A Boeuf Bourguignon for the End of the World
On War, Satire, and the Novels of Irène Némirovsky
There’s something I’d like to share with you.
First, you’ll need two pounds of sirloin or chuck roast, diced into cubes; a half-pound of slab bacon, cut into lardons; one yellow onion, three carrots, six cloves of garlic, ten fingerling potatoes, and a half-pound of cremini mushrooms. You’ll need some brandy, a bottle of full-bodied red wine, a third-cup of crème de cassis, three cups of beef or veal stock, and two tablespoons of tomato paste. Of course a little flour, a healthy lump of butter, a few tablespoons of chopped parsley. For the aromatics, a sachet (cheesecloth, tied with butcher’s twine) stuffed with thyme (six sprigs), parsley (eight), a bay leaf, three cloves, and five crushed juniper berries.
Naturally, you’ll also need some time.
While the lardons sauté (in a large, heavy dutch oven), attend to the vegetables. If you’re like me, you’ll take a strange pleasure in peeling and chopping. Call it precious, but it’s remarkable how food simply grows. That’s what it does: right out of the soil, most of it ready to eat. The onion’s attempt at symmetry; each garlic clove in its candy-wrapper skin; these bouquets of fresh herbs offset by cloves, by the astringent juniper; that you can peel both carrots and potatoes and slice each into uniform, diagonal slices, and that they can taste so distinctly different: cooking is one of the few things left that makes me feel like a creature on a planet.
Why do I always forget this?
I don’t need to point out that 2017 has been a difficult year. I don’t need to say that acts branded as “self-care” are more necessary than ever. But neither do I need to quarter each mushroom, to slice the onions uniformly, or to make matchsticks of the garlic. I don’t need to save the onion skin (thoroughly rinsed) and add it to the herb sachet, since its only effect is to give the stew a deeper, richer, redder color. No one needs to begin each day with a childish sketch of the weather forecast in the margins of one’s notebook (a cartoon sun, an inky cluster of clouds). Nor does any walk to the market or the coffee shop require roundabout paths along prettier streets than one’s own.
One doesn’t even need to read novels, horrifyingly enough. Though reading is the one meditative act I never seem to forget how much I love.
It’s thanks to reading that I’m cooking again, that I remember the pleasure in removing the cooked bacon from the pan and sautéing the beef, dusted with flour and salt and pepper, in the rendered fat. In September I introduced myself to Suite Française—that final, unfinished masterpiece of Irène Némirovsky’s. A Ukrainian émigré who found celebrity writing in French in the 30s and early 40s, Némirovsky’s tragically short, transnational life and career felt—in that way a shelved book sometimes alerts your senses—eerily necessary for me to read.
One should trust one’s senses. In two of the work’s five planned movements, Nemirovsky brings us first to a France in chaos as the Reich sweeps through Paris and into the countryside, and then to a hushed, claustrophobic France, both tense and indifferent as German soldiers occupy its cities and villages. We are thrust into the pandemonium of cities under fire: “Panic-stricken, some of the women threw down their babies as if they were cumbersome packages and ran.” One woman, clad in costume jewelry, writhes in agony: “Her throat and fingers were sparkling and blood was pouring from her shattered skull.” We see all of this alongside absurd comedy. The servants of one household, whose “need to follow a routine was stronger than their terror,” insist on packing to flee Paris “exactly as they had always done when getting ready to go to the countryside for the summer holidays.” These extremes make Suite Française the perfect war novel. Rather than poetic or honorable, war is absolute hell: both on earth and in one’s heart.
Her most moving pages are those set in provincial France, where the temptation of kindness encourages the French to share their culture with those who seek to destroy it. Despite the German demand for heavier meals, “the French couldn’t believe anyone would be crazy enough not to recognise the excellence of their food, especially their golden round loaves, their crown-shaped breads. There were rumours they would soon have to be made with a mixture of bran and poor-quality flour. But no one believed it. They took the German’s words as a compliment and were flattered.” Naturally, kindness done to power cannot buy kindness in return—only leniency; and even that, as the villagers learn, is never guaranteed.
“These extremes make Suite Française the perfect war novel. Rather than poetic or honorable, war is absolute hell: both on earth and in one’s heart.”
