Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. This week, All Things Considered is talking with authors about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.
I was first drawn to this book by the compelling story of its author. Irene Nemirovsky was killed at the camps in Auschwitz soon after completing the first two sections of what she had hoped would be a book of five parts. Her small daughters made their escape, taking with them in their suitcase the leather notebook containing the manuscript they had seen their mother working on. For 60 years, it was too painful for them to look at its pages. Could the work itself, I wondered, hold its own against the drama of such a backdrop?
It does indeed.
"Hot, thought the Parisians. The warm air of spring." So begins the first part, Storm in June, telling of the exodus from Paris on the eve of its invasion by the Germans during World War II, as a multitude of people, varying in social class, age, and health, spill from the streets of the city in an effort to find safety farther away. We see the car with the mattress tied to the roof, the artist griping to his lover, the excited children, the mother filled with worry over the fate of her son. There is a rich timbre of sound in these sentences; each character seems a thread of melody that swells along with the surging wave of refugees. Yet there is, simultaneously, the most remarkable restraint — we see this all as a grieving, compassionate God might have seen it; even cats and birds and fish are given their momentary point of view.
The second part, Dolce, concerns itself with the daily details of an occupied village. With Germans living in the homes of townspeople, there is the hesitant shared humanity that appears along with the postings of VERBOTEN signs hung all about the village. As Lucile Angellier, a young woman whose husband is a prisoner of war in Germany, begins a friendship with the German soldier occupying her home, she understands her dependency on this man, responds to his outward civility and becomes afraid of "an exquisitely intense sensation, a mixture of tenderness and terror." The book itself is full of tenderness and terror, and it is this combination that results in an experience that can lift us from the burden of ourselves.
Consider the character of Maurice Michaud, walking along quietly beside his wife on the way out of Paris: He "was not really unhappy. He had a unique way of thinking: he didn't consider himself that important; in his own eyes, he was not that rare and irreplaceable creature that most people imagine about themselves." There is something comforting in this observation, as though for a moment we readers cease being the stumbling, half-conscious beings we are, involved in our own exoduses, our own panics and losses — and understand fleetingly, but deeply, we have been freed from our narrowness, from what James Joyce has called, "the painful character of the ultimate functions of separate existence." A good book can do that; a great one always does.
NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this story.