Suite Française is both a brilliant novel of wartime and an extraordinary historical document. An unmatched evocation of the exodus from Paris after the German invasion of 1940, and of life under the Nazi occupation, it was written by the esteemed French novelist Irène Némirovsky as events unfolded around her. This haunting masterpiece has been hailed by European critics as a War and Peace for the Second World War.
Though she conceived the book as a five-part work (based on the form of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), Irène Némirovsky was able to write only the first two parts, Storm in June and Dolce, before she was arrested in July 1942. She died in Auschwitz the following month. The manuscript was saved by her young daughter Denise; it was only decades later that Denise learned that what she had imagined was her mother’s journal was in fact an invaluable work of art.
Storm in June takes place in the tumult of the evacuation from Paris in 1940, just before the arrival of the invading German army. It moves vividly between different levels of society–from the wealthy Péricand family, whose servants pack up their possessions for them, to a group of orphans from the 16th arrondissement escaping in a military truck. Némirovsky’s immense canvas includes deserting soldiers and terrified secretaries, cynical bank directors and hapless priests, egotistical writers and hardscrabble prostitutes–all thrown together in a chaotic attempt to escape the capital. Moving between them chapter by chapter, this thrilling novel describes a journey hampered and in some cases abandoned because of confusion, shelling, rumour, lack of supplies, bad luck and ordinary human weakness. Cars break down or are stolen; relatives are forgotten; friends are divided; but there are also moments of love and charity. Throughout, whether depicting saintly forbearance or the basest selfishness, Storm in June neither sweetens nor demonizes its characters; unsentimentally, with stunning perceptiveness, Némirovsky shows the complexities that mean no-one is simply a hero or villain.
The second volume, Dolce, is set in the German-occupied village of Bussy. Again, Némirovsky switches seamlessly between social strata, from tenant farmers to the local aristocracy. The focus, however, is on the delicate, secret love affair between a German soldier and the French woman in whose house he has been billeted; the passion, doubts and deceits of their burgeoning relationship echo the complex mixture of hostility and acceptance felt by the occupied community as a whole. Némirovsky is amazingly sensitive in her depiction of changing, often contradictory emotions, but her attention to the personal is matched by her sharp-eyed discussion of small-town life and the politics of occupation. In this myth-dissolving book, the French villagers see the Germans as oppressive warriors, but also as handsome young men, and occupation does nothing to remedy the condescension and envy that bedevil relations between rich and poor.
Quite apart from the astonishing story of its survival, Suite Française is a novel of genius and lasting artistic value. Subtle, often fiercely ironic, and deeply compassionate, it is both a piercing record of its time and a humane, profoundly moving novel.
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Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 into a successful banking family. Trapped in Moscow by the Russian Revolution, she and her family fled first to a village in Finland, and eventually to France, where she attended the Sorbonne.
Irène Némirovsky achieved early success as a writer: her first novel, David Golder, published when she was twenty-six, was a sensation. By 1937 she had published nine further books and David Golder had been made into a film; she and her husband Michel Epstein, a bank executive, moved in fashionable social circles.
When the Germans occupied France in 1940, she moved with her husband and two small daughters, aged 5 and 13, from Paris to the comparative safety of Issy-L’Evêque. It was there that she secretly began writing Suite Française. Though her family had converted to Catholicism, she was arrested on 13 July, 1942, and interned in the concentration camp at Pithiviers. She died in Auschwitz in August of that year.
Hot, thought the Parisians. The warm air of spring. It was night, they were at war and there was an air raid. But dawn was near and the war far away. The first to hear the hum of the siren were those who couldn’t sleep—the ill and bedridden, mothers with sons at the front, women crying for the men they loved. To them it began as a long breath, like air being forced into a deep sigh. It wasn’t long before its wailing filled the sky. It came from afar, from beyond the horizon, slowly, almost lazily. Those still asleep dreamed of waves breaking over pebbles, a March storm whipping the woods, a herd of cows trampling the ground with their hooves, until finally sleep was shaken off and they struggled to open their eyes, murmuring, “Is it an air raid?”
The women, more anxious, more alert, were already up, although some of them, after closing the windows and shutters, went back to bed. The night before — Monday, 3 June — bombs had fallen on Paris for the first time since the beginning of the war. Yet everyone remained calm. Even though the reports were terrible, no one believed them. No more so than if victory had been announced. “We don’t understand what’s happening,” people said.
They had to dress their children by torchlight. Mothers lifted small, warm, heavy bodies into their arms: “Come on, don’t be afraid, don’t cry.” An air raid. All the lights were out, but beneath the clear, golden June sky, every house, every street was visible. As for the Seine, the river seemed to absorb even the faintest glimmers of light and reflect them back a hundred times brighter, like some multifaceted mirror. Badly blacked-out windows, glistening rooftops, the metal hinges of doors all shone in the water. There were a few red lights that stayed on longer than the others, no one knew why, and the Seine drew them in, capturing them and bouncing them playfully on its waves. From above, it could be seen flowing along, as white as a river of milk. It guided the enemy planes, some people thought. Others said that couldn’t be so. In truth, no one really knew anything. “I’m staying in bed,” sleepy voices murmured, “I’m not scared.” “All the same, it just takes one . . .” the more sensible replied.
