London Art Book Fair 2014: Books vs the (Post) Digital Revolution

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This was my first time at the London Art Book Fair – a relatively small but buzzy affair held at the Whitechapel Gallery, populated with the very best in art book publishers and booksellers, and visited by the very best in heartbreakingly trendy art book enthusiasts. My initiation took place when I dragged an arty pal of mine to the opening night (25th September), and the variety of titles on display across the stalls was really overwhelming. The opening night was heaving and it was really starting to feel like I was out of my depth, but I felt a little more anchored when we wandered by the Nobrow stall. Nobrow is my latest obsession, churning out some seriously beautiful titles in inventive formats, and as I scampered over to the table I thrust the mesmerising Worse Things Happen at Sea into my friend’s hands. I have stocked some of their beautiful books in the Royal Museums Greenwich shops, and vow to continue to keep a close eye on them, particularly the children’s imprint Flying Eye – still only holding a small list, but promising great things. There were other larger publishers in attendance like Thames & Hudson and Black Dog, but the really interesting lists came from the smaller presses like bookRoom, and bookshops dealing in specialist art titles and second hand or rare books such as Koenig Books and Luminous Books.

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An image from ‘Worse Things Happen at Sea’, published by Nobrow

On the Saturday (27th) I went back to the gallery take in a couple of talks. The overall thrust of the fair seemed to concern books as a product, instigator and mediator in the digital revolution (or, as it became clearer throughout the fair, the post-digital revolution). The first of the two talks I went to was CODE X: Paper Pixel and Beyond, a discussion between editor in chief of Neural magazine, Alessandro Ludovico, and Delphine Bedel, Colin Sackett (both contributors to the forthcoming book, Code X) and Emmanuelle Waeckerle of bookRoom. The matter of the hour was the nature and value of the book, in both its physical and digital forms, prompted by the collection of essays in Code X.

There’s something admirable about a book fair that encourages a discussion about what a book really is, what its purpose is and whether there is a better way to consume information in the digital age. Alessandro Ludovico and Delphine Bedel made a series of fascinating points, Bedel often referring to Kant’s writings on ‘the book’. The notion that the book is an object born out of a desire for ownership, but that the story itself is ephemeral and cannot really belong to anyone, catalysed an enlightening tangential discussion – the kind of idea that could feel crushingly relevant to publishers now, as it might well indicate the demise of the physical book.

Convincing arguments notwithstanding, I think the panel landed on the side of the physical book as a mark of grounding stability both philosophically, and in terms of the actual production and digestion of literature, in comparison to the fragility of digital information – its intangibility and reliance upon a fully functioning electrical grid. Our society is currently still firmly rooted in the idea of the physical book, which can be seen in online texts that mimic the turning of a page, through to the bloggers who find success online eventually seeing their creative product bound in a paper book, the latter substantiating their work and bringing a greater degree of kudos. I’m well aware that this is unlikely to always be the case, but as someone who loves to hold a solid book I feel at least momentarily reassured.

I rounded off my adventure amongst the excessively hip with a talk given by Douglas Coupland, well known author of such titles as Generation X and Girlfriend in a Coma, and also prolific installation artist. His latest offering is a monograph titled Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything, published in conjunction with a major exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery this year. Coupland briefly discussed the idea of literature as art (another prominent theme at the fair) and explained to the audience that his writing is inextricably linked to his visual art, as he is expressing the same ideas but simply using different methods – as he said, ‘Books take place in time, visual art takes place in space, film takes place in both’. Despite this he seemed to feel that the literary world was restrictive, that there are limitations in verbal thinking that don’t exist in visual thinking, and he had no qualms about making the literary world he so often occupies sound pretty drab and frigid – an insight for those on the outside looking in… 51PuWAIFU8L

Although there was a quiet theme of ‘what has the internet done to us’ running through his talk, Coupland seemed happy to entertain us with anecdotes about his installations, which we were all more than happy to listen to. In person Coupland has a rambling and disarmingly candid tone, he laughs easily and every now and again reveals the ingrained sentimentality that I sadly found hard to get along with when reading Girlfriend in a Coma. His latest work of non-fiction, Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent, is a meditation on the cultural implications of the internet, and he finished his discussion by answering a final question from the audience on his feelings about the digital age. Coupland’s final point really nailed it for me, stating that what will define our current era will be how technology has defined us: whether our progress has increased the power of the individual/individuality, or if it has instead empowered the collective. Nice one, Doug.

