May 11, 2012

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

Suite Française is a sequence of two novellas (of a planned total of five) set in 1940-1, the period when France was first occupied by the Nazis. The first section, “Storm in June”, follows a large group of characters as they flee Paris to escape the approaching German army; section two, “Dolce”, takes place in a countryside village during the Occupation and details the lives of both locals and German soldiers, with particular focus on a young married woman who falls in love with a German officer. The two sections have a few characters in common, but otherwise read as independent stories. Still, when put together they form a detailed, acute and incredibly humane portrayal of life in France during the Nazi occupation.

I read Suite Française as part of my quest to seek out all the novels Elizabeth Wein named as inspirations for Code Name Verity — I particularly wanted to read more about occupied France, as this is an aspect of WW2 I hadn’t previously explored in much detail in my reading, and Suite Française proved absolutely perfect for that.

Although I’m not usually a fan of biographical approaches to literature, I really can’t separate my response to Suite Française from my knowledge about the circumstances in which it was written. As many of you probably know, Irène Némirovsky was a French writer of Jewish origin who wrote the novel in 1941 and 1942, while experiencing the historical events it describes. Némirovsky belonged to a wealthy Russian family who moved to France after the revolution, and at a glance her life makes me think of an Eva Ibbotson heroine minus the happy ending: she rose to literary stardom at a young age, but the safety and prosperity her family had achieved was shattered by the war. She was arrested in July 1942, after having completed only two of the five planned sections of Suite Française, and died in Auschwitz a few months later. Here’s how The Guardian describes her manuscript’s long path to publication:
The manuscript of Suite Française was preserved by Denise Epstein, Némirovsky’s daughter, who was 12 at the time of her parents’ murder. She kept her mother’s leather-bound notebook with her each time she and her younger sister were moved from one place of safety to another. Almost 60 years later, Denise read the notebook and discovered that it contained not a diary, as she had always supposed, but a novel.
I loved Suite Française for the amazingly accomplished writing, for the everyday details about life under chaotic and tense sociopolitical circumstances, for the acute social observations, and most of all for the moments of humanity and even humour amidst all the darkness it describes. Némirovsky’s depiction of the Occupation is brutally honest, but it nevertheless leaves room for the humanity of those who were carrying it out to be acknowledged. My favourite section, “Dolce”, makes that particularly clear. For example, take this description of the first interaction between a common soldier and the villagers:
The Frenchmen replied, then became bolder; ‘Has the armistice been signed?’
The German threw open his arms. ‘We don’t know yet. We hope so,’ he said.
And the humanity of his words, his gesture, everything proved they were not dealing with some bloodthirsty monster but with a simple soldier like any other, and suddenly the ice was broken between the town and the enemy, between the country folk and the invader.
Although she explores all the complications associated with collaboration with the Nazi regime, all the resentments and divided allegiances and political implications even the smallest gesture could take, Némirovsky also portrays the French villagers and the German soldiers as human beings doing their best to live side by side in circumstances fraught with tension; as individuals whose personal feelings were often at odds with what they were expected to feel as occupier and occupied. Suite Française is remarkable in its humanity, and it’s particularly moving to think that this story was written by a Jewish woman who was soon to die in Auschwitz; who must have known, if not the details of what awaited her, at least that her chances of survival weren’t good. And yet she refuses to give up her compassion when portraying those who executed the kind of orders that were to cost her and her husband their lives.

I was also interested in the way Suite Française portrays class attitudes in 1940’s France. Némirovsky is wonderfully satirical, especially in her portrayal of the Péricands and of the writer Gabriel Corte in “Storm in June”. These characters are wealthy Parisians whose selfishness and callousness is only exacerbated by the increasing chaos around them. Most of the characters in the first section are not exactly sympathetic, and yet in the end you can’t help but feel for them. Némirovsky allows glimpses of their humanity to shine through, even among biting satire and dark humour. There are moments when even those who have spent most of their lives valuing material luxury become concerned with nothing but immediate survival and human ties:
Panic obliterated everything that wasn’t animal instinct, involuntary physical reaction. Grab the most valuable things you own in the world and then…! And, on that night, only people—the living and the breathing, the crying and the loving—were precious. Where was the person who cared about their possessions; everyone wrapped their warms tightly about their wife or child and nothing else mattered; the rest could go up in flames.
Despite all its breadth and detail, Suite Française has one obvious omission: the absence of any Jewish characters. We see the consequences of the Nazi occupation for French people belonging to every social sphere, but not for the group of people who had the most to fear. It’s easy to read this gap in terms of self-hatred or repudiation, but it’s equally easy to imagine Némirovsky as a human being for whom some possibilities were simply too terrifying to even consider. She described what was going on around her with amazing clarity and insight, but perhaps the immediate threat to her safety and her family’s was too close to home to write about.

Reviewed at: Caribousmon, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, Musings, Erin Reads, Bookgirl’s Nightstand, Avid Reader’s Musings, It’s All About Me, Fizzy Thoughts, Bookfoolery and Babble, An Adventure in Reading, What Kate’s Reading, You Can Never Have Too Many Books

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23 comments:

  1. I still haven't read this.
    She is a problematic author, I think and know that Jewish readers aren't keen on reading her at all as she converted to Christianism in order to escape. It didn't work. Maybe this explains the omission of Jewish characters.
    I'm not blaming her btw... No idea what I would have done...