Through the windows that ran along the service stairs in new apartment blocks, little flashes of light could be seen descending: the people living on the sixth floor were fleeing the upper storeys; they held their torches in front of them, in spite of the regulations. “Do you think I want to fall on my face on the stairs! Are you coming, Emile?” Everyone instinctively lowered their voices as if the enemy’s eyes and ears were everywhere. One after another, doors slammed shut. In the poorer neighbourhoods there was always a crowd in the Métro, or the foul-smelling shelters. The wealthy simply went to sit with the concierge, straining to hear the shells bursting and the explosions that meant bombs were falling, their bodies as tense as frightened animals in dark woods as the hunter gets closer. Though the poor were just as afraid as the rich, and valued their lives just as much, they were more sheeplike: they needed one another, needed to link arms, to groan or laugh together.
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.
Still at 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.
The sun came up, fiery red, in a cloudless sky. A shell was fired, now so close to Paris that from the top of every monument birds rose into the sky. Great black birds, rarely seen at other times, stretched out their pink-tinged wings. Beautiful fat pigeons cooed; swallows wheeled; sparrows hopped peacefully in the deserted streets. Along the Seine each poplar tree held a cluster of little brown birds who sang as loudly as they could. From deep beneath the ground came the muffled noise everyone had been waiting for, a sort of three-tone fanfare. The air raid was over.
In the Péricand household they listened in shocked silence to the evening news on the radio, but no one passed comment on the latest developments. The Péricands were a cultivated family: their traditions, their way of thinking, their middle-class, Catholic background, their ties with the Church (their eldest son, Philippe Péricand, was a priest), all these things made them mistrustful of the government of France. On the other hand, Monsieur Péricand’s position as curator of one of the country’s national museums bound them to an administration that showered its faithful with honours and financial rewards.
A cat held a little piece of bony fish tentatively between its sharp teeth. He was afraid to swallow it, but he couldn’t bring himself to spit it out either.
Madame Péricand finally decided that only a male mind could explain with clarity such strange, serious events. Neither her husband nor her eldest son was at home: her husband was dining with friends, her son was not in Paris. Charlotte Péricand, who ruled the family’s daily life with an iron hand (whether it was managing the household, her children’s education or her husband’s career), was not in the habit of seeking anyone’s opinion. But this was of a different order. She needed a voice of authority to tell her what to believe. Once pointed in the right direction, there would be no stopping her. Even if given absolute proof she was mistaken, she would reply with a cold, condescending smile, “My father said so . . . My husband is very well-informed.” And she would make a dismissive little gesture with her gloved hand.
She took pride in her husband’s position (she herself would have preferred a more domestic lifestyle, but following the example of our Dear Saviour, each of us has his cross to bear). She had come home between appointments to oversee her children’s studies, the baby’s bottles and the servants’ work, but she didn’t have time to take off her hat and coat. For as long as the Péricand children could remember, their mother was always ready to go out, armed with hat and white gloves. (Since she was thrifty, her mended gloves had the faint smell of stain remover, a reminder of their passage through the dry-cleaners.)
As soon as she had come in this evening, she had gone to stand in front of the radio in the drawing room. Her clothes were black, her hat a divine little creation in fashion that season, decorated with three flowers and topped with a silk pom-pom. Beneath it, her face was pale and anguished, emphasising the marks of age and fatigue. She was forty-seven years old and had five children. You would have thought, to look at her, that God had intended her to be a redhead. Her skin was extremely delicate, lined by the passing years. Freckles were dotted over her strong, majestic nose. The expression in her green eyes was as sharp as a cat’s. At the last minute, however, it seemed that Providence had wavered, or decided that a shock of red hair would not be appropriate, neither to Madame Péricand’s irreproachable morals nor to her social status, so she had been given mousy brown hair, which she was losing by the handful since she’d had her last child. Monsieur Péricand was a man of great discipline: his religious scruples prohibited a number of pleasures and his concern for his reputation kept him away from places of ill repute. The youngest Péricand child was only two, and between Father Philippe and the baby, there were three other children, not counting the ones Madame Péricand discreetly referred to as the “three accidents”: babies she had carried almost to term before losing them, so that three times their mother had been on the verge of death.
The drawing room, where the radio was now playing, was enormous and well-proportioned, with four windows overlooking the Boulevard Delessert. It was furnished in traditional style, with large armchairs and settees upholstered in golden yellow. Next to the balcony, the elder Monsieur Péricand sat in his wheelchair. He was an invalid whose advancing age meant that he sometimes lapsed back into childhood and only truly returned to his right mind when discussing his fortune, which was considerable (he was a Péricand-Maltête, heir of the Maltête family of Lyon). But the war, with its trials and tribulations, no longer affected him. He listened, indifferent, steadily nodding his beautiful silvery beard. The children stood in a semi-circle behind their mother, the youngest in his nanny’s arms. Nanny had three sons of her own at the front. She had brought the little boy downstairs to say goodnight to his family and took advantage of her brief entry into the drawing room to listen anxiously to what they were saying on the radio.
The door was slightly ajar and Madame Péricand could sense the presence of the other servants outside. Madeleine, the maid, was so beside herself with worry that she came right up to the doorway. To Madame Péricand, such a breach of the normal rules seemed a frightening indication of things to com...
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