What is it like to live in a city about to be invaded by Nazis? Or to live under their rule after their conquest of your country is complete? In SuiteWhat is it like to live in a city about to be invaded by Nazis? Or to live under their rule after their conquest of your country is complete? In Suite Francaise, acclaimed novelist Irène Némirovsky provides an intimate entry into the lives of people struggling to find their feet in the wake of these events.
It opens on the eve of the invasion of Paris, where multiple families try to escape before the arrival of hostile troops. In lucid prose, Némirovsky makes real the not always flattering struggle humans go through as they attempt, in a crisis, to sort out what is important, what can be saved, and the dawning realization of what has already been lost. Her characters are intensely human, waffling from noble to petty in the space of a paragraph as survival instincts lay bare how the collapse of the social order has rearranged reality.
The second segment of the book takes place in a village in the occupied zone, where German soldiers have been billeted. Némirovsky highlights with laser clarity the divergent strategies the locals take to cope with these developments, from pragmatic embrace to silent resistance. But the focus on this chapter is one of the growing affection between a musically inclined German officer and the unhappily married young Frenchwoman who hosts him. Their richly depicted inner lives reveal the layers of ambiguity that help explain why what seems so obvious on the surface never really is.
These two segments were just the beginning of a 5 part epic Némirovsky was writing when she was arrested, deported and murdered in a concentration camp for being both Russian and Jewish. In several appendices, we are given a glimpse of her notes on the forthcoming sections, her correspondence with her publishers and other supporters as her own situation deteriorated, and her husband's frantic attempts to find her before he, too, was sent to Auschwitz. The biography at the end was preface to the French edition, and gives even more insight into Némirovsky's ability to see her adopted homeland with a clarity that a a native writer might be more reluctant to chronicle.
The first two sections of Némirovsky's book are beautifully written, despite having been left unfinished. There are some aspects that could do with more polish, and was interesting to see some of my own thoughts about this mirrored in Némirovsky's notes about edits she had hoped to make. But though they may not be perfect, these stories are astonishing when considering the circumstances under which they were written.
The biggest impact this book had on me, however, was to make real the horror of the Holocaust in a very unexpected way. Némirovsky's sympathetic treatment of the German characters in the book was in sharp contrast to the reality around her, and she makes no mention of the deteriorating treatment of Jews or their betrayal by the Vichy government in the story. But though the two segments of her epic stand on their own, the lack of the next three sections was a gaping hole that I still crave to be filled. Never being able to know what happened to Lucille and Jean-Marie and Arelette because of Némirovsky's untimely death made the Nazis atrocities more personal to me than any museum or remote history ever has. ...more