I just posted a short review of Suite Française on Goodreads. It is short because I wanted to digest the reading experience before committing anything final to the ether. First, here is an apologia. I studied French to A-level standard and can understand quite a bit of what I read but I never spoke French well and my days of writing criticism of French literature in French are well past. Having read Suite Française in English, I would feel daunted approaching it in its home language because it is a complex and intricate work full of description and characterization. Camus, which I read at school, is stark and simple in comparison.

Despite my linguistic failings, I would not dream of reading French poetry in English translation and I feel the French language has a gentler, altogether fluffier feel to it that can be lost in translation. When you read an author in translation, you are in danger of missing the music of their words. If the translator is worth their salt then the ideas will not be lost even if their execution is modified. This translation works well.

Suite Française was originally intended to be a five part novel of approximately 1000 pages. It was influenced by Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Nemirovsky also found inspiration in Chekhov and Flaubert. What we have therefore is very much an unfinished project. She was constantly planning changes and had sketched out the direction for the other other three books but this is as far as it got. What intervened was deportation and a month after this she was gassed at Auschwitz.

Bearing in mind that this is a draft of under one half of a novel, how do we fare as readers and does she achieve her goals? Reading the appendices was useful here. I particularly enjoyed this resource and the opportunity it gives to get inside the creative process of a talented writer. It set out her plans for the further development of story and characters; it set out the main purpose too and was really informative. I felt that the style was an impersonal one; Flaubert’s ideas were important to her, and she sets out ideas through the lives and actions of ordinary people. This is done with fine attention to detail, the preoccupations of a populace fleeing from a conquering army in all its sometimes banal detail. If anyone is killed there is a cold detachment that seems to say; “There you are, that’s all there is to it.” This flies in the face of the prior self importance of these characters, who are very much prisoners of the ego – as we all are from time to time. There is talk of the “hive community” of the Germans, but this comes through the French characters too perhaps.

Be prepared for some unorthodox punctuation. “Points de suspension” tend to be frowned upon by modern readers, as I know only too well. (I am fond of them in poetry and it has invited harsh criticism from some critics.) They are used extensively in the scene where Bruno plays the piano and emotions and ideas flow with a breathless and excited quality. It is a shame this way of using them is dying out…

Suite Française is not an easy read or a page turner, but it is a beautifully executed work of fiction based on real life and experience and as such I can highly recommend it. For those who prefer something more approachable, the film is also very enjoyable and much warmer than the fiction.

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Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims has been viewed by many as an insane proposition. By some it will be seen as an answer. As I write this post in the run up to Christmas I need to express an opinion that we no longer live in such a simplistic world – if we ever did. To me, it seems that we use religion as a reason to beat people up, verbally, even if not physically.

I come from a culture in Britain that has grown more and more inclusive over my lifetime and yet I am not sure if it has ever become more tolerant. We are fast become polarized over many issues and many of these are about “belonging”. We “belong” to an ethnic group, a gender, a set of sexual preferences, a religion, a sports club, a group of music fans and many more. These groups have the potential to support and lift each other, even to greatness, but they also have the ability to exclude others, to be judgemental about them and to compete for attention, territory or material wealth against different groups.

I was brought up as a Christian and my own personal struggle to maintain that faith against the intolerance of others is something I don’t want to deal with here today; however I coped with intolerance on a personal level and I retained my own belief. What my struggle is actually about is those people who use “belonging” as an excuse to do evil. This might, for example, be an attack on others, using them as political pawns, and this is not the sole prerogative of terrorists, is it? Now, be honest…

As I sit here I am aware of a constant stream of intolerance of non-believers towards believers. Those rants might be banter in the pub, 140 dismissive characters on Twitter, or even furious condemnation of one politician or another in homes across every country in the world. Atheists will be mocking all those who believe in God, different religious groups will be calling other believers apostates and enemies, reactionaries will be cheering arson against mosques, temples, synagogues, churches; wherever difference is found you will find conflict.

There is ONE group to which we all belong, though sadly not many adhere to it. That group is humanity and beyond that we all belong to an even larger group of terrestrial organisms. The one undoubted fact is that every human being on this planet is ruled by hormones including testosterone – yes, even girls have testosterone – and testosterone not being put to sensible use is, in my humble opinion, the main reason that shit happens. It is the hormone responsible for dominance, anger, sexual potency, aggression and energy and it is this hormone raging uncontrolled that causes basic territorial aggression; not God, not people of different colour, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, not even different types of “belonging”.

So this Christmas, Hannukah, Diwali, Yule, Kwanzaa, Samhain, Winterval – whatever you wish to call it – why not put your testosterone to better use boys and girls? Why not do something energetic; play sport rather than watch it, shop for an elderly neighbour, take the dog for a long walk, run along a beach out of season, make passionate love to your partner, fix up the house, build a garden shed or a cat tower, become an outreach worker for the homeless, go out singing Christmas carols and collect for charity… Do something energetic and constructive rather than pontificate about something “other” that you personally disagree with. Do something that benefits the community. Accept that your neighbour is Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Atheist, Pagan, Agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist – whatever – and smile at him.

Lend a hand to those around you and stop carping about God and religion. We are all human in humanity’s rich diversity. That is both our supreme strength and our cardinal weakness. Accepting responsibility for our own actions instead of trying to shift the blame on to other social or religious groups is the only way forward. God is not to blame, religion is not to blame, humanity is to blame and humankind needs to grow up, face up and shape up if we are all to survive and be happy.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year – and may your God go with you.