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  2. Caroline, I completely agree that it's complicated and problematic, and I didn't mean to dismiss criticism of her work and its (lack of) engagement with Jewish identity. But at the same time, I can't help but feel terrible for her. It must have been such a difficult choice, and who knows how her thinking would have evolved had she survived and had been able to see the bigger picture of what was happening to her people. I think the omission is something that SHOULD be discussed, but I still value the novel so much for what it did address.

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  3. PS: I definitely know you weren't blaming her! I can't imagine what I would have done either.

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  4. I always think it is poignant to read a book knowing the outcome of the story or the author when it is unmentioned. A similar situation is found in the book "The Family Moskat" by Singer, about a Jewish family in Warsaw in 1939. It is one of my favorite books, I think because it ends in 1939 and the Holocaust is totally unmentioned, and yet the reader knows the whole time it is coming. So all the quotidian arguments and events described take on a whole new dimension for the reader. Odd about Suite Francaise but I could see trying to avoid the issue and embrace normalcy....

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  5. Each time I read about Némirovsky and Suite Française, I get goosebumps -- and think immediately about grabbing this book. Thank you for reminding me that I really must add it to my stacks soon -- your review alone entranced me.

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  6. Jill, I know exactly what you mean - I often feel the same about books set in the early 20th century, just before WW1. I can't help but think about how the characters and author would have been affected by what was about to come, and yet they had no idea... Also, I really need to read Singer.

    Meg: Definitely read it soon! The writing alone makes it worth it, and it's especially impressive if we consider she sadly didn't have time to go back and revise/polish it.

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  7. I listened to the audio version of this pre-blogging and ended up not having a particularly strong opinion about it either way. I think the audio format was part of the problem, and I plan to try Nemirovsky again.

    I've not read much about the resistance, but I do recommend Resistance by Agnes Humbert. I think it was one of the first memoirs written about the movement. Jenny and I have both read and reviewed it over at our blog.

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  8. I have this book and really need to read it... Not enough time in the day, I tell you...

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  9. I read this book some time ago but I completely loved it when it did. It just felt so human to me. Her backstory only added to it for me.

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  10. Great post, Ana. I thought this novel was beautifully written, and I was amazed (as you write) at her generosity and humanity - and her ability to see humanity even behind the cruellest actions.

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  11. A friend bought me a copy of this book ages ago, but I still haven't read it. I think knowing the author's fate makes it difficult for me. I knew that she'd converted to Christianity but that didn't help her any, but I didn't know there aren't any Jews in the stories. Interesting. Maybe she was going to tell their stories in the stories she never had a chance to write...

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  12. I read this back in 2007 and found it utterly gripping. I loved the way she didn't judge anyone. She just let their actions speak to the reader.

    I do seem to recall that there was a suggestion she wrote some anti-semetic stuff for the Nazis, but I can't remember the details. And she was probably doing her best to try and survive. I have no idea what it must have been like to be in her situation.

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  13. I didn't realize this was written during the time period it's set in. I bet it is fascinating.

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  14. Oh man, I have had this one on my shelf for the longest time, and still haven't read it. It sounds like it's a really complex and involving read. I echo Kathy's comment as well. I didn't know much of the details surrounding the creation of this book. Fantastic review today!

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  15. This was a favorite read several years ago... still makes me sad when I think of what might have been.

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  16. I feel like my (I thought pretty dang comprehensive) readings about WWII are sorely lacking now. I don't think I've read anything about France...

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  17. There was a time when I read a lot of books that took place during World War II, and mostly in France. That period fascinated me. And then I guess I just had too much. But when I saw your review of Code Name Verity it made me want to read it, and now I want to read this one too!
    Thanks for this review, which gives a good insight of the book and the circumstances around it.

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  18. This is not a book I had considered reading before, but now you've enlightened me about the circumstances it was written in I far more intrigued. Plus it also sounds like quite a beautiful read. Will be adding this to my wishlist.

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  19. Thanks for reviewing the book. I got it on my shelf. Interesting to note it wasn't all about the tribulation of Jews during the WWII.

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  20. I've had this book for a few years but haven't got to it yet because I believed it was a whole plot that hadn't been completed. Knowing it is two novellas out of five makes it less daunting in it's incompleteness. I like the way it sounds fair to the ordinary people, it may not be so rare, but finding more objective sources can be difficult.

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  21. I was fascinated with both the book and the story behind the book. I agree that it's difficult to separate them. I loved the book and her writing. A friend I saw last weekend had a copy of Nemirovsky's Fire in the Blood which reminded me that I need to find a copy of that one. Have you read it?

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  22. I wish that she had been able to finish the work. Her writing is so beautiful, but the stories weren't connected in the way I wanted them to be. The author's own story was more fascinating and heartbreaking to me. I'd like to try more of her work though.

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  23. I found this to be a really interesting book, and so detailed and real (it was years ago so I can't remember any specific thoughts sorry!). I haven't read anything else by her though and I'm not sure I will.

    (My review)

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