I loved the Art Book Fair, and I recommend keeping an eye out for next year’s if you haven’t been before. The Whitechapel Gallery is such a perfect venue and you’re sure to find an illuminating angle on two mediums that sit forever side by side, art and literature.

Review: ‘The Visitors’ by Simon Sylvester

IMG_20140913_170641I went on a bit of book buying binge recently, scooping up a few newish titles by writers I hadn’t heard of and I’d read good things about. I now see the error of my ways. Well, that may be a bit dramatic, but I was sorely disappointed by the latest instalment from my aforementioned Book Binge, which was The Visitors by Simon Sylvester.

The Visitors mostly takes place on the fictional Hebridean island of Bancree where there have been a series of unusual disappearances of beloved locals, and the story is brought to us by 17 year old resident Flora (or Flo to her friends, of which – she is wont to tell us – she has few). Flora is bored by her life on Bancree, and cursed by the itchy feet that I think many of us who grew up in remote areas often are. Her boyfriend abandons her for the wild landscape of Bristol Uni, while Flora is just starting her sixth year at a school in a mainland town near to Bancree. The school where she regularly clashes with grouchy and emotionally simple girls, naturally envious of her much-noted independence and reportedly handsome boyfriend.

To be honest, I got this far through it and started questioning who this book was actually targeted at, already doubting my choice. Optimistically believing it would soon morph into the moody thriller about mysterious disappearances in the wilds of the icy Scottish wilderness that I’d read about, I persevered. The tale plodded onward with some exciting episodes involving a school project about mythical sea creatures, casual run-ins with locals, and a pretty weak smattering of stilted dialogue more suited to an evening listening to The Archers than the literary thriller this was purported to be.

Amongst all of this small town angst appear the focus of Flora’s narrative: mysterious Aisla, also 17 years old, and her phenomenally attractive father. They arrive without warning, moving into an abandoned house on an even tinier island across from Flora’s home. Flora and Aisla strike up a close friendship, seemingly bound by their shared unusual-but-attractive looks and the fact that they are the only teenagers on the island. Not a hell of a lot to go on, but hey, who am I to judge?

The father and daughter team baffle the neighbourhood but shunning any real social interactions, but don’t seem to be doing too much harm so the friendship between the girls flourishes – apparently off the page, as there is very little detail given. I could have forgiven Sylvester a lot of the clunky plot if he had only dialled down the dialogue, and spent more time on the girls’ friendship – I wanted to invest in it and know what they liked about each other, what drew them in, other than their pretty faces.

The way that the teenage girls were characterised was one of the things that most irked me about The Visitors. They seemed to be so two-dimensional, like they had been plucked out of any other throw-away teen novel/TV show/movie. It was all so lazy. And nobody thought to explain to Sylvester that there is no direct correlation between how a young woman looks and how interesting she is, or that 16 and 17 years olds can terrorise each other over a lot more than their handsome boyfriends.

To be a little fairer to the author (it is, after all, his debut novel), he clearly used his ability to describe a scene with a poetic dexterity that captured the sense of the damp chill in the air, and really brought the islands to life. There were times when I could really see the grey and changeable horizon from Bancree, and these moments were there to be treasured because soon enough they would be swallowed in the fug of cliché and the pedestrian plot that fills the rest of the book.

Using Flora’s school project as a conduit there are also unexpected flashes of fantasy in the story, and some of the chapters are pleasantly interrupted by short folk tales about selkies. Although they feel a little crowbarred in, they are a nice touch and modestly told, and add an intriguing tangential mystery to the plot. The final push contained an almost overpowering wave of drama, not entirely fitting with the molasses-like pace of the rest of book, but concludes with a disarmingly warming epilogue that despite myself I really enjoyed.

I have learned one thing on my rip-roaring adventure in bad literature: don’t trust everything people tell you, even if it’s 50:1 in favour of the book. Go with your gut, and always read the first page before buying. I mean, I could be completely wrong about this book – read it and let me know.

