Reading shapes our lives. At least some of us. I first read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française when I was loitering on a cold bench in a dark crevice in the basement of a football museum. I felt uncomfortable, out of place and out of sorts. And it wasn’t only the futility of the museum that bothered me. I’d just finished university final exams, was in London for the foreseeable future, and didn’t know what the heck I was doing.
The university had closed its doors. Friends had gotten on trains to go back home. I felt lost in a city I loved.
Life, my life, had followed a relatable and exciting pattern for years: study, study, more study and then music, beer, friends, pubs, boys and lots of fun. Wild, but steady, reliable wild. Suddenly, all that stopped and the job world loomed ahead of me like a . . . well, like a pretty dull football museum. Suddenly, I was expected, like all my friends, to start making money of my own and not relying on the good old student loan. A mate of mine, Tom, who was as wild and fun as they get, cut his cool hair, ditched his attitude, swapped his Green Day shirt for a plain white office number and became an estate agent. And, like him, I was meant to ‘settle down’, get a job, a house, a car, a marriage; some sort of imaginary ‘perfect’ life. But I didn’t want what they told me I wanted. Conformity bores me as much as sports museums. Perfection, if it were truly achievable, would make everything horribly bland.
I wanted to be, meet and write about people who play the game of life with a different dice.
It doesn’t really matter which book I read that day in the basement (although Suite Française is, without doubt, a masterpiece of incredible bravery, insight and compassion). What matters is the parallels we find in books to our own lives. With Française connections to my life were of course subtle, but they did exist and that reinforced my belief that books – and the authors behind them – can teach us so much of what we need at different stages in life. To Kill A Mockingbird, Crow Road, The Gulag Archipelago, Trainspotting, Kafka’s The Castle, Heavier Than Heaven, Life Of Pi, Animal Farm, Arthur & George and American Psycho amongst many many others were there for me, too, in their own unique ways, right when I needed them.
Suite Française tells the remarkable story of people being thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. Strange behaviours creep to the surface. In a village occupied by German soldiers, locals must learn to coexist with the enemy – and perhaps even care for them. Unbelievably, I recognised myself and my world in those pages. Change is bewildering, especially when there was nothing wrong with life before. I wanted university to continue, but I knew taking another study course wasn’t the way to go. The problem I faced was simple: I didn’t like the feeling of not knowing anything. All that study, all that ‘expertise’ and I couldn’t even figure out what to do or where to go. I started to think ignorance was a sin.
Loitering helped. So did wandering. I’m naturally observant (a.k.a. nosy). I kept sitting in new places, pretending to read a book and looking around, watching people – their behaviours, motives, passions, liaisons, frustrations. They were just like me, but different. And some of them didn’t have a clue what they were doing, even the ones who thought they were 100% sure. Like them, in private, I was dissatisfied, stuck wondering what I really wanted to do or be in life, but instead of just following the rules, I started asking myself a lot of questions. I grappled time back from confusion and gave myself a chance to understand. I turned the sensation of feeling mislaid and maladjusted into the desire and determination to let things slot into unexpected places. I didn’t panic. I didn’t worry. I didn’t cry. I didn’t scream or mumble to myself (much). And I didn’t just give in and do what they told me I should. I waited and eventually the haze began to clear.
I put on a lick of thick eyeliner, as always, landed myself a temporary job in a bar to fund whatever I did next, rented a bright, airy room in the attic of a large house in Streatham Hill and started writing. I wrote about weird feelings, about confusion, about being alone in a city I loved yet suddenly felt like a stranger in. I wrote about love, loss and hope. I wrote about a young woman with a good job and friends and success, but without true happiness and I wrote about losing everything, starting afresh and finding compatible friends. But most of all, I wrote about not knowing where you’re going and why it can be the best thing that ever happens.
And guess what?
I felt fine.
I slowly found a way.
I accepted the uncertainties I faced and learned to thrive in unexpected environments, seeking out strange and interesting people. I adapted, like all creatures in the wild, to change. I even grew to enjoy not knowing stuff and all the cool surprises it brings. My writing evolved from child’s play, silly stories, into something that actually meant something – stories people might want to read. I communicated my transition from feeling weird and weak and powerless to feeling strong, prepared and confident. I was ready to leave history behind and create an even better future.
When we explore our heart and figure out our values, when we investigate the things that matter to us, like freedom, taking control, fighting life’s wrongs and standing up to those people who aren’t striving for the common good, we discover it’s all about not knowing the answers and accepting we don’t know them all. Its asking questions that matters. And in many ways, I think that’s what Irène Némirovsky – and many other great authors – show us.
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