Friday, January 2, 2009

"Suite Francaise" by Irene Nemirovsky


Suite Francaise is one of those rare books where I actually experienced trepidation in reviewing it. I'm not really sure my pedestrian use of the English language can do it justice. A friend of mine, John Cole, very highly recommended it to me, knowing my interest in WWII stories are above the norm. (My husband was raised in Communist Poland, and his parents and grandparents were intimately involved with the Solidarity movement, WWII and WWI.) But this isn't just a book about WWII. It probably was THE first book about WWII. This will probably be the longest post I have written thus far, but please bear with me. It is worth it. Let me give you the back story...

Irene was born in Kiev, Russia to an upper class Jewish family. They fled Russia in 1918 because of the revolution, and ultimately ended up in Paris. She studied literature at the Sorbonne, married Richard Epstein (also a Russian Jew) in 1926, and continued to live in Paris for the duration. Between 1926 and 1939 she published several successful novels. Despite spending their adult lives in France, neither had citizenship. With the threat of the German invasion looming in the distance, both Irene and her husband converted to Catholicism, but the French government still would not grant them citizenship. They shipped their children off the countryside to stay with friends, and themselves stayed in Paris where Irene continued writing. In June of 1941, the Germans took over France. Irene and her husband went into hiding, and Irene began to write "Suite Francaise". She fabricates a fictitious story about a collection of people trying to survive the German occupation, writing it "real time", as it occurred to her. Despite Irene's notoriety as an author, and her conversion to Catholicism, Irene was arrested in 1942 and jailed briefly, all the while still writing. She and her husband were eventually taken to Auschwitz, where Irene died of Typhus and her husband was gassed. The authorities vigorously pursued the children, but were never caught. Years later, Irene's daughter discovered the unfinished manuscript, as well as creative notes, and had them published.

The book is separated in the four sections. The first is "Storm in June", which depicts the mass exodus of Parisians into the countryside to avoid being killed by the approaching German army.

"Then a dark shape would glide across the star-covered sky, everyone would look up and the laughter would stop. It wasn't exactly what you'd call fear, rather a strange sadness - a sadness that had nothing human about it any more, for it lacked both courage and hope. This was how animals waited to die. It was the way fish caught in a net watch the shadow of the fisherman moving back and forth above them."
Nemirovsky focuses in on a handful of families, some hard-working, modest middle-class, and some fussy, superficial upper-class. She intricately writes about the little details of their struggles to survive...their worries about their sons fighting in the war, their attempt to find food and petrol, their frantic grasping for their wordly possessions, their fight for survival on a minute-by-minute basis. The author very keenly captures the terror and confusion of these events - I felt it myself while I was reading it - and we know this is because Irene is experiencing it firsthand.

The second section is called "Dolce". The insanity has settled a bit. The Germans have occupied France, and have settled into the towns and villages, living with the embittered townspeople in their homes. Irene has chosen to focus on one particular small village, where a few of the characters from "A Storm in June" live. There is a food shortage, fatherless families left to fend for themselves, and in the middle of all this, Germans living among them. The disparity between the rich landowners and the farmers is a stark contrast in this section. ..the rich hoard the food and supplies, and the poor are forced to steal. Central to Dolce, however, it the story of Lucile, whose husband is a POW and is forced to live with her rigid mother-in-law, and the young handsome German soldier, Bruno, who lives with them. There is a connection between the two that is likened to an eye of a cyclone. War, hatred and uncertainty outside, but peace and happiness between them. This, more than anything, communicates that war is universally damning. Sacrifices are made by both the victors and the defeated. There are moments so chaste and beautiful between these two, I am amazed Nemirovsky could resurrect such an emotion in light of her circumstances.

The last two sections are Appendix I and Appendix II. Ordinarily I don't give much attention to such things, but in this situation, it is where it all becomes way too poignant and emotional for me. In the first Appendix, we are allowed to read Irene's notes and her creative train of thought with regards to the storyline. It becomes heartbreakingly apparent that this novel would have been one of the great masterpieces of the time, had she been allowed to finish it. We see that she envisioned five sections, the third named "Captivity" and the fourth and fifth unnamed due the uncertainty of the direction the war would take. She muses on the fates of Lucile and other characters, who will fall in love, who will be imprisoned, who will die. She draws inspiration from "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina". In the second Appendix, we know that Irene has been imprisoned, and we read the frantic pleading in the correspondence between her husband and the authorities to release her. We read the letters sent by friends, trying to locate her once she is deported to Poland. It is simply devastating to read.