The Visitors is published by Quercus, and is available to buy in hardback for £16.99.

Amazon Feud(s) are Making Way for New and Improved Independent Online Bookshops

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Watching Amazon fight with Hachette was starting to feel like watching your parents fight – you can’t take sides because as a book lover they both offer you different, but highly valuable, services. Plus they’re grown-ups, and they should really know better. As the saga has gone on, and Amazon has made more and more enemies both in and outside of the publishing industry, they now seem less like the ugly side of a justifiable battle, and more like the playground thug out to steal everyone’s lunch money. It only adds to this image when Amazon’s people respond like infants (see their famous George Orwell misquote in an open letter to ‘readers’) and throw tantrums which manifest in the removal of certain books and pre-order buttons, and generally making life miserable for the authors and their customers.

And that is the saddest side of the whole debacle. Amazon’s monopolising, money-grabbing tendencies are punishing writers, who often seem to be discussed in a pained ‘think about the children’ manner. While Amazon and the mighty publishers squabble over who should get the most money from the books they produce and sell, they seem to unashamedly sail past the notion that the people who should be earning the most from their books are probably the writers since they, you know, WROTE THE BOOKS. And as they plough through each publishing house like so much wheat and chaff, it appears as though Amazon is just too big. It’s too resilient. Amazon have enough fingers in enough pies to bump along quite happily without the good favour of the odd publishing house for a while, but how long can even the biggest publishing houses survive without Amazon? With the grinding down of major book retailers, publishers are no longer able to take the revenue from the high streets they once could – Amazon is our high street now.

It was in fact eBook profit margins that triggered Amazon’s myriad disputes, and not those of the physical books they are toying with – Amazon naturally wanting a bigger slice, the publishers naturally saying no. Amazon’s ailing profit margins have shaken their share price, and it seems more and more like the company is becoming a victim of its own business model. The problem is, saying no to Amazon is sort of like saying no to the mob. Their actions in the last few months have infuriated many people in the literary community, and Dennis Loy Johnson, founder of Melville House, even exasperatedly asked the New York Times “How is this not extortion? You know, the thing that is illegal when the Mafia does it”.

It does, however, look like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There is an increasingly large variety of places we can find cut-price and out of print books, both physical and online, but until recently Amazon was the one we all knew. They can knock huge percentages off the RRP, while smaller sites can only do up to around 35% off before they start losing money. I think 35% is enough. It may now be in our hands as consumers to rob Amazon of its monopoly, simply by shopping elsewhere.

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Publishers and authors are angry, and are beginning to experiment with different ways of selling their books online, such as HarperCollins revamping their website to make it easier for customers to buy their books directly from the publisher. Penguin Random House also launched their new site, My Independent Bookshop, a few months ago, offering a completely new way to buy books online. The site emulates the experience of walking into an indie bookshop and being told what is really worthwhile buying, by people worthwhile listening to: booksellers and writers. Each virtual shop set up by an author or bookseller is given a name and a street, giving the shopper the sense of meandering through winding literary avenues. You can also buy the books being recommended to you via Hive, the Gardners Books e-commerce arm – there’s no steering us towards Amazon here. And best of all, this isn’t only a boost for independent online book sales – shoppers can choose a real world indie bookshop which will receive a percentage of the commission, as well as act as a pick-up point for the books bought via Hive to encourage consumers to take a trip to the physical shop. Another indie online store, The Best Little Bookshop, launched their new bookselling site in beta last month, spotting the gap in the market: there is room for an independent online bookshop which can show us an altogether more appealing shopping experience. They show us beauty as well as substance by presenting an endearing selection of recommended titles on the homepage, as well as adding an area that presents us with ‘Small press and Handmade’ titles for the true connoisseur.

It’s important now to avoid buying books on Amazon, not only because it can be a much more enjoyable experience on another site, but for the sake of diversifying the market – save us all from falling down the Amazon rabbit-hole and instead reach out for an altogether more benevolent, and beneficial, method of book buying.

