In Translation: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky Française (2004) by Irène Némirovsky

I remember hearing about this book (and how fantastic it was) when it was first published in English in 2004 (yes, it took me this long to get around to reading it. Sigh). Némirovsky, a well-known, respected, and prolific Russian-French author, had written Suite Française while trying to stay one step ahead of the Nazis as they invaded France in 1940. Despite having lived in France for years and converting to Roman Catholicism, Némirovsky was nonetheless targeted because of her Jewish heritage. The letters included in the Vintage edition reveal the desperate attempts of the writer's husband and publisher to release her from the concentration camp to which she was confined. She died, though, in 1942, before any help could come.

Suite Française actually comprises two unfinished manuscripts ("Storm in June" and "Dolce"), the first in what were supposed to be five novellas exploring how the Nazi occupation of France affected men, women, and children of all classes. In "Storm in June," Némirovsky offers us a terrifying snapshot of Parisians evacuating the city in a panic, leaving behind homes, friends, and valuables; stuffing themselves into cars and trains; running and panicking when bombs dropped around and on them when they took to the roads. Rich women, orphaned boys, an older couple with a son who's MIA: Némirovsky moves among several characters, even a cat, allowing us to see the confusion and terror from a variety of perspectives. I mean, this kind of narrative-POV-jumping is hard to pull off in any novel, but Némirovsky uses it to her advantage, demonstrating that one "reality" is experienced differently by each person, who colors it with his/her past experiences, moral standards, assumptions about human nature, and degree of fear.

"Dolce," though, takes place in a small suburb, where German soldiers are quartered in every home. Over time, the inevitable happens: the French inhabitants get to know the German soldiers, and some fall in love, some become friends and co-workers, some laugh and joke together. The children play as if nothing disastrous has happened, and life goes on as usual. That is, of course, until a farmer and escaped POW kills a German soldier and is hidden by members of the community under the soldiers' noses.

In general, Suite Française offers us a kaleidoscopic image of human nature, tinged with both bitterness and understanding. After all, it is the characters, and not the war itself, who are the main focus of the novel. Events happen to people, and the violent overturning of their accustomed way of life leaves many feeling helpless and alone, despite the lives they've built and the families and friends they've loved. The bombs and soldiers reduce nearly everyone to their most basic instinct- that of self-preservation. And this, Némirovsky suggests, is to be expected, even though a few people do manage to rise above this and help others.

Némirovsky wrote a beautiful, lyrical, and tragic work, unique in that it offers us a glimpse into the destruction and terror even as they occurred. To have the presence of mind to document a world turned upside-down is admirable indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! :) I remember thinking how informative it was in providing a POV for the Parisians during and after the invasion. I think I mentioned it in a tweet but I also love how lyrical the novel was; very impressive considering these stories were in their early drafts.