Matt's Reviews > Suite Française

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
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's review
Mar 05, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: classic-novels
Read in August, 2011

Unless you’re reading a memoir or autobiography, you usually aren’t conscious of an author’s presence in a book. I’m not talking about style. Obviously, there are times you can tell the provenance of a book, and know its creator, by skimming a few paragraphs. Short, punchy sentences, hyper-masculinity, and casual misogyny mean I’m reading Hemingway; if I can’t understand what I’m reading, it’s because I’m trying Faulkner; and if I’ve fallen asleep, I know I’ve got something by Melville in my hands.

Beyond stylistic fingerprints, though, it’s rare that you are actually thinking about an author as you read. Usually, the author remains on the back flap as an airbrushed photograph and a short paragraph about a pet dog named Ulysses and a condo in New York.

Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Francaise is different. Her life – and her death – haunt every single page, making an entirely objective literary critique (if such a thing even exists) next to impossible. Némirovsky was a successful writer living in Paris when the Germans invaded France in 1940. The French, despite preparing for a German attack since 1918, quickly fell apart. The Germans advanced through the Ardennes, outflanked the Maginot Line, and perhaps took advantage of a shaky French psyche, which had suffered four years of occupation during World War I, and spent the intervening decades in fear of the Teutonic forces on their frontier.

In any event, France soon capitulated. Némirovsky was a convert to Roman Catholicism. However, under German racial laws, she was Jewish. She moved to the countryside where she began the truncated work today known as Suite Francaise. Némirovsky actually planned a total of five novels, designed to mirror a musical suite, which would total approximately 1,000 pages. She churned out drafts of the first two novels, Storm in June and Dolce, and had outlined a third novel, Captivity, before her arrest in 1942. Némirovsky was taken to Auschwitz, where she died. Fifty years later, her novels came to light.

With that as its background, Suite Francaise deflects any attempts at normal literary judgment. This is not a work of fiction in which the author had the ability to plan, plot and polish a finished novel; rather, the two “completed” books, essentially unrevised, are parts of an unfinished whole. Moreover, they were written under desperate circumstances about those same desperate circumstances. Even as you read about the mortal danger facing Némirovsky’s characters, you are forced to recall the noose tightening around her own neck.

Had it been finished, Suite Francaise would have provided an epic look at France under the Nazi boot-heel. As it exists, it is a fleeting, tantalizing glimpse at a marvelous talent.

Storm in June, the first book, is the more refined, vibrant, and fulfilling of the two completed sections of Suite Francaise. The story involves four separate groups of characters, forced to flee Paris ahead of the oncoming German Army. Though Némirovsky has drawn some connections among these four groups (and more connections likely would’ve been fleshed out), they mainly travel their separate roads.

The first group of characters are the Michaud’s. Maurice and Jeanne Michaud are smalltime employees at a bank run by the unlikeable Monsieur Corbin. The Michaud’s son, Jean-Marie, is a soldier in the French Army. The Michaud’s, being of modest means, are unable to leave Paris; they spend most of the story worrying about their son. Némirovsky’s characters are separated by class: the higher the class, the lower the character. As such, the Michaud’s are clearly Némirovsky’s favorites: noble and humble and good. However, due to those simplified traits, they are also the least interesting storyline.

The next character group is the Péricand family. The Péricand’s are of a higher social class, and they attempt to leave Paris for Nimes, where they own property. Though they have money, they also have a social conscious. One of the Péricand children, Philippe, is a priest in charge of the wellbeing of a party of orphans (unfortunately for Philippe, the orphans are straight out of The Lord of the Flies). Another of the Péricand brood, young Hubert, deserts his family on the road to join the army, where he inevitably learns that war is hell, there is no glory, etc., etc.

The final two storylines belong to Gabriel Corte, a famous writer, and Charles Langelet, a rich old collector of porcelain. Corte heads to Vichy with his mistress, while Langelet makes for Loire. These two are of the upper crust of French society, and Némirovsky clearly despises them. Indeed, Suite Francaise is laced with her elegantly controlled sense of outrage and betrayal. Némirovsky believed that France had forsaken her, and she clearly uses Suite Francaise to lay blame.

Yet despite the poison she heaps onto them, Corte and Langelet are fascinating protagonists. They are not heroic or good in any sense; but still, they are human, and in their moment-by-moment rationalizations, never achieve villainy. (However, there is a scene when Corte reaches the Grand Hotel at the end of his journey that approached mustache-twirling meanness. In this scene, Corte drinks from a chilled glass and eats a dish of olives and observes a gathering of his social peers who, like him, have escaped the dirty lower classes on the crowded roads from Paris. This passage ends with Corte and a playwright discussing their work, “without a thought for the rest of the world”).

Even Némirovsky, in her notes, realized that parts of Storm in June were overly melodramatic. (She picked out a scene with Philippe and the orphans for possible rewriting). There was also an instance where Némirovsky’s dislike for a certain character spilled over into a macabre death that felt more appropriate in a Final Destination movie.