Lovely online bookshops for happy browsing:

http://www.bestlittlebookshop.com/

https://www.myindependentbookshop.co.uk/

http://www.hive.co.uk/

http://www.foyles.co.uk/

http://www.bookstore.co.uk/

http://www.abebooks.co.uk/

http://www.bookdepository.com/

http://dauntbooks.co.uk/

http://booksellercrow.co.uk/shop/

Review: ‘In the Approaches’ by Nicola Barker

IMG_20140902_184013I was cruising the Not the Booker 2014 longlist a couple of months ago, keen to read something I’d never heard of. I was itching to stretch my cognitive muscles outside of my comfort zone, wary of wedging myself in a reading rut. Along came the brilliant Nicola Barker and her latest novel, In the Approaches; a lively, even manic, tragicomedy set in 1984, steered by the emotionally (and geographically) turbulent experiences felt by a small group of people living in a small town on the Sussex coast.

The novel is constructed of a string of monologues from our three (or four, if you count Teobaldo, the incensed parrot) major characters, all bringing their own perspective on events that take place during 1984. They are united in their peripheral experiences of a family that came to live in the village some 12 years previously: the artist and IRA sympathiser Bran Cleary, his troubled wife Kalinda ‘Lonely’ Allaway, and their young daughter Orla Nor Cleary, the living saint tainted by thalidomide. Little Orla seems to have touched the lives of everyone around her (and those much farther away), and none more so than Carla Hahn, who acted as Orla’s ‘nurse’ until her death. Carla is frequently antagonised by the cynical Franklin D. Huff, a love interest and former journalist over from America to decipher and scrutinise the events surrounding the Cleary family, while solving a few personal mysteries of his own.

The character truly experiencing the torment of standing ‘in the approaches’ is poor old Clifford Bickerton – former squeeze of Carla’s, and a character plunging headlong into a nervous breakdown, constantly criticising the ‘cow Author’. It is not for us to know who the Author is (whether or not she is Barker), only to speculate. At once the Author could be Barker breaking through the pages and communicating directly with her character, expressing her self-doubt or pride through a Clifford shaped vessel, or she could simply be the fevered imaginings of an increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied member of the cast. I find both devices interesting, and this ambiguity only makes them more so.

A key theme running through In the Approaches is the concept of religion alongside, or versus, spirituality. As an atheist I can become sort of caustic in a discussion about religion, and at times I did feel mildly irritated by Barker’s seeming assumption that a degree of faith is a given, a necessity. Everyone in the novel has been touched by Orla and her pious deeds, either while she was alive or years after her death, and everyone at some point experiences a sense of something ‘other’ – be it fate, prayer or ghosties. It was something I found hard to get on board with, but I admire Barker’s ability to keep a subject like this plainly non-sickly. There were definitely pointed sections of the novel that provide us with the occasional lunacy of religious fanaticism, but it seems clear that Barker is falling on the side of the ethereal.

Barker’s prose is playful and tricksy, and above all, fun. She uses parenthesis with a compulsion, which on the surface makes her seem lost in her own storytelling, but in fact enfolds the reader in each of the character’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquies. In what initially felt like a pretty eccentric style, Barker presents internal ruminations to us in a way that makes perfect non-linear sense.

In the Approaches is, at its bare bones, a romantic comedy. And a pastoral mystery. And a family drama. But delve a little deeper and it’s much more – it’s a weird investigation into the connection between personal distress and faith, a literary and linguistic challenge, and a slapstick romance populated with embarrassing bum jokes. I recommend it because it’s unlike anything else I’ve read, and because it’s triggered my Nicola Barker binge. Next up: Darkmans.

In the Approaches is published by Fourth Estate, and can be found alongside Barkers numerous other novels in all good bookshops for £18.99.

And here for a little extra: an interesting article about the author herself

A Misspent Childhood: Books I Wish I’d Read as a Child, and Well-Loved Books Worth Revisiting

IMG_20140826_210620Recently the memory of a book I was given as a child by my Dad re-emerged while I was telling a colleague an anecdote. He loves classical history, and I mentioned this obscure book that I had been given when I was around 11 or 12, that I don’t believe I fully understood at the time. I was edging my way into more adult literature around this time, and one day my Dad handed me The Night Life of the Gods by Thorne Smith – something he had read as a child and loved. His copy was well worn, proof of his affection for it 30 years earlier, and as any child might I idolised my father and took on his recommendation. I have a strong recollection of thumbing the fragile pages while we were on an excessively long holiday in California, sitting in the back of a rental car zipping across the Mojave Desert, listening to TLC on my trusty Walkman.

