Book Review: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

suite francaiseSuite Française, translated from the French, is made up of two uncompleted works (Storm in June and Dolce) by Irène Némirovsky, who died at Auschwitz in 1942, before she was able to finish her planned novel sequence. In fact, the story of her own life is printed in the back of the book, and is just as fascinating a read as the novels themselves.   

Némirovsky was privileged, wealthy, and a successful author of several novels, but she was also Jewish, and the anti-semitism which increased with the occupation of France eventually caught up with her. Her two young daughters escaped, taking their mother’s notebook with them as they went into hiding, many years later realising that it was, in fact, a masterpiece. The book also contains extracts from her notebook in which she describes the writing process and considers the plot. This means that although there is a fairly abrupt ending to the second novel (Dolce), you can see where she intended to go with the narrative.

The first part (Storm in June) beautifully illustrates the chaos and fear that are experienced by rich and poor alike, as they flee Paris in 1941, in an attempt to escape occupation. The novel follows a large cast of characters, each of whom has to deal with the situation they now find themselves in, as the Germans advance.

Némirovsky’s style is ironic, with a wry sense of humour, holding a mirror up to members of her own society and reflecting their true, self-centred nature:

“…not one of them thought to open their doors, to invite one of these wretches inside… There were just too many of them. Too many weary, pale faces dripping with sweat… It prevented the townspeople from being charitable. There was nothing human left in this miserable mob; they were like a herd of frightened animals…”

The style reminds me of Tolstoy, the way it follows each character in detail, as they interact with each other as strangers, making judgments and assumptions. You get a sense of looking over these people’s lives from above, seeing their individuality and yet also seeing how insignificant they are, amongst so many, gaining two perspectives at the same time. I particularly love this line, describing the fear and panic as the refugees dive for cover during an air raid:

“The sky above seemed filled with countless planes (there were two) flying back and forth with their evil buzzing, like hornets.”

Némirovsky’s characters are a mixed bunch. There is the upper-middle class Péricand family (old and young) who must escape Paris in their family car, together with cat, sheets, servants, bird cage and all sorts of other luggage, led by the matriarch Madame Péricand, who is both benevolent (on occasion) and patronising, and who absent-mindedly abandons her own disabled father-in-law along the way.

Then there is the rich, penny-pinching foolish author, Charles Landelet, who is obsessed with art and his own comfort over that of anyone else.

The Michaud couple (whose employers demand that they make the journey to Tours without providing transport of any kind) eventually resign themselves to a long, exhausting walk, returning to discover that they have been sacked due to their ‘failure’ to reach Tours. But they are pre-occupied with worrying about their son, from whom they haven’t heard, who, in turn, is recovering his health in a small farmstead owned by the Sabaret family.

The second novel (Dolce) continues to follow the fortunes of the Sabaret family – Madaleine, her husband Benoit and sister-in-law Cecile. They live in a hamlet on the outskirts of the village, but cannot escape the Germans. One of the soldiers (Bonnet) lives with them, while the wealthy Madame Angellier and her daughter-in-law Lucille must put up with a German in their home too. The ladies seem to switch between welcoming and loathing, anger and ambivalence. There is jealousy from some, desire from others.

In Némirovsky’s descriptions we gain an understanding of how time moves slowly for these women, who simply have to put up with the continued occupation, continued war, continued absence of news, uncertainty and fear. There is a continual pettiness, a continual silent fight over meat and other luxuries, a continual disagreement about entitlement; the working classes versus the middle classes, the middle classes versus the gentry, the farmers versus the villagers. It seems to never end.

Considering the author’s Jewish origins and eventual death at the hands of the Nazis, it is surprising that anti-semitism is almost completely absent from her work. There is every other kind of hatred and dislike, especially that between the classes, but even the occupying German soldiers in the second novel seem to be kind and ordinary, treating the French alike, so long as they don’t break the rules. From her notes, however, it seems that perhaps this was intended to become a theme later on in the sequence.

It is disturbing to reach the end of Dolce, knowing the reason behind its sudden close. But it is also fascinating to read the extracts from Némirovsky’s notebook, and wonder what might have come next, had she lived. Here is an extract in which she considers how to proceed with her work:

“Good, need to include in the beginning: Hubert, Corte, Jules Blanc, but that would destroy my unified tone for Dolce. Definitely I think I have to leave Dolce as is and on the other hand reintroduce all the characters from Storm, but in such a way that they have a momentous effect on Lucille, Jean-Marie and the others (and France).”

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The two novellas have also been turned into a film.