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More Thoughts on Catastrophe


Irene Nemirovsky
I have often asked myself how I can write about pasta and and matters of food while there are so many desperate and pressing issues in the world and people are suffering.  I ask myself, as a writer what is my responsibility?  I think about this all the time and struggle for resolution.  Today the news of Haiti’s earthquake raises the issue again along with the guilt of being safe while other people suffer so horribly.  My heart goes out to the people of Haiti who have suffered so terribly for so long.

Last year I read the beautiful unfinished novel by Irene Nemirovsky “Suite Francaise,” published 65 years after her death.  A Russian Jewish novelist living in France when the Germans were marching in during World War II.  As the campaign against Jews became clear, she understood she would soon die.  Before she was taken away she did two things: 1) arrange for her two daughters to be hidden and saved (they were) and 2) furiously write as fast as she could her ultimate novel.  It was to be a thousand pages long in several parts, yet she only finished a fraction of it before being taken to Auschwitz.  The events of the novel--documenting what she was witnessing as the Germans arrived--are incredibly sad and raise all the questions of human weakness and tragedy.  And yet her act of art, her act of writing on the brink of death was enormously optimistic.  She was a beautiful writer.

During this time, she kept notes where she mulled on her plans for this opus novel of hers.  She didn’t want to create a work that would be solely about the tragedies of World War II because she knew that ten years after the war, people wouldn’t want to think of the horrors any more.  What would endure and still matter in 2052, she asked, while writing in her notebook in the woods, waiting for her death.  And she answered herself:

“What lives on:

1.  Our human day-to-day lives
2.  Art
3.  God.”

I am so taken that someone amidst catastrophe and on the brink of death would understand that “our ordinary day-to-day lives” matter.  I suppose that when women write or paint about domestic life, they are addressing this enduring part of what it means to be human, and in this fact something deeply true.  And this helps me justify what I do.  Sometimes this in itself is art, and sometimes even a step toward what I imagine to be god. Still my questions remain not entirely resolved.

In the meantime what else is there to do but try to help those who suffer? 

If you’d like to help the victims of the quake, text “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to Red Cross relief efforts in Haiti.

Unicef has also appealed urgently for emergency assistance. Visit this link to help.

You can also help immediately by donating to the Red Cross to assist the relief effort. Contribute online here, or

Or, you can donate $10 to be charged to your cell phone bill by texting “HAITI” to “90999.”

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Thanks for reminding me of Nemirovsky’s book, which I definitely want to read, and of the need to help the desperate people of the world. I struggle with the same issues you do and hope that in some small way my blog and yours will lead more people to think about helping the people of Haiti.

    – ciaochowlinda (January 14 2010 at 11:41)

Lovely sentiment, Laura.

    –  (January 14 2010 at 10:19)

Please keep doing what you are doing.  Than which there is nothing more important or beneficial.
My life sucks right now.  I can get online and read about stuff that matters, such as God, Art, and everyday Life, and for a while forget about the stupid shit that sucks and is trying to suck me down for good.
It renews my spirit and my hope.
Thanks~ Gally

    –  (January 16 2010 at 1:54)

Laura, I loved your post, and I was thinking some of those same thoughts. I also read Suite Francaise and actually have read many books about that period in France. Another one that I can recommend that I found extraordinary is by a Canadian novelist, Kate Taylor. It’s called Madame Proust’s Kosher Kitchen and weaves the tale of Proust’s mother, who was a Jew, with the story of a French child sent to Canada at the time her parents were taken away in Paris.
But back to the “struggle.” During one of the periods of war in Israel, I heard a reporter say that he had asked an Israeli man how they lived from day to day in such frightening and chaotic conditions--rockets flying, air raid sirens, etc. He said, “Sooner or later, somebody has to go out to get milk.” The simplicity and profundity of the statement left a mark . Art helps us to go on, to understand, to create order from the madness, and--yes--to find relief, as it is very exhausting not only to see such havoc that we can’t control, but even more so to think that we have made so little progress in learning to live with and care for each other.

--From Angela B., via facebook

    –  (January 16 2010 at 11:30)

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