what i'm reading: suite française

Still reading novels, I'm now finishing Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky.

Némirovsky was born in the Ukraine and grew up in France; she was Jewish. (That is, she had Jewish ancestry. She and her husband, from a similar background, were Catholic.) In France, she became a best-selling novelist, until 1940 when the Nazis prevented her from publishing. In 1941, when Paris fell to the Nazis, Némirovsky and her family went into hiding in a small village. The following year she died in Auschwitz.

Her two daughters managed to escape, and they kept with them their mother's most valued possession: a box full of notebooks, written in a nearly microscopic script. They assumed the notebooks contained a diary, and never read them, believing it would be too painful.

When the sisters finally delved into the contents of the box, they were amazed to discover that their mother had been writing a series of novels about life in occupied France. There were to be five novels. Suite Française represent the two books - both unfinished - that Némirovsky wrote before the Nazis found her.

Unlike most books set in the past, these were written when the outcome of the events were still unknown: written as the author was living them. But perhaps the most amazing thing about Suite Française is that the books themselves are not dwarfed by its provenance.

The portrait of society Némirovsky paints is not a pretty one. No tales of heroism and solidarity here. The people in these books are greedy, selfish and hideously materialistic. They cling to their possessions at the expense of other people's lives, and use war as a way of increasing their wealth in any way possible.

People not only do what they must to survive, they do whatever they can get away with. They stop at nothing to accumulate more than their neighbours, all the while criticizing and denouncing others who appear to do the same. Even charitable do-gooders are Dickensian in their hypocrisy and self-interest.

The books seethe with the arrogance and entitlement of the rich, the bitter resentment of the middle and working classes, and the numbing survival instincts of the poor. The people Némirovsky shows us are class-conscious to an extreme degree, the rich truly believing their lives are more important than those of the lower classes, and acting accordingly. As the elite begin to form alliances with the Germans, an aside notes, "What separates or unites people is not their language, their laws, their customs, their principles, but the way they hold their knife and fork."

But the poor and working classes are not saints. At every level of society, there is utter selfishness, seen alongside the random chance of who survives, and who does not.

And there is hypocrisy to spare, especially the stark contrast between how people imagine themselves and what their actions show them to be.
"...They'll raid the farms. We could be denounced."

"Frenchman don't denounce one another," the old woman said proudly. "You've forgotten that, my girl, since you got friendly with the Germans."

Lucile remembered something Lieutenant von Falk had told her in confidence: "The very first day we arrived," he'd said, "there was a package of anonymous letters waiting for us at Headquarters. People were accusing one another of spreading English and Gaullist propaganda, of hoarding supplies, of being spies. If we'd taken them all seriously, everyone in the region would be in prison. I had the whole lot thrown onto the fire. People's lives aren't worth much and defeat arouses the worst in men. In Germany it was exactly the same."

In the first book, Storm In June, Paris has been invaded, and every Parisian who can manage it is fleeing to the provinces. The second book, Dolce, takes place in an occupied town, illuminating the complex relationship between conqueror and conquered when they are forced to coexist. Both are told from an on-the-ground perspective, short vignettes of people's lives.

Although her portraits of her countrypeople are unflattering to the extreme, Némirovsky's vision is also more nuanced than what many official histories will show. This world is not divided into "resistance" and "collaboration". People's choices, and their motivations, are complex.

This edition of Suite Française, translated by Sandra Smith, also includes Némirovsky's handwritten notes, and her correspondence with her publisher and others.

I have only one minor criticism of the book as published. As the stories pile up, they do become a little repetitive. However, the book was unfinished and may have been edited significantly before publication. Also, this was meant to be two separate books, and the effect would be different if they weren't read back-to-back.

The writing is superb, and the author's ability to describe human motivations and emotions is astounding.

Here is the New York Times book review of Suite Française; it was the lead review on Sunday, April 9, 2006. The book is truly a masterpiece.


Cid said...

"Suite Francaise" is one of my favourite books, I have read it twice. It is one that made me wonder how I/we would react in such a terrible time. Have you read "Book Of Negroes" yet? Again, it made me wonder how humans survive.

L-girl said...

Thanks for your comment. I felt the same way. The Diary of Anne Frank has always made me feel that way too - and the Grapes of Wrath.

Have you read "Book Of Negroes" yet?

Yes, yes, and a tangent yes.

I'm going to write about Suite Francaise again tomorrow, as I've just read the appendices w/ the author's notes and letters.

Amy said...

I think I am the ONLY person I know who did not like or even finish this book. It was recommended by many people who never steer me wrong, including my mother. After reading your post, it makes me wonder whether I should go back and read it again. Who knows where my head was when I read it or why I just could not get into it. Perhaps the fact that the characters are unlikeable made it hard for me to stick with it. Maybe I just read it at the wrong time for me.

Thanks for your review.

L-girl said...

I dislike lots of books that most people love, but it is odd when your "never steer you wrong" people recommend something you don't like.

It's true that the characters are not very sympathetic - although there are more sympathetic characters further along.

Jamie said...

Great post. If you're in New York between now and the end of August, there's an exhibit about Nemirovsky at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. You can also look through some of the artifacts (including the Suite Francaise manuscript) online here:


L-girl said...

If you're in New York between now and the end of August

As a matter of fact, I'm there the first week of May! I don't know if I can get to the Museum, but I would like to see an exhibit on the author.

Just FYI, I would usually consider your comment spam, as you're clearly searching for posts on the subject and pimping a product, but given the subject matter, I've let it through.

I'll be writing the book again in a bit.