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April 17, 2007

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

Suite Française is such an intriguing text. I read it in the context of Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (upon which I’ve been marking many an essay during these last two weeks), thinking about Ondaatje’s artful blend of of history and story which foregrounds the latter. Némirovsky’s text goes beyond that, though during her writing she did have a similar blend in mind– as she remarked in her notes: “the historical, revolutionary facts etc. must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides must be described in detail.”

In fact it is only Némirovsky’s own circumstances (she died at Auschvitz in 1942) that have allowed history bear so much upon this work. Suite Française comprises two novellas, as well as two appendices, the first being notes and journal entries by the author during her composition, and the second letters and telegrams which illuminate the perilous situation for her and family between 1936 and 1945. And so what fascinates me continues to be the question of what we should make of this work in its entirety– this blend of story against history, against the history of its author, and the story of the text itself (that the novellas must have been written almost contemporaneously to the events which they describe, and that the work was saved by one of Némirovsky’s daughters in a suitcase whose contents she did not discover until the 1990s). The result is fragmented (as you might expect of the unfinished work of an unfinished life), but there manages to be something of a wholeness all the same. Story upon story compounded upon history, and it all hangs in a balance which tells us of not-so-long-ago.

But we need not examine Suite Française within so broad a context. Here I will echo what every review I’ve read of this book has said: the story stands up. Némirovsky was famed in France before her death; she’d written numerous novels as well as a biography of Chekhov. News of her talent should not be news at all.

“Storm in June” and “Dolce” are the first two of what was to be five novellas telling the story of France at war. “Storm in June” takes place against the chaotic events of June 1940 before the fall of France as residents of Paris fled the city. The range is sweeping which I resisted at first (I am not so fond of being swept) but I soon became comfortable with the many perspectives (one whole chapter from the point of view of a cat!), the contrasts between classes, the furious pace. In the beginning the characters seemed like types more than people, but I soon came to know them and their connections intimately. I also came to understand why Némirovsky might have created types consciously: in her book it is people which are the cogs in the war machine. Says one character, “What we’re going through is down to people and people alone.”

Though of course her main focus is the people who have no control over this machine, which is seen particularly with “Dolce”. The second novella takes place in a German-occupied French village during 1941. Here we see regular people operating under extraordinary circumstances: “It’s a truism that people are complicated, multifaceted, contradictory, surprising, but it takes the advent of war or other momentous events to be able to see it.” And indeed the characters are people now– even the German soldiers. Némirovsky creates a marvellous tension throughout the novella, and, as with “Storm in June”, she wraps her tale in the most wonderful prose (brilliantly translated, or so it seemed to me, by Sandra Smith). Evidence of humour, tenderness and love abounds throughout this work, rendering the author’s fate particularly tragic.

But as her daughter stated in a BBC interview: “For me, the greatest joy is knowing that the book is being read. It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life. It shows that the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her. It is not vengeance, but it is a victory.”

2 thoughts on “Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky”

  1. DJ Cayenne says:

    This is truly an amazing book on so many levels. Your review is fantastic and does a great job of explaining a complicated reading.

  2. Kerry says:

    Thank you! I’m so glad you liked it (the book and the review).

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