I did stop and consider seriously whether all this French Occupation and Russian reading could add to my January doldrums, but on reflection I think not.
Irene Nemirovksy does something strangely uplifting on the page and to read Resistance by Agnes Humbert alongside can only add to the sense of courage and resilience of the human spirit that I am extracting from all this. But I would say approach Resistance with caution if you are feeling fragile.There must be a hundred different ways to read a book and everyone will be receptive to different themes depending on there own emotions at any given time. Enter those gates feeling low and you may just be drawn to focus on the harrowing tragedy, terror and debasing hardship of Resistance, emerging feeling doomed and thwarted by life and the nightmares of history.
In that case don't go there now, don't forget it either but wait until the sun shines again, and no matter how good I was feeling I doubt I would ever read this book last thing at night. Agnes Humbert does her level best to avoid that focus but with the material she has to deal with it is inevitably and relentlessly there. I reached the end by tapping into Agnes's sheer bloody-minded optimism quite quickly and managed to stay the course.
That said the detail of her life as a member of the French Resistance, subsequent capture, imprisonment, trial and then sentence of several years of forced labour makes for grim enough reading but there is an indomitable spirit in there which leaves much unsaid.
In much the same way that Primo Levi in Moments of Reprieve said the unsayable by not saying it, leaving it for the reader to fill in the gaps and silences, so Agnes Humbert often does likewise.
Who can know the real deprivation and stomach-churning terror of that stay in prison whilst all around are being interrogated by the Gestapo and sentenced to death? Yet listen and you hear much more about the singing, the signalling, the whispered conversations, the invisible but intense and palpable love for each other which flowed from cell to cell.
Agnes often doesn't elaborate, she didn't need to, I did it as I read, and when I couldn't quite face it elaboration of detail was off my agenda whilst humbly acknowledging that for Agnes that choice was never an option.
Resistance is a powerful, earth-shattering testimony, a bearing of witness to events much as Irene Nemirovksy offers under the guise of fiction. Agnes Humbert wrote some as a diary but much of this book is her account written from memory immediately after liberation. Memory became Agnes's staunchest ally throughout her incarceration with the constant need to recall and hone every single last detail of the fabricated story that must stand up to interrogation, without letting in a hint of a chink of a slip that might incriminate others.
I think an exploration of the actual word 'resistance' came up when I read the other Resistance by Owen Sheers and the broader meaning of the word asserts itself again throughout Agnes's story embracing every facet of the word's definition from,
'underground: a secret group organized to overthrow a government or occupation force'
'the action of opposing something that you disapprove or disagree with'
Nothing Agnes was forced to make in any factory is likely to have worked, she discreetly sabotaged every single thing she could.
'the capacity of an organism to defend itself against harmful environmental agents'
'an unwillingness to bring repressed feelings into conscious awareness'
In many ways it was this final definition that became Agnes's source of salvation as she somehow entered into a pact with her subconscious to deny feeling and fear in order to survive.
Clinging to Descartes maxim
'...to accustom myself to the belief that we hold nothing entirely within our power except our thoughts'
this became a means of self-empowerment and regaining a semblance of control in a completely disempowering situation.
Agnes even briefly become outraged at her lack of feeling but knows in her heart that to deny feeling is the only mechanism that can engender any hope, anything else uses up precious mental energy all required to keep body and soul alive. A resiliant optimism and the seeking of friendship wherever she found herself, which was invariably in a position of extreme hardship (and it comes no more extreme than the months spent working with vats of acid in the rayon factory) pervade this book and I could barely begin to imagine what a mixture of trauma and therapy it must have been for Agnes to revisit and recount it all after the war. I suspect Agnes Humbert, by all accounts 'reckless and impetuous by nature', decided to get it done and over with, short-sharp-shock approach, before the emotions took full rein and flooded back in.
Silences and enigmas do persist, how was the incriminating diary preserved and concealed from the clutches of the Gestapo ?
The original manuscript has subsequently vanished without trace, did Agnes Humbert edit or modify it in anyway, rearrange the detail?
In the end I didn't really care, let the historians and critics argue that one out, because reading this alongside Suite Francaise (at last, my final thoughts on that tomorrow) has been quite the best and most humbling of reading experiences.
As always I am indebted to the translators; for Irene Nemirovksy, Sandra Smith and in the case of Agnes Humbert, Barbara Mellor. I never cease to remember that without them all this reading would be floundering in the the abyss of Miss Deadman's vain attempts to improve my schoolgirl French.
Next on this little reading trail which shows no sign of petering out, I think a return to Bad Faith by Carmen Callil is called for.
Now I want to know what was really happening on the 'other side'.