As much as I wanted to, I just didn’t really get it. There were whole chunks of the book that I remember being hilarious, but others that just sailed past me. After lending the book to my friend I was inspired to re-read it, convinced that I would have far more patience now. I opened it for the first time in 15 years, and sensory memories came flooding back to me when I touched the grainy pages and out fell an old ratty cotton bookmark I’d shoddily embroidered as a child.

The novel was written in 1931 about a wealthy eccentric American, Hunter Hawk, and his insufferable family, and reads like something between an Evelyn Waugh satire and a Neil Gaiman romp. With great effort, Hunter has perfected a method of turning people into stone statues, and with the help and magic of ‘The Little People’ he also learns to turn statues into flesh and bone, causing no end of havoc. While being comical, Smith often alludes to the corruption of wealth, the mindless parties, drug taking and heavy drinking that fills these people’s lives, and there is no small amount of romantic confusion that pivots around off stage sexual encounters. I’m no longer surprised that this book didn’t click with me when I was 11.

It really is a treat – an escapist, screwball delight that has you wrapped up in the pleasures of the gods. Smith knew exactly how to throw you off course, and give you the sensation of being carried away by a circus – all reason and rationality lost along the way. I’m so glad I picked this up again, and it’s such a shame that there is pretty much nothing by him in print any longer. It’s likely that this will be the only novel by Thorne Smith I’ll ever read.

Reading this reminded me of the things I chose to read as a child, and the things I ignored that I really shouldn’t have. I wish I had been a more adventurous reader as a child, as I feel sure that my 11 year old self would have truly loved books like Howl’s Moving Castle or His Dark Materials (as I certainly do now as an adult), and I wonder how reading books like these back then would have changed me. I would love to go back and visit myself, and hand me a copy of The Call of the Wild or The Wizard of Earthsea and wait for my reaction.

While thinking about the books I wish I’d read, I also considered the books I deeply loved as a child that I could get something completely different out of now as an adult:

BoyDahlBoy by Roald Dahl

I think anyone who grew up around Great Missenden, like I did, feels a special sort of connection with Roald Dahl in an almost possessive or territorial way, as he was a well know local. We used to drive past his home on the way to school, and I would stretch in my seat to glimpse the famous gypsy caravan through the bushes in his garden. I loved Boy because, unlike Dahl’s novels, it felt like reality with a lick of adventure, and not the other way around. He used to play tricks on locals and family members to pass the time, and detailed the brutal corporal punishment at his school that I always felt thankful wasn’t mine. I still feel emotionally attached to this biography, and I would love to have a read of it from the other side of my childhood.

Hitchhikers-Guide-to-the--001The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I only recently found out that the novel was pre-dated by the radio series – I had always assumed otherwise. I remember listening to the series in the car on long journeys when I was small, when the main attraction was the silly words and names like Zaphod Beeblebrox, and then reading it some years later (after watching the 80s TV series too). I feel that Douglas Adams’ sense of humour influenced my own, and it’s again something I feel mildly territorial about as it feels so valuable to my formative years. It would be great to give it another read through, to see how little I probably remember.

silly verseSilly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan

I loved Spike Milligan so much, from his riotous part in The Goon Show (another car journey treat), and his various TV shows that must have been repeated on the BBC when I was small, to his surreal drawings, and of course his poetry. I think revisiting his children’s verse is vital, as well as the vast collections intended for adults, to recapture the eye watering giggles they inspired in me 20 years ago.

emily-bronte-wuthering-heightsWuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

I felt there was a bit of an absence of female writers/female characters on my list, and I’m still wondering why that is. However, Wuthering Heights got me around 14 years old, and I have re-read it 2 or 3 times since. It really shaped how I felt about love and romance for a long time, making me believe that anything I may have felt for someone that was less than earth shattering really wasn’t worth the bother. A dangerous notion in the hands of a teenager, and probably the reason for my very romantically unsuccessful adolescence…

only-you-can-save-mankind-2Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

This was my opener – the gateway book which would lead me to the harder stuff: Discworld. It seems as though Discworld overshadows a huge amount of Pratchett’s other work which, although inevitable, is sort of sad. The Johnny Maxwell series grabbed me instantly as a child – the nonsense and chaos, combined with adventures that seemed tantalisingly possible. These are some of the few novels Terry Pratchett set in our reality, and they really are so much fun, as well as offering an alternative world-view integral to broadening children’s minds.