Still, the cross-cutting between characters, highlighting the differences in class and personality, made for a satisfying story. Némirovsky also achieves a beautiful, vivid sense of the turnover from peace to war:

Day was breaking. A silvery blue light slid over the cobblestones, over the parapets along the quayside, over the towers of Notre-Dame. Bags of sand were piled halfway up all the important monuments, encircling Carpeaux’s dancers on the façade of the Opera House, silencing the Marseillaise on the Arc de Triomphe… [A]t some distance, great guns were firing; they drew nearer, and every window shuddered in reply. In hot rooms with blacked-out windows, children were born, and their cries made the women forget the sound of sirens and war. To the dying, the barrage of gunfire seemed far away, without any meaning whatsoever, just one more element in that vague, menacing whisper that washes over those on the brink of death. Children slept peacefully, held tight against their mothers’ sides, their lips making sucking noises, like little lambs. Street sellers’ carts lay abandoned, full of fresh flowers.

Dolce does not come near to matching the craft of Storm in June. It takes place in the village of Bussy, which has been occupied by the Germans. The main characters in Dolce are two women, Lucille and Madeleine. Lucille is married to a French prisoner-of-war. Before the surrender, her husband had been a cruel, philandering man, and Lucille does not quite mourn his absence. This fact is noted by her mother-in-law, who lives with Lucille. Madeleine is also in an unhappy marriage. Her husband is the simple farmer Benoit, a soldier who escaped German captivity and hungers to resist the invaders.

The tie binding Lucille and Madeleine, other than friendship, is their odd preoccupation with the German occupants of their respective homes. Both women are indifferent towards their French husbands; and both women harbor a secret lust for the gray-uniformed Aryan soldier living with them.

Certainly this is a bit transgressive. And maybe, with some work, there might have been a story here. But nothing really comes of this. Two-thirds of Dolce is exhaustingly repetitive, and is spent mostly with Lucille nurturing a no-touch flirtation with Bruno von Falk, her uninvited German guest. Only at the end of Dolce is there is hint of action, when Benoit kills a soldier and goes into hiding. This event, however, is framed as a sideshow to Lucille’s uncertain attraction to Bruno. Thus, an event that could have been milked for drama, remains limp and inert. Indeed, the whole of the German occupation seems relatively benign. The Germans may threaten to shoot people, but they never do. The stakes in Dolce are low, and remain low, until the Germans pack up and leave.

(While I did not quite enjoy Dolce, I did find it amazing that Némirovsky could conjure such humanity for her German characters. They are not monsters, just vaguely menacing foreigners who were often harmless, polite, and lovers of good music. Most of Némirovsky’s scorn is reserved for her own people).

The power of Suite Francaise comes as much from its circumstances as its content. I couldn’t read a single sentence without imagining Némirovsky writing that sentence while waiting for black-coated, jackboot-wearing thugs to knock on her door. In the appendix to this edition to Suite Francaise, you can see some of the original pages to her manuscript, the notes she wrote to herself, and letters she wrote to others. It shows an author of great talent and ambition, growing increasingly worried about her fate, turning to her writing as a kind of catharsis.

Fifty million people died in World War II. Approximately 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Of that number, some 77,000 came from France. Némirovsky was one of those 77,000. It is hard for me to imagine 77,000 of anything, much less 6 million or 50 million. The size of the numbers anesthetize the mind. In order to recognize a tragedy, you have to look to the individual. In that sense, the partly-completed Suite Francaise is a poignant symbol of human catastrophe of World War II. Its unfinished pages reflect somberly on an unfinished life.
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03/04/2016 marked as: read

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

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message 1: by AC (new) - rated it 3 stars

AC This will interest you -

I ran across this piece -- it's really beautiful.

I've been listening lately to Martha Argerich's English Suite no. 2 -- but listening to this Koopman piece made think I should also learn the French suites -- Then it hit me (slow that I am).... that Némirovsky may have been thinking of Bach:

The French Suites each have various movements, but no. 1 (in D minor) has five movements -- just like her projected novel. The first (Storm?) is called an "Allemand" (
The second (Dolce) a Courante

message 2: by AC (new) - rated it 3 stars

AC One small addition to your review, it's important, I believe..., in talking about her "appreciation" of the German's -- to remember that she was a fascist and probably an antisemite -- despite her provenance and her destiny. I personally found her "appreciation" of the German body to be voyeuristic and a bit obscene.

Matt AC wrote: "One small addition to your review, it's important, I believe..., in talking about her "appreciation" of the German's -- to remember that she was a fascist and probably an antisemite -- despite her ..."

Thanks for the links! I'll check them out.

Good point about the antisemitism. I didn't do a ton of homework on her before reading Suite Francaise, but I've since gone back and perused several reviews making mention of the fact. (I suppose her conversion to Catholicism should've tipped me off that she didn't identify with Jews).

P.S. Really liked your review on this one.

Laura It is true that you think about her and her life all the time while reading and that "making an entirely objective literary critique is next to impossible". I also agree on that fact that Storm in June is better crafted than Dolce. Thank you for calling my attention to the author's despise for the French upper class and for its reasons. I had not quite realized that, I had thought that she hated some type of upper class, not that she may have actually felt betrayed and abandoned by it and that she was putting these feelings in the book.

message 5: by Laurel (new)

Laurel A beautifully written review, Matt. Convinced me to read this. I was on the fence until I read your review.

Matt Laurel wrote: "A beautifully written review, Matt. Convinced me to read this. I was on the fence until I read your review."

Thanks, Laurel! If you're going to read it, now's the time - I read that the movie has already finished principal photography.

message 7: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Matt wrote: "Laurel wrote: "A beautifully written review, Matt. Convinced me to read this. I was on the fence until I read your review."

Thanks, Laurel! If you're going to read it, now's the time - I read that..."

Thanks for the update. I will try and move it up my list.

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