, both due to anti-Jewish laws and persecution.  They fled Paris as the Nazis approached, just like the characters of the first book of Suite Française.  On 13 July 1942, just a year and a few weeks after the end of the second part of this fictional book, she was arrested, at age 39, due to her status as a “stateless person.”  She was considered a “degenerate artist” and was ordered to be gassed at Auschwitz, but died of typhus after what was likely a very long month in the camp.  Her husband died in the gas chamber, but their daughters survived, having been sent away to friends’ homes prior to their parents’ arrests. 

It is remarkable that her manuscript also survived.  Her older daughter kept it for half a century before she found the courage even to read it – it was handwritten and she believed it was her mother’s personal diary.  But she finally did read it and wanted her mother’s papers donated to a French archive of personal accounts of the war.  The two novellas that were designed to be the first of five that would comprise Suite Française were not even published until 2004.  It won the Prix Renaudot and has been translated into thirty-eight languages. 

Suite Française is a snapshot into the situations and psyches of the French during the early years of the war.  It is a reminder, too, of the lives that remained unfinished due to the circumstances of war.  Not only due to the intentional extermination of millions by the Nazis, but also of the soldiers killed and maimed, and the lives put on hold by their families and loved ones and markedly altered.  (I think of my grandmother’s dear friend whose new husband was shot down over Normandy.  She was probably in her twenties, definitely no more than thirty.  She never remarried, but eventually, as a senior citizen, traveled to France to meet the villagers who witnessed his end and took her to visit his grave.  She had a life-long correspondence with them.)  It would not be an exaggeration to say that much of the planet's population was affected in some great way by the war.  We never fully recognize the price that is paid, and paid dearly, for the expenses of war.  And we never seem to acknowledge these lessons.  We humans continue to play the role of aggressor, marching across the globe, greedy and inexorable, always wanting and leaving more wanting in our wake.

10 June 2014

Miz Maya and the Lesson of the Butterfly

Maya Angelou was laid to rest this past weekend.  I’ve always thought of her as Miz Maya.  To use just her first name seems too informal, almost disrespectful, so I’ve always thought of her with the ‘Miz’ before her name.  I don’t recall my age when I first came across her lovely words, but I know it was the famous memoir of her difficult childhood, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  Before I’d even read the book, I was entranced by the title.  Here was a secret, and she was going to share it with me – with me.  This title, from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, resonates with most young people, really, feeling boxed in by society and parents and siblings.  As has been said a hundred times over, it’s the powerful story of a poor black girl growing up in the American South in the 1930s.  By the time I’d found I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I’d already read Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.  I loved that book, so I figured I’d try Miz Maya’s.

Since Miz Maya’s death last week, the section in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings where she recounts the horrific tale of her mother’s boyfriend sexually attacking her has been referred to many times.  His subsequent arrest and release and murder, presumably by some of her family members, led to her decision to stop speaking for many years.  Even as a child, she understood the weight of words.  Words can harm and destroy, but as she learned later for herself and so eloquently demonstrated for all of us, words have also the capacity to raise us up, to comfort, and to heal.

Miz Maya’s legacy to us is that we are changeable creatures in charge of blazing our own paths.  We don’t have to accept any label, whether slapped on by society or by our own thought processes.  Just because we are labeled as X does not make us incapable of becoming Y.  If you read the long list of occupations that Miz Maya held, you’ll see that we are only bound by what we dare to dream:  dancer, prostitute, activist, mother, journalist, writer, university professor, Poet Laureate of the United States.  She is proof that we can change and alter our destinies in ways that we might have been unable to envision for ourselves.  Although I haven’t yet read it, I have always loved the title of another of her books, Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now.  In spite of the problems we encounter in our lives, isn’t it true that we’d prefer our own troubles to taking on someone else’s?  This acceptance of who we are is the very foundation upon which our happiness is built.

I don’t think I’d ever heard Miz Maya’s voice until I watched her recite “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration.  If you have never heard her voice, treat yourself to her rich timbre, her beautiful phrasing.  The poem carries such a lovely sentiment of unity and of hope.  It would be Miz Maya that I would choose, if from all the famous people in the world, I could sit and have coffee and talk with one of them.  In spite of her larger-than-life stature, she was firmly grounded.  Here are some of my favorite of her sayings:

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

I've learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I've learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you'll miss them when they're gone from your life. I've learned that making a "living" is not the same thing as making a "life." I've learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. I've learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I've learned that even when I have pains, I don't have to be one. I've learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I've learned that I still have a lot to learn. I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

Rest in peace, Miz Maya.  The world is a better place, thanks to your presence.