Book Slam at York Hall, 12th August

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Recently I bagged myself a much coveted ticket to the first Book Slam to take place at the infamous East London boxing venue, York Hall, in anticipation of an excellent line-up.

If you haven’t heard of Book Slam, then it’s time to get on it. It’s a (sort of) monthly literary club night taking place in various locations around London, most often in the Clapham Grand or the Tabernacle near Ladbroke Grove. It’s a fantastic hub of creative talent, usually hosted by a popular or up-and-coming comedian, to showcase the talents of well-known and not-so-well-known writers. These writers usually have something to promote, so it’s also a brilliant platform for them too.

Last night’s show felt particularly special, and naturally drew in a large crowd, because of the calibre of the writers present: Irvine Welsh, Viv Albertine, Kate Tempest, and debut writer Bill Hillmann. We began with Bill Hillmann, ‘one-time street brawler, drug dealer, convict, Chicago Golden Glove Champion, and bull runner’. He read an extract from his new novel The Old Neighborhood, a story of three boys caught in the snare of Chicago’s vicious street gangs, and their struggle to survive or succeed. Hillmann stood in the centre of the boxing ring and read an extract with the thick, gravelly Chicago timbre you would expect, and firmly set the fear in all of us when explaining that the passage was inspired by the drive-by shooting of his sister.

After a short break Hillmann was followed by Viv Albertine, former front woman of legendary punk band The Slits, reading from her knew autobiography, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. She was incredibly bold and candid with the audience when discussing her bouts of cancer and failed marriages, oozing an atmosphere of ‘say what you want, I couldn’t give a fuck’ – albeit a very friendly one. She signed a book for me in the interval, and seemed genuinely surprised by how well she went down, which only served to make her more endearing. She was quickly followed by Kate Tempest, the poet-cum-rapper who bizarrely I shared a couple of English courses with at Goldsmiths. She is a force of nature when performing, and I feel that seeing her poetry on the page can never do justice to how it actually feels watching her on stage. She brought the crowd to their knees while she popped and sparked in the ring, and alerted us to her new collection of poetry edited by none other than Don Paterson.

Finally, Irvine Welsh arrived in the ring. He was present to promote his new book, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, but wisely chose to not read from this novel as it is populated by young women from Florida, which would have sounded pretty weird spoken in his deep Scottish drawl. He instead read an extract of a novel due to be published next year, based around the crowd pleasing character, ‘Juice’ Terry, who appears in several of Welsh’s books. After Kate Tempest and Viv Albertine, Welsh felt a little uninspiring, though I think that is only testament to how great all of the writers were.

If you have never been to a Book Slam, please GO. This was my fourth time, and every time I’ve gone has been seriously fun. There is good food, good company, a good show, and it all only costs a fiver. You have no excuse.

Bookslam logoCheck out upcoming Book Slams here.

 

Review: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

IMG_20140802_164751I found Suite Française a struggle. Not because it’s difficult to understand or hard to read, but it becomes an emotional wrench to pick up a book on a sunny day and contemplate the realities of the experience of war. This of course makes it all the more important to carry on picking it up each day, sunny or not, and plough through. 

Suite Française is a fictionalisation of the early days of occupied France during WWII, seen through the eyes of several individuals, strangely and obliviously connected to one another. It is broken into two parts (although the intentions were for it to eventually be five, the author’s life was tragically cut short before she finished by the very war she wrote about), the first covering the defeat of France and the mass exodus from Paris, and the second covering the beginnings of life under German rule in rural France. Némirovsky describes her multiple subjects’ moods and decisions in fine detail with such unassuming grace that they feel truly present, like people you might have met before. They feel tangible and familiar, especially those characters that are immediately repugnant – you don’t want to believe that this is how someone could react in these circumstances, but at the same time it seems all too depressingly possible.

