Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Suite Française

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
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Feb 28, 09

bookshelves: historical-fiction, 2009, cover-love, fiction
Read in February, 2009

Paris, June 1940. Word is spreading like a stain that the Germans are only days away from invading the city. It takes a while for the people to believe it, and still longer for them to pack - slinging mattresses on top of their cars, storing linens and tableware in trunks - but when the exodus occurs it clogs the streets and the railway and thousands are left to walk the country roads while those in motorcars honk and swear at them for taking up all the road.

The Germans are everywhere, it seems. Wherever the Parisians can flee to, the Germans arrive and bomb bridges, railways, buildings. The hotels are full to the brim, the country people won't take people in - they have little enough themselves, most of the time. Sons run away to join the French troops: insufficient, unprepared, with no ammunition for their guns, they withdraw to the demarcation line.

When the armistice is signed, the Germans settle into the towns, billeted in people's homes, playing with children who don't know and don't care that they are the enemy, while the upper and middle classes hoard all they have and leave everyone else to get by as best they can. A year later, the Germans pull out: they're being sent to Russia, and the French aren't sure whether it's a good thing or a bad thing.

This isn't an easy book to give a plot summary for. The blurb on the back cover doesn't even try; it lures you in with the tragic story of the author herself, which is probably the same story you've heard if you've heard of this book, and led me to think it was a memoir. It's not, but it is, because Némirovsky was writing it with a delay of about a year. It's also necessary to understand the author, her precarious position and her fate, as well as her inspiration, motivation and goals - all revealed in the Appendices at the back, which contain her notes for the book, correspondence, and a short biography that was a preface to the French edition. The Appendices are definitely worth your while to read, after reading the novel, but I'll need to impart some of it here as well, because I don't think I can discuss the novel without discussing Némirovsky as well.

She was inspired by music: "she dreamed of a book of a thousand pages, constructed like a symphony, but in five sections, according to rhythm and tone. She took Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as a model" (p417, from the French preface). I think it helps to know that, or the novel could almost feel cumbersome and plotless. It sometimes felt that way to me, which made it hard to read at times, while if I'd known (or figured out) the symphonic link I would have been more appreciative.

What survived of the novel, what Némirovsky was able to write before being arrested and sent to a concentration camp - and then on to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942 - is the first two parts, Storm in June and Dolce. Storm details the movements of the masses, the middle and upper middle classes, trying to escape the Germans and retain their privileges and high standards. There are a great many characters, an ensemble cast, featuring the Pércand family, including their eldest son, an unlikeable priest much loved by his family who meets an early and awful death; the Michaud's, lower middle class bank employees and, separately, their son Jean-Marie who is wounded in the war and cared for by a farming family; Gabriel Corte, the arrogant, proud writer and his mistress Julie, fleeing with their driver and maid and horrified to be sharing the road with a lower class; another horrible, stuck-up man called Charlie who only cares about his porcelain collection; and some other minor characters who float to the surface like flotsam in a tide after a shipwreck.

In Dolce, most of these characters fall away - Némirovsky planned to bring them back in the third part, which was to be called Captivity - and centres instead on Lucile and her scary mother-in-law, Madame Angellier, who, with their lovely big house, billet a German lieutenant, Bruno von Falk, who falls in love with Lucile (her husband, Gaston, is a prisoner-of-war and they don't even know if he's still alive). The family who helped Jean-Marie also reappear, as they are local tenant-farmers of the Montmorts, an aristocratic couple dominated by the countess who considers herself pious, godly, and just but refuses to sell her grain etc to the farmers, giving it instead to her friends.

This story is essentially about two things: movement - the movement of the masses, the small details, the story of the war as told from the perspective of the masses; and classism: the attitudes of the upper middle classes, the cowardice, greed and inertness of the masses and their "loathsome" defeat.

