Category Archives: war

bound together as humans?

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“Dolce,” the second novella of Suite Francaise, set in the provincial countryside of France, was what captured me and got me thinking the most.  The characters seemed more complex and conflicted, more endearing than those of “Storm in June.” The question I walked away considering was:

What is it that makes us human, and why are those things not enough to bind us together?

By nature I am a micro-thinker.  I am interested in the larger systems: how they function, why we need them, how to change them, but ultimately my life works on the tiny level within a system: as a teacher, as a canvas bag carrier to the grocery, as a user of public transportation.  I tend to see the smaller, personal level before putting it into a larger, more complex system, which was why one of the main conflicts of the novella was so heartbreaking for me.

Lucille is a provincial French woman, whose husband had a mistress and a child across town but is now a prisoner of war, whose mother in law cannot stand her, who feels miserable in how stuck she is in her own life.  When she and her mother in law are asked to house a German officer, the initial revulsion to housing an enemy weighs heavily in the house, until Lucille begins to see some of the underlying similarities between herself and this foreign enemy, namely through music: “Anything was better than music, for music alone can abolish differences of language or culture between two people and evoke something indestructible within them,” (334).

Lucille and the officer find that they have a connection joins the ranks of history’s star-crossed: “But occupation is more terrible in a way, because people get used to one another.  We tell ourselves, ‘They’re just like us, after all,’ but they’re not at all the same.  We’re two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever,” (333).  She almost couldn’t bear the things that brought them together because all it raised in her was guilt in having feelings toward the enemy and the confusion when their connection seemed to be above their respective countries’ political stances.

It seems that the all of the residents of this occupied town are grappling with the idea of the collective “good” for their countries versus what would make them as individuals feel whole: The German officer lost his autonomy in the name of the war: “Madame, I am a soldier.  Soldiers don’t think. I’m told to go somewhere and I go.  Told to fight, I fight. Told to get myself killed, I die. Thinking would make fighting more difficult and death more terrible,” (273).  The two, each in their minds, attempt to reconcile their hearts with their national duty, and it just becomes more complex and heart breaking.

I do my best to stay on top of the world news and understand the deep rooted conflicts, but each time I never fail to become broken hearted over our inability to see each other as humans…with families and passions and sorrow.  I hate that those connections are so often not enough to bind us: whether in small, inner circle conflicts or those of a worldwide nature. 

The mother in law’s response seems simultaneously out of touch as well as chillingly brilliant.
She faded into play-acting in her room, barely leaving: “It was neither delirium nor the first signs of madness; never had she been more totally lucid and aware of herself. It was deliberate play-acting, the only thing that brought her some solace, in the same way as morphine or wine. In the darkness and the silence, she could relive the past…she [also] anticipated the future. Though she lied and deceived herself, the lies were her own creation and she cherished them,” (305).

This I think, though, is the danger: the pretending that everything is fine that in turns just paralyzes a person.  I think that it is better to live in the complexity of human nature than to just pretend that everything is all right, even if being a part of humanity leads to heartbreak.

Suite Francaise and Suffering.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky requires some background information, as its journey to publication is quite extraordinary.  Nemirovsky was a well known writer in France throughout the thirties and at the beginning of World War Two.  She made a plan for a five novellas with overlapping characters about the war, as it was occurring, but only had time to write two of them, as she was arrested by the French Police during the German occupation and sent to Auschwitz, where she died.  Her daughter found the manuscript in a journal fifty years later, which is what now comprises Suite Francaise. I typically read appendices and any kind of editor or translator’s notes after I read the novel, so some of the issues I had initially while reading the book vanished once I saw the notes she had for the plot and character arcs and understood that the novel I held in my hands was only 2 of the 5 planned novellas.

“Storm in June” is the first novella, which is centered around its portrayals of how different classes of people experienced and processed the war.  I wanted to punch some of the characters in the face; I’m not sure if they were overly flawed intentionally or just drove me insane, namely the ones who could think only of their beautiful material goods or of how vulgar the lower classes were.  This blatant self centeredness almost seemed unrealistic to me; that  suffering would arouse disgust and disdain rather than empathy.

The inner conflict that seemed so realistic was when a well-to-do mother smugly passed out treats to lower class children, feeling as though she were upholding her Christian duty.  My gut reaction to her was disgust.  But, she became more human as I read about the panic she felt when she realized that there wasn’t food to go around, even for the wealthy.   Watching her hubris shrink and her maternal instinct of survival and protection rise made her more real in my mind.

I think that watching suffering, more often than not, brings out complex emotions that are difficult to wade through as an individual and even as a reader: when I am faced with homelessness everytime I get on a subway, it weighs on my heart.  Walking by feels so wrong and after living in the city for seven years I still don’t know how to discern when and how to help.  But, I prefer living in a place where I am forced to wrestle with it, rather than forget that it exists…but does thinking make a difference? What I found while reading was that wartime only heightens the complexity of what to do with the suffering one sees.

And, just like the characters in the book, suffering will in time turn from voyeuristic to personal for all of us, and remind us of our own fragility, and, I think, help us to stand in solidarity with humankind.

The Things They Carried.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien has been on my nightstand’s “unread” pile for years.  But after reading All the Broken Pieces to my students and realizing how little reading I’ve done on Vietnam, I was eager to learn more.   Published in 1990, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer.  When I closed the final pages, all I could think was that the book was absolutely. brilliant.

History has always come alive for me through literature. I have awful memories of of taking endless notes in my 10th grade Western Civilization class from my teacher’s tiny, perfect cursive on an overhead projector.  I was able to memorize and get A’s, but I was impassioned by nothing I learned.  My American Literature class, though, is what painted a broad scope for our country’s history: seeing the different cultural beliefs, trends and events and then reading what was produced at that time was fascinating.  One of my regrets of college is that I didn’t double major in History (but I guess since I changed my major 3 or 4 times, I should just be glad that I made it out in four years), but I feel like studying literature gave me a a desire to keep learning about it. My assignment to teach 7th and 8th grade Social Studies my first year (basically ALL of American history!) also served as a good crash course.

All that to say, what is the best way to learn about history, especially wars? Obviously it’s a balance of understanding overarching timelines of events, cultural trends and changes, but those remain just facts on the page.  I think it has to come through a variety of lenses while studying the humanities: What music? Whose music? What art? Whose art? What literature?  Whose literature? I am so convinced that we need to be a people who studies and understands history–and the present.  One of the characters comes home from Vietnam to people who had no idea what was going on and no desire to attempt to understand, leaving him feeling utterly alone: “The town could not talk, and would not listen.  The place could only blink and shrug. It had no memory, therefore no guilt.  It was a brisk, polite town.  It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know (143).”

O’Brien’s book is a work that makes the reader know.  It declared as a work of fiction, and yet it is filled with stories inspired by what he knows.  His narrative style is brilliant and elusive, one in which the reader never really knows what he actually witnessed and what he fictionalized–which is one of the most artistic craft moves I have ever read.  He explains: “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening truth…what stories can do is make things present (179-180).”

I’ve never read this kind of narrative structure and style before.  O’Brien unpacks the complexity of the soldier’s experience in a war that they didn’t necessarily understand themselves.  The title comes from the opening chapter in which O’Brien lists the literal and figurative items that each solider in the story carried with him.  There is something in one’s personal effects that breaks my heart in their pure representation of an individual’s humanity.  Basically, this book took my breath away and really, any further attempt to explain it would only take away from it’s significance. Please go find a copy immediately.