Call it harrowing, call it absurd, call it tragic, call it brave: Suite Française, revealing as it does our psychological incompatibility with life during wartime, is literature par excellence. Yes, it’s horrible that people can simply go on gardening and cooking, living laughing loving, while their friends and families are killed, incarcerated, or tortured, while their cities and books burn, but it’s also inspiring: we find a way to survive, even if we end up having to lose what it was that made us us. On paper, this is a moral failing, but one remains happy to have found a moment of peace amongst devastation. We have our tethers to this realest of worlds, no matter what else happens: weather, seasons, food, sensuality. The human ability to adapt is admirable as it is repulsive.
Némirovsky’s masterpiece is part of a reading pattern I’ve developed over the last year, turning more and more, intentionally or not, to work that confronts the atrocities of fascism, totalitarianism, and ideologies of supremacy. Many of these books examine or evoke the second world war, to which it’s become fashionable to compare our current global politics.
Not that this fashion isn’t entirely justified. Here we are, once again, watching Nazis subvert political discourse. It’s hard not to think of World War II when many Americans have stopped hiding their swastikas, and even fly them proudly. It’s hard not to make the leap, in one’s head, from the rescinding of protections to the proclamation of persecutions, from propaganda to concentration camps.
Here we are, too, desperately trying to joke about it all. The renewed popularity of satire when it’s almost indistinguishable from reality is another of 2017’s vintage throwbacks. We have become benumbed to the absurdity of day-to-day life in America, where “satire” is simply a reenactment of what happened earlier that week, but with an audience’s reassuring laughter. Our comedians, after all, are barely capable of exaggeration. Aside from expressing genuine compassion or indicating a shred of intelligence, there’s nothing the president can say, at this point, that should shock anyone; so what is there to exaggerate?
This recalls Theodor Adorno’s observation, in the 1940s, that it had become “difficult to write satire.” In the wake of Nazi atrocities confessed during the Nuremberg Trials, it no longer seemed possible to strip malevolence of its political disguise: “Irony’s medium, the difference between ideology and reality, has disappeared. The former resigns itself to confirmation of reality by its mere duplication. Irony used to say: such it claims to be, but such it is; today, however, the world, even in its most radical lie, falls back on the argument that things are like this . . . . The gesture of the unthinking That’s-how-it-is is the exact means by which the world dispatches each of its victims.”
When loving Hitler is no longer rhetorical hyperbole but a simple dramatization of the truth, what power does the satirist retain?
Political satire is powerless when it’s based on the assumption that the powerful are ashamed of their actions, or at the very least fearful of repercussions. Nor, in a system like this, can satire change the minds of those who could hold power to account. “That’s how it is,” we say—those words Adorno feared—and if this is what we accept, “how it is” becomes how it will remain.
But satire is one of Suite’s great strengths, even in the midst of the Reich’s destruction of France. Bourgeois men and women fret over what china and what linens to pack as they flee Paris. An old man dying in a city under siege demands that a nun cross town on a bicycle to fetch a notary, as he wishes to make arrangements for his estate. A famous writer refuses to make eye contact with a working class family, despite sitting next to them in traffic for hours. One woman, having just learned that her two eldest sons have died, performs her grief: “She drew herself up and, already imagining the black veil fluttering around her, showed her cousin the door with pride and dignity.” At every turn, Némirovsky’s besieged France is peopled with families and individuals who can’t bear to part with their possessions or break decorum; and with bombs falling all around them or with German soldiers sleeping in their homes, it’s tempting to laugh at their smallness. But the novel’s genius is that we don’t laugh, at least not at these characters, not when their lives are ripped apart and irretrievably scattered: “Everything caught fire. Roofs caved in, floors cracked in half… Everyone was shouting at once, calling to each other, and the voices all merged into one—the village was reduced to a roar. ‘Jean!’, ‘Suzanne!’, ‘Mummy!’, ‘Grandma!’ No one replied.”
“Political satire is powerless when it’s based on the assumption that the powerful are ashamed of their actions, or at the very least fearful of repercussions.”
No one—not even the absurdly bourgeois—is spared war’s blood and smoke: “None of them knew why they were bothering to flee: all of France was burning, there was danger everywhere. Whenever they sank to the ground, they said they would never get up again, they would die right there, that if they had to die it was better to die in peace. But they were the first to stand up when a plane flew near.” It’s this precise juxtaposition of life’s lightness and its sudden fragility that makes the comedy in Suite so affecting. In her notebooks, Némirovsky acknowledged this ambition: “If I want to create something striking, it is not misery I will show but the prosperity that contrasts with it.” With village girls flirting with their German occupiers; with moments of spring birdsong in between bombing raids; with the scent of cherry blossom coming in through the windows of a bedroom a German officer has taken over; and with the attention given to choosing the right bottle of wine, the right cheese, to using the best flour or the ripest peaches, Suite Française is a monument to the human wish for continuity, for familiarity.