That is one of the interesting things about this book: despite being Jewish herself, and dying because of it (born in Russia, her wealthy family fled persecution at the hands of the Bolsheviks and emigrated to France, where Némirovsky married Michel Epstein and had two daughters - Denise and Elisabeth; they converted to Catholicism to distance themselves from their Jewish origins but it didn't help), Suite Française isn't about Jews, anti-Semitism or the concentration and extermination camps. In her notes, she twice mentions the Jewish condition for Captivity, but in Storm in June and Dolce, there is not one hint or allusion to Jews or their plight.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, just a curious one. In a way, the predicament of all the non-Jews tends to get overlooked because of the Holocaust: the stories of non-Jews aren't as horrific but they are still voices that need to be heard. Némirovsky isn't sympathetic to the French masses she's writing about, but she does strip them of their gloss and show their human side, their foibles, their arrogance and hypocrisy and cowardice, and also their defiance, even if it's for the "wrong" reasons (like personal pride) - more importantly, it's a recognisable story, one that strips bare the human condition and our own meagre defences; she casts an all-seeing eye on the tableau to reveal their caprices without openly judging them: the prose is frank but poetic, showing and revealing without dictating.

Especially in Dolce, when the conquering Germans and the occupied French mingle, the "alien other" Germans becoming more and more human and familiar, and the lines between friend and foe blur, does Suite Française become a masterpiece of human insight. There's no simple black-and-white demarcation line here. In this current era of racism and hatred, of blacklisting people with Middle Eastern names and persecuting Muslims for the actions of a small, violent off-shoot who barely follow Islam at all, Suite Française is poignantly relevant, timely, and worth heeding.

Another thing to note that isn't usual in books about war is that you won't learn anything about WWII from this book - not about troop movements, about dates or treaties or who's fighting whom and where. All of that is in the background, somewhere, unseen but still affecting the people in various ways, who are ultimately isolated, forbidden to have a radio, to drive anywhere, to know what's going on. And some of them don't want to know. As humans, they strive to recreate a "normal" life under occupation, to do as they've always done, though for many, love and laughter - the two things most sought after - are tainted and elusive.

Because there isn't a main character or two, and because you're not sure where the story's going, it isn't always an easy read, but you have to have faith and block out distractions and stick with it. It's quite beautifully written, and reads very polished even though the author doubtless would have made many changes. It's just the directionless feeling that can make it taxing. Just keep in mind that she was writing this in 1941, and didn't know herself what would happen with the war.

Suite Française is an insightful novel into the realities of war for civilians, and you probably won't find a book with more detail than this one. It's a shame she never got to finish it, or it would be a masterpiece on the scale of War and Peace, which she often mentioned in her notes. As she also mentioned in her notes, it does contain a map of France at the front, but it would have been more helpful if it had included more of the places that the characters travel to and live in.

This is a magnificent book, very symphonic (I'm sure the author would be pleased to hear), with its own tragic yet hopeful story - being smuggled around France in a suitcase by Irène's young daughter Denise as she and her sister try to keep ahead of the gas chamber, never looked at until years later when Denise started transcribing her mother's tiny handwriting and realised it was a novel. The sad facts around the author's untimely death, all the effort her husband put into trying to have her released, only to be arrested himself and sent immediately to the gas chamber - all lend an extra edge of reality to what is a very real fictional story.

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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Julie I am reading this right now. Well ok, I've been reading it for months now... it's a pretty heavy read in comparison to some and it definitely takes the right frame of mind to get into it. What I've read has been really interesting, though.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) I heard really good things about this. Memoirs aren't usually my thing, and neither are war-time stories, but this one seemed, I dunno, special? I think you're right about needing to be in the right frame of mind to read it. I bought it but I'm going to wait until I really want to read it before starting :)


Julie I think what intrigued me most of all is that she was pretty much writing it while living it (the wartime experience), or at least soon after. It's basically a fictional firsthand account. Also, I was fascinated by the idea that the manuscript was in the possession of her daughters for so long and only got published a little while back. AND the story of what happened to her - why she wasn't around to publish it herself. Very sad, but makes me want to read the book more to hear her voice, having gone through so much.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) I liked the story about the manuscript as well - I think because that was what I most heard about the book that that's why I thought it was a memoir; now that I'm reading it I can see clearly it isn't! But I don't know what genre to put it in. Historical fiction is written in the "present" about the past, especially a past that the author didn't live through - so I can't really say it's historical fiction (I'm pedantic like that). What shelf did you end up putting it on?

I'm finding it fairly slow going too, though at times it's fast. There's quite a cast of characters!


Julie Well... because she is writing about fictional characters I guess I would still classify it as historical fiction (I think that's what shelf I put it on), but you're right, it almost doesn't qualify.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Okay then I'll leave it there :)


message 7: by Michelle (new)

Michelle This is such a fantastic book. Very literary, of course, and that doesn't always make it an *easy* read, but it's very powerful and well-written, I think.


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