Book Review: Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky

Have you ever finished watching a movie on DVD and checked out the special features? I only do it if the movie was excellent. When something about the script is so enthralling, I’m sad to leave the characters. I want to stay with them a little longer or find out more about them. That’s how I felt after I finished reading Suite Francasie by Irene Nemirovsky. I devored the appendices and found myself searching for more information on the web.

There are two volumes in this book starting in June 1940 when the Nazis march into Paris and ending in July 1941 when the occupying Germans leave France to fortify the Eastern Front against the Soviets. The first volume, called Storm in June, opens with the mass exodus of Paris. Rich and poor, young and old are escaping along the same clogged roads to the countryside. Nemirovsky focuses on a few characters and alternates chapters between them: from the egotistical writer Gabriel Corte, who despite the threat to his life from bombs exploding around him, can’t help but comment, “If events as painful as defeat and mass exodus cannot be dignified with some sort of nobility, some grandeur, then they shouldn’t happen at all!” to the middle-class Michauds who are just anxious to find out their son’s whereabouts to the snooty upper crust Pericands who take so long to pack their car with all of their valuables they lose precious time getting on the road.

Interwoven between moments of chaos and confusion, such as when the Germans strafe the road the refugees are on , there are lighthearted ones as well, such as a scene with the Pericand’s cat. The volume ends as the French surrender and the weary Parisians return home, somewhat relieved that, to them, it’s over.  The tone is pitch-perfect and the use of these characters to represent the multitudes is superb. Nemirovsky never intrudes. The characters and story do the talking.

The second volume, Dolce, has a completly different tone. The setting moves to the French provinces and the battleground moves internally. Lucile Angellier’s husband is a prisoner of war so she is living with her mother-in-law in a small village. They do not see eye-to-eye on anything, especially when a German officer is billeted in their home and he takes a liking to Lucile. Mrs. Angellier is offended and angry and confines herself to her bedroom while the officer and Lucile grow closer.  Nemirovskey presents all of the characters, including the German officer, not in a judgmental way, but exposes them to their deepest human  emotions, leaving the reader to wonder, Will Lucile choose love or honor?

There were three other volumes planned for Suite Francaise, but Nemirovsky only made notes for the third, Captivity. She was killed in Auschwitz in August 1942. (Her husband, killed in October 1942, never learned of her fate.)  This blows me away for two reasons. 1. What a horrible, horrible tragedy that the world was denied Nemirovsky’s creative genius. 2. The date of her death belies an important fact: she was writing this opus as the events of WWII unfolded. As a writer, it only makes me even more in awe of what a gifted author she was. Sometimes it takes years to digest such tumultuous events emotionally and mentally in order to write prose this flawless. She was writing in a notebook while on the run and it was the most humane, insightful work of fiction about WWII I’ve read. (In fact she wrote so tiny due to a shortage of paper, her daughter needed a magnifying glass to transcribe it.)  

Nemirovsky’s  manuscripts and journals were dusted off by her daughter in the late 90’s. Thinking the notebooks were only random musings, she hadn’t opened them in all that time. In reading some of her notes in the journals (which seem rather frenetic and disjointed, perhaps a grave foreshadowing that she knew she didn’t have much time), I learned a thing or two about the craft of writing. She wrote, “If I want to create something striking it is not misery I will show, but the posperity that contrasts with it…only an impression of ironic contrast to receive the force of the contrast.” Brilliant.

Read the first chapter here.

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