Living in terror, one reads in this fiction the wish to wake up every morning and recognize even a small piece of one’s world.
It was Adorno, too, who said “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Often misread as an indictment, Adorno’s concern is not methods of expression so much as the will toward compartmentalization, toward the turning of the blind eye, when it was this precise condition that made Auschwitz possible. To pursue and create beauty after the revelations of the Holocaust is barbaric, but that doesn’t mean one can’t do it. It may simply mean that barbarism is inseparable from our culture.
This is the repulsive part of our adaptability.
Later in life, Adorno returned to this idea. In his Negative Dialects, he observes art’s license to do what it will even in this most artless, most deathful, of worlds:
Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.
To be happy or to pursue happiness among so much suffering is to become complicit in the creation and perpetuation of that suffering. The only real end of this complicity is death, which calls to mind all of Auschwitz’s survivors—including Primo Levi, Paul Celan, and Jean Améry—who committed suicide decades after they escaped. It evokes Virginia Woolf, who never saw the war’s end, or Stefan Zweig, for whom the world became too terrible in 1942. Walter Benjamin, arrested on his way to America in 1940, gave himself a fatal dose of morphine.
This summary elides suicide’s complexity; it’s anything but a this or that. Yet depression is immensely sensitive to external pressure. In the early morning hours of November 9, 2016, for example, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline experienced record surges of phone calls and texts from those in crisis.
It’s hard not to think of all the lives we’re going to lose to despair, in the coming years.
And of course it’s impossible, in our era of “security,” not to think of Auschwitz itself, where more than one million human beings were bureaucratically murdered, including, on August 17, 1942, the writer Irène Némirovsky, whose Suite Française is still missing its final three movements.
A crucial word for all of us is and. One cannot live in moral purity, and yet one wants to live. (At least until one does not.) I can be afraid; I can be angry; I can be a vicious critic of this cruel administration; and I can spend an evening slicing vegetables, peeling onions, pausing to smell a handful of herbs, and stirring this provincial stew whose name swims in my throat. It’s hard to get through a day without thinking of the end, whether by bomb or the slow strangulation of climate change; and, just this summer, we built a gardening bed in our back yard. The president and vice president of the United States would wish to erase the vibrancy of my gay and loving life; and, in the coming spring, I will plant carrots, onions, herbs, tomatoes, and whatever else I can convince to grow.
Over the last year, I’ve thought a lot about resistance. To resist means not only to struggle against an adverse force but to withstand; and it’s here that “resistance” as a hashtag—as a flock of twitter users @-ing the president, as a slogan in one’s bio—is incomplete. Disseminating and amplifying the cruelty of your political opponent without a critique doesn’t feel like #resistance so much as complicity, or even profit. Altering your public persona so that you exist only as vocal resistance seems more like you’ve already lost, that your enemy controls not only the discourse but your behavior, dictating all you’ll come to say and do.
Satire is impotent in 2017 because it relies on flattening and simplifying a complexity in order to clarify its failings, weaknesses, or hypocrisies. Those in power have dispensed with complexity. They’ve even eradicated the nuance of personality. Flattening Donald Trump reveals only Donald Trump, whose mission seems to be to make everyone as flat and simple and stupid and marketable as he is. Clinton is “crooked,” the media is “dishonest,” women are decorative, and all people of color are in some way criminals. There is no and for Donald Trump: everything is this or that. This is how people become pawns you don’t mind sacrificing.
Perhaps the best way to resist a regime that would make flat characters of us all is to be wholly and unashamedly a person, and to believe yourself one of many such persons. Billions of persons. Each of these persons inhabits this planet, where we all share, to whatever extent our circumstances make possible, the same resources, and where we experience—in addition to its fruits and its vegetables and the meat of its creatures—its shifts in seasons, in landscapes, in temperatures, in differing heavens of unique constellations. It’s human, isn’t it, to want to be here?—to see and to feel and to eat, to top a homemade Boeuf Bourguignon with a spoonful or two of chopped parsley, a plant that grew somewhere out of some patch of soil, fed by sunlight and by rain, and which, at least for now, will still grow there tomorrow? I’m sure of it, and I’m not.