February 5, 2007
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
Finished on 2/1/07
Rating: 2.5/5 (Average)
By the early l940s, when Ukrainian-born Irène Némirovsky began working on what would become Suite Française—the first two parts of a planned five-part novel—she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz: a month later she was dead at the age of thirty-nine. Two years earlier, living in a small village in central France—where she, her husband, and their two small daughters had fled in a vain attempt to elude the Nazis—she’d begun her novel, a luminous portrayal of a human drama in which she herself would become a victim. When she was arrested, she had completed two parts of the epic, the handwritten manuscripts of which were hidden in a suitcase that her daughters would take with them into hiding and eventually into freedom. Sixty-four years later, at long last, we can read Némirovsky’s literary masterpiece.
The first part, “A Storm in June,” opens in the chaos of the massive 1940 exodus from Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion during which several families and individuals are thrown together under circumstances beyond their control. They share nothing but the harsh demands of survival—some trying to maintain lives of privilege, others struggling simply to preserve their lives—but soon, all together, they will be forced to face the awful exigencies of physical and emotional displacement, and the annihilation of the world they know. In the second part, “Dolce,” we enter the increasingly complex life of a German-occupied provincial village. Coexisting uneasily with the soldiers billeted among them, the villagers—from aristocrats to shopkeepers to peasants—cope as best they can. Some choose resistance, others collaboration, and as their community is transformed by these acts, the lives of these men and women reveal nothing less than the very essence of humanity.
Suite Française is a singularly piercing evocation—at once subtle and severe, deeply compassionate and fiercely ironic—of life and death in occupied France, and a brilliant, profoundly moving work of art.
As I finished the last page of this novel, my first reaction was that of sadness. Of course a story about the horrors of any war is sad, but that wasn’t it. I was sad because I didn’t love it. This is a poignant first-hand narrative that should have moved me in the same manner Eli Weisel’s Night and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief moved me. Instead of shedding tears for the tragic story depicted in Némirovsky’s drama, I felt nothing but relief that I had finally finished reading it.
I rarely ever take the time to read the ancillary material included in a book. (Generally speaking, the novels I tend to read don’t ordinarily include additional material other than, perhaps, an introduction.) However, after reading the publisher’s blurb on the inside jacket, I was compelled to learn more about Némirovsky’s personal story. I started with the Translator’s Note, quickly flipping to the back of the book where I went on to read the Preface to the French Edition (a nine-page history of the author's life, leading up to her deportation to Auschwitz in 1942). I decided to wait to read the two Appendices after completing the novel, just on the chance I might come upon a spoiler. When I did finally read them, I was intrigued by Némirovsky’s notes, which include details of the situation in France (in 1941), as well as her ideas for Suite Française. Fascinating material, particularly those on her writing process. Appendix II is a compilation of Némirovsky’s correspondences (and those of her husband’s, after her arrest). Heartbreaking letters.
Unfortunately, the novel failed to evoke the same emotions I felt while reading about the author’s personal story. Némirovsky peoples the first section of her book with an incredibly large cast of characters. I struggled to keep track of their individual stories and relationships, anticipating how their lives might later intersect, growing more frustrated as I continued to read, losing track of who was who, wishing I had made some sort of a character list.
I’m not sure when I first heard about this novel. Perhaps it was when I read Bookfool’s glowing review, which opens with this beautiful passage:
He wrote with a chewed-up pencil stub, in a little notebook which he had against his heart. He felt he had to hurry: something inside him was making him anxious, was knocking on an invisible door. By writing, he opened that door, he gave life to something that wished to be born. Then suddenly, he would become discouraged, feel disheartened, weary. He was mad. What was he doing writing these stupid stories, letting himself be pampered by the farmer's wife, while his friends were in prison, his despairing parents thought he was dead, when the future was so uncertain, the past so bleak?
Both Bookfool and SuziQOregon have written much more enthusiastic reviews that deserve attention. Not one to enjoy being the odd man out, I have to confess I was relieved to read Dovegreyreader’s recent post, which not only reinforces my opinion, but also includes quite a lively discussion (in the comments section) on the merits of the book (and the hype behind it).
Whether or not you choose to read this highly regarded work, be sure to go here to read the back-story to the novel. Quite touching.