03 June 2014

Walls: reflecting on Tiananmen, Paris, Berlin, and the power of words

Twenty-five years ago, I embarked on my first big independent movement, traveling to another continent for study-abroad, just as a pro-democracy movement was being crushed in China.  When I left the United States on May 31st, 1989, I’d been intrigued by the protests and demonstrations going on in Beijing and elsewhere in China.  As I arrived in London for a few days prior to my participation in a summer program in Paris, all eyes were on Tiananmen Square and the impending crackdown on the protestors.  I was perplexed, though, that all the news in London was focused on a city called Peking.  I gradually realized that Peking was the British Imperialist name for Beijing.  It was the first of many realizations that summer on the naming of things, as well as the similarities that bridge our gaps and the differences that divide us. 

By the time I reached Paris, on June 3, the Chinese military was destroying the democracy movement without mercy.  When I first saw the iconic photograph of the lone man standing defiantly before the line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, it was on the front page of a French newspaper at a kiosk near my Métro stop in southern Paris.  The headlines and news reports were largely unintelligible to me on my first days in Paris.  My French was not yet proficient and I felt so removed, not only from my home in Arizona, but from these fellow college students half a world away in China.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt as isolated as I did those early days as I wondered what was happening to them and their dreams.  It seemed so unjust that just as I was fulfilling one of my lifelong dreams that theirs were being mowed down.

What is difficult for me to remain cognizant of is that back then, in 1989, the Soviet Union still existed and Europe was still divided.  My arrival in Paris was only two years after Ronald Reagan’s famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate when he implored Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”  After our program in Paris was done, I traveled for a while in Italy and West Germany with a friend.  We briefly considered a trip to Berlin, but the idea of traveling through East Germany – what we’d been brought up to believe was enemy territory – terrified us.  We opted for the biergartens of München instead.

Today, this is a small regret of mine.  I could have gone to Berlin and seen the Wall – I would have arrived just months before the Wall came down and Germany was reunited, but of course I did not know that at the time.  The Wall is a relic which now exists only in small pieces, scattered across the globe.  I happened upon a slab from the Berlin Wall in the underground Montréal RÉSO in 2011, on display between a handbag shop and a café.  How ironic, I thought, that this barrier against capitalism was encased in museum glass in that most capitalist of places, a North American shopping mall.  Seeing an artifact of history on display is a far cry from experiencing what life was like for the everyday people who lived it, though. 

As I reflect upon the courage of those students in 1989 Beijing, there’s nothing funny or ironic.  Those protestors who survived would be my age or older today.  What repercussions did they and their families suffer?  This week I came across an essay by Da Chen, who grew up in China during the 1970s.  In his essay, about the book that changed his life, he described how no reading material was available in his village unless written by Mao Zedong himself.  He and his friends were so hungry for books that when a pay lending library opened up in the village, he and his friends stole recyclables – what we Americans consider garbage –  to resell in order to have money.  The library patrons would pay approximately one penny to sit in the library and read what they could.  The next day they’d have to pay again to continue to read.  The book he couldn’t get enough of was The Count of Monte Cristo, and in fact, he and his friends spent most of their time in the library secretly copying books by hand so they could share them with each other later.  After a brief existence, the library mysteriously went up in flames, its owner barricaded inside.  The owner managed to escape but was arrested for the crime of loaning books.  After reading this essay, I couldn’t look at my piles of books, so casually stacked, so easily discarded.  Da Chen’s story brought me back to Tiananmen and also to the contrast of my life, now and then, to the brave souls there. 

They were so like me in some ways, hungry for the same rights I figured I deserved:  to travel, to study, to read, to gather with like-minded people.  I took some of these for granted, and gave the others no second thought.  How many days out of the year do I still take them for granted?  When I look back with some degree of regret on the road not taken to Berlin – because I was scared – I wonder where their courage came from.  The courage to stand in front of a line of tanks and not waver.  The courage to carry the wounded in rickshaws to hospitals while under gunfire.  The courage to care more about something as intangible as liberty than their own personal safety.  I can only wonder how tightly woven are hunger and courage, how many light-years away they are from comfort and apathy, what happens when courage is extinguished as it was so forcefully in 1989, and what form it might take when it returns.