Nemirovsky is the author of Suite Francaise which everyone was reading a few years ago, an insider’s account of the German invasion and the flight from Paris in June 1940 and life in a rural village under German occupation. What made it so special was not just that Nemirovsky herself was swept up in those events but also that she so memorably depicted the places and people and the way life was lived in Paris and in the village where they took refuge (Issy-l'Eveque in Burgundy). She captured nuances of behavior and inflection, unraveling webs of motivation and psychology, giving us fully realised characters.
Nemirovsky brings those same writerly gifts to bear in this brief novel about Sylvestre, called Silvio, who lives alone in a run-down farmhouse. He is old, he says, wanting only to sit by his fire in “blessed solitude” with his pipe and a bottle of red wine, shaking his head over the follies of his youth, when his lust for adventure took him to foreign lands and caused him to run through his inheritance. Now he sits in the village’s cafe on Sundays, nursing a glass of wine, surrounded by the neighbors who bought his lands and childhood home, listening to them make gentle fun of him. Nemirovsky captures the fine gradations of these relationships and uses marvelous details to describe these provincial characters, such as noting precisely how a young man turns his wineglass before lifting it, making clear what that action says about his place in that company. She also portrays the charm of rural France prior to World War II, with its agricultural rhythms and long memories.
Silvio often visits his cousin Helene who leads a charmed life with her beloved husband Francois, about-to-be-married daughter Colette, and three sons. The events following Colette’s marriage (which affect Helene, Francois and Silvio himself) move briskly, so that the narrative flows as smoothly as the river by Moulin Neuf where Colette and Jean live and run the mill that has been in his family for generations.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that one reason I enjoyed Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair was that it was such an adult book. How much more so this story! Silvio’s nostalgia over his bittersweet memories mixes with the deep satisfaction he takes in the details of daily life: filling his glass with wine, walking the paths he’s known all his life, watching—amused and bemused—the antics of his neighbors. As in the other book, one of the greatest joys of this story is how vividly Nemirovsky conjures daily life in this small village.
This is a story of contrasts: family versus solitude, travel versus home, the lusty greed of youth to take what you want versus the peace of age when you’ve “given up trying to make the world adjust to your desires”. But it is also a story of secrets. Helene says to Colette, now a young mother, that the best thing a parent can do is to keep her experiences a secret from her children. Similarly Silvio ponders a group of strangers passing through and imagines them driving through the night, past darkened farmhouses, never guessing at the secrets hidden within.
So it is with this simple tale. It hides great richness, depth of experience and emotion. I enjoyed the book so much that I immediately read it again and, on the second reading, found myself marveling at the way it was structured. The accelerating chain of events, the secrets revealed: all were foreshadowed in details that I had not consciously noted in my first reading, though even then they lodged somewhere in my memory making the ending thoroughly satisfying. The structure, the details, the immersion in a different way of life, and fascinating Silvio himself combine to make this a perfect read.