Suite Française is both a brilliant novel of wartime and an extraordinary historical document.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.
This stunning book contains two narratives, one fictional and the other a fragmentary, factual account of how the fiction came into being. Suite Francaise itself consists of two novellas portraying life in France from June 4, 1940, as German forces prepare to invade Paris, through July 1, 1941, when some of Hitler's occupying troops leave France to join the assault on the Soviet Union. At the end of the volume, a series of appendices and a biographical sketch provide, among other things, information about the author of the novellas. Born in Ukraine, Irene Nemirovsky had lived in France since 1919 and had established herself in her adopted country's literary community, publishing nine novels and a biography of Chekhov. She composed Suite Francaise in the village of Issy-l'Eveque, where she, her husband and two young daughters had settled after fleeing Paris. On July 13, 1942, French policemen, enforcing the German race laws, arrested Nemirovsky as a stateless person of Jewish descent. She was transported to Auschwitz, where she died in the infirmary on Aug. 17.
The date of Nemirovsky's death induces disbelief. It means, it can only mean, that she wrote the exquisitely shaped and balanced fiction of Suite Francaise& almost contemporaneously with the events that inspired them, and everyone knows such a thing cannot be done. In his astute cultural history, The Great War and Modern Memory,Paul Fussell describes the invariable progression from the hastily reactive to the serenely reflective of writings about catastrophes: The significances belonging to fiction are attainable only as 'diary' or annals move toward the mode of memoir, for it is only the ex post facto view of an action that generates coherence or makes irony possible.
We can now see that Nemirovsky achieved just such coherence and irony with an ex post facto view of, at most, a few months. In his defense, Fussell had not heard of Suite Francaise, and neither had anyone else at the time, including Nemirovsky's elder daughter, Denise, who saved the leatherbound notebook her mother had left behind but refused to read it, fearing it would simply renew old pains. (Her father, Michel Epstein, was sent to Auschwitz several months after her mother and was consigned immediately to the gas chamber.) Not until the late 1990's did Denise examine what her mother had written and discover, instead of a diary or journal, two complete novellas written in a microscopic hand, evidently to save scarce paper. Denise abandoned her plan to give the notebook to a French institute preserving personal documents from the war years and instead sent it to a publisher. Suite Francaise appeared in France in 2004 and became a best seller.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the back story of Suite Francaise is irrelevant to the true business of criticism. But most readers don't view books from such Olympian heights, and neither, for that matter, do most critics. If they did, publishers' lists wouldn't be so crowded with literary histories and biographies, those chronicles of messy facts from which enduring art sometimes springs. In truth, Suite Francaise can stand up to the most rigorous and objective analysis, while a knowledge of its history heightens the wonder and awe of reading it. If that's a crime, let's just plead guilty and forge ahead.
Storm in June, the first novella of Suite Francaise, opens as German artillery thunders on the outskirts of Paris and those residents who have trouble sleeping in the unusually warm weather hear the sound of an air-raid siren: 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. --New York Times
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