How many books do you read in a lifetime that truly haunt you? I can only name a few, and Suite Francaise would be one of them. Obviously the circumstances surrounding the author are attributable. That aside, Nemirovsky is a wonderful writer. She has a fresh, humorous, unique style of prose that is easy to read. One particular technique that she uses is when she suddenly steps inside the mind of an unlikely bystander...a pet cat or a small child for example...to chronicle an impression. Her writing also has a texture, a smell, an aura, that makes you feel that you are living the moment yourself, and stays with you for a very long time. Irene Nemirovsky is yet another treasure, tragically taken from us as a result of the Nazi regime.

12 comments:

Hannah Furst said...

I recently saw your post about reading Suite Française and I wanted to let you know about an exciting new exhibition about Irène Némirovsky's life, work, and legacy that opened on September 24, 2008 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage —A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française, which will run through the middle of March, will include powerful rare artifacts — the actual handwritten manuscript for Suite Française, the valise in which it was found, and many personal papers and family photos. The majority of these documents and artifacts have never been outside of France. For fans of her work, this exhibition is an opportunity to really “get to know” Irene. And for those who can’t visit, there will be a special website that will live on the Museum’s site www.mjhnyc.org.

The Museum will host several public programs over the course of the exhibition’s run that will put Némirovsky’s work and life into historical and literary context. Book clubs and groups are invited to the Museum for tours and discussions in the exhibition’s adjacent Salon (by appointment). It is the Museum’s hope that the exhibit will engage visitors and promote dialogue about this extraordinary writer and the complex time in which she lived and died. To book a group tour, please contact Tracy Bradshaw at 646.437.4304 or tbradshaw@mjhnyc.org. Please visit our website at www.mjhnyc.org for up-to-date information about upcoming public programs or to join our e-bulletin list.

Thanks for sharing this info with your readers. If you need any more, please do not hesitate to contact me at hfurst@mjhnyc.org

Literary Feline said...

I've been wanting to read this one for quite a while now. You worry that your review won't do it justice, but I think your review is quite insightful. You've made me want to read it even more, and I didn't think that was possible.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Hannah - I've got goosebumps. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for passing this information along to me and my blogger friends. I have GOT to find a way to get up there and see that exhibition - I can't imagine that seeing it on a website would be enough. What a wonderful way to celebrate the life and work of such an inspirational woman.

Wendy - it means alot to me that you feel I have done a tiny bit of justice to this beautiful piece of work. Thanks! This is one worth squeezing into your 2009 schedule!!!

The Bumbles said...

Well I am glad I came back to see your review - you did a great job explaining and enticing me into reading it without giving away any of the personal experience in store for me. I will certainly borrow it from my mother when I am home in a few weeks. I will also try to check out that exhibit Hannah mentioned. Have you ever read "Gone To Soldiers" by Marge Piercy? If not, I think you would like it.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Molly/Andy - I'm glad you read the review, since I knew you had purchased the book for your mother. I'm not sure about getting to NY myself to see that exhibition, but if you do (you're a little closer) please write and let me know about it! The website Hannah refers to is wonderful. I will check out Marge Piercy's book - thanks for the recommendation!

The Bumbles said...

Thanks for stopping by the Monday Movie Meme - I can't believe we didn't come up with The Sixth Sense! Awesome choice.

mattviews said...

Bravo, Sandy! I had to ruminate what I read for a while before I could pen the review. Trepidation would be the right word.

Her writing is just stunning. The style echoes Chekov–--so brimming with the fullness of humanity and yet refraining from any sentiment. She’s not so much concerned at telling us what these evacuees look like as letting the extreme circumstances reveal their inner turmoil. Tension mounted as the narrative following various households progresses.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Matt, I always look forward to your comments. You give a literary spin on things that sometimes just knock me over. The friend that recommended Suite Francaise told me that there has been a new book released with her other works all included...David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn and The Courilof Affair. At my earliest convenience, I shall be tracking it down!

Book Fiend said...

Oh, man, I am DEFINITELY going to read this now. It's been on my "maybe read" list for awhile, but I am bumping it up. Thank you so much for the thoughtful review!

Heather J. said...

This is an excellent review! I read this book myself last year and was completely taken in my the Appendices at the end. I did have some complaints about the writing, but I think they are due to the fact that this was an unfinished draft - I can't imagine how good it would have been had she been able to finish it.

(here through the WWII Challenge blog)

Sandy Nawrot said...

Heather, I'm so glad you stopped by! It just makes me incredibly sad to think of the talent and potential stopped short, and knowing that she is just one of millions. I have recently acquired another newly published book by Irene that includes several of her works, "David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, and The Courilof Affair". These ARE finished publications, so I am very interested in getting to read these soon!

Anna said...

What a great review! I keep hearing good things about this book, so I'll definitely have to read it for myself. It's sad that she didn't survive--just imagine what else she might have written.

I created a post for the review here on War Through the Generations and added a link to the book review page.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric