Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Another not-so-bad novel

In a surprising turn of events, I'm actually enjoying a novel about World War II: Suite Francaise. That's the set of novellas by the French-Russian author who fled Paris and was sent to Auschwitz and died there. And it has nothing to do with the biographical details that, by necessity, color a reading of the novel. The manuscript, for instance, was preserved by one of her daughters for 60 years without being read. I guess the daughter thought it was a series of notes. So it's just recently been published (and translated into English).

I'm reading this because it's a book group pick, otherwise I would never have picked it up because of its historical setting. Only, of course, it's not an historical setting, but written as a contemporaneous setting. I don't read that many novels--in fact, most of them are whatever my book group is reading, and I don't finish a lot of those. I just don't have time, and I'd prefer to read poetry.

The reason I dislike historical novels about World War II is because so many of them (and this may just be that I've read a limited selection, who knows) just use the historical setting to avoid doing the hard work of establishing convincing characters, an authentic emotional situation, and/or a really good plot. I mean, I just feel like I'm being emotionally jerked around by a lot of these books: World War II was horrifying in so many ways, and here it is being used like a club to MAKE me feel certain emotions, even when I'm left unconvinced by the writing. That is, how could I not feel sadness, horror, fear, etc., just because the novel is set when it's set? And so many writers pick World War II as an historical setting--I think it's to duck doing the hard work of writing convincing stories.

But this is not the case with Suite Francaise. In part, the setting is not historical--it's contemporary to the writer. And what an amazingly observant writer she is (this is awful, but I forget her name): the details are uncannily rich, they drive the narrative, they make the characters, and they're details that no recent writer would ever come up with. Because this novel is essentially the result of an excavation--kind of like finding scrolls in an ancient cave, the style is very old-fashioned, which is remarkably refreshing. Character and detail driven. The plot is just getting wound up, but the characters are interesting, the tale-teller has a good eye and writes elegant, long, flowing sentences, filled with surprising twists and turns. Reminds me a bit of Virginia Woolf. Also reminds me of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's Seasoned Timber, another good read with an old-fashioned prose style.

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