Irène Némirovsky illustrates this incredibly well, making me genuinely terrified of myself. I want to know what principles I would cling to once my freedom has been taken and my life is in danger, whether my hopes that I would be brave and idealistic are in fact foolhardy and smug, and that realistically I would still get stroppy in shop queues or moan about not having jam for my toast. Némirovsky’s narration of people’s torturous and recalcitrant snobbery in the direst of circumstances is when she is at her most interesting. I find it interesting that given Némirovsky’s own thoroughly middle class (if not upper middle class) roots, spanning from her childhood in Kiev to her adulthood in Paris, she is so scathing of the selfish and callous nature of the Péricand family in the first part, ‘A Storm in June’, and even more so of the Viscountess de Montmort in the second part, ‘Dolce’. Their unwillingness to share what they have with those less fortunate around them is implied as abhorrent.

Because of these characters and others, I find it hard to reconcile the criticisms laid out against Irene Némirovsky. She is regularly painted as an unrelenting anti-semite, and was plagued by self-loathing because of her own Jewish background. There appears to be plenty of evidence to confirm this, such as her association with French politicians on the far-right and pleading letters sent to Marshall Pétain (Prime Minister of Vichy France) in which she affirms her ‘dislike’ of Jews. However, during this period she was in great danger under the vicious anti-semitic laws sweeping across France and was evidently doing anything she could to protect herself  and her family, whether her pleading statements were genuine or not. It is even more tragic then that these desperate and potentially shaming tactics did not work, and in July 1942 she was taken to Auschwitz where she died a short time later.

Although discussion of her dislike of the Jewish people may seem irrelevant when talking about Suite Française as there are no Jewish characters in the novel, it does still hold some weight. The very absence of Jewish characters is conspicuous, given Némirovsky’s experiences as a Jew in Vichy France, and her known allegiances with collaborators casts an interesting light on the characters Lucile and Bruno in ‘Dolce’. Lucile lives with her mother-in-law in the small town of Bussy, awaiting news of her husband who is currently being held as a prisoner of war. Bruno is a German Officer who has been allocated a room in their house to stay in during the German presence in Bussy. Bruno is a very sympathetic character, although we rarely get a true glimpse at his political beliefs. He is all honour and chivalry and charm, with a dash of exciting musical proficiency, which of course draw in lonely Lucile who constantly second guesses her affection for him, while they involuntarily become closer and closer.

I am always fascinated by any story that remarks on the shades of grey in any situation, and perhaps naively I believe that no one is ever entirely bad or entirely good. This is probably why I enjoyed ‘Dolce’ so much, as this is expertly handled (however you might feel about Némirovsky’s intentions); the perception that many German soldiers had been swept up into a war they may not necessarily agree with or want to fight in, just as the French soldiers had. She gives Bruno a humanity not often afforded in depictions of German soldiers during this period, making the blossoming romance between him and Lucile even more fraught and morally confusing.

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Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenaerts as Lucile and Bruno

It’s interesting that the film adaptation of this book will be released imminently, as while I was reading it the thought that this book would be unfilmable had crossed my mind, due to the amount of characters and individual histories told. It’s understandable that writers and director Matt Charman and Saul Dibb have chosen to draw their focus on ‘Dolce’, as it contains the most developed and engaging characters, and the fascinating relationship that builds between the occupiers and the occupied. The casting looks like it will do the characters justice (Michelle Williams as Lucile, Matthias Shoenaerts as Bruno, Kristen Scott-Thomas as Lucile’s mother-in-law), and I definitely look forward to seeing the book realised on screen, but I can’t help but feel it will be hard to eke out the same emotional experience I had with the book. It really is a masterpiece, and I would recommend reading it even when it makes you despair, and make sure you question everything, from Madame Péricand’s snobbery and Bruno’s ambiguous moral compass, to Irene Némirovsky’s own desperate and tenebrous pleas for her life.

 Suite Française is published by Vintage, and available in all good bookshops for £8.99.