I’ve recently finished reading Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. Set in 1941-2 it is a novel of the personal lives of the ordinary people of France under the German occupation of their country.
Némirovsky intended it to be a work in 5 parts. In Appendix I she wrote that her idea was for the whole to ‘unfold like a film’ (page 350), but wanted the book as a whole to ‘give an impression of only being one episode … which is really what is happening in our time, as in all times of course.’ (page 360) It was an ambitious project and one she never finished because she died in Auschwitz in 1942.
The first section, Storm in June, follows a number of families as they flee from Paris as the Germans invaded France. Némirovsky wrote that
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. (page 363)
So it is people who are the focus, and I learnt so much about what the war meant to the French. Storm in June is full of pace and tension and there are so many people, contrasting their lives and attitudes to their circumstances. It’s overwhelming, so much so that I stopped reading it and only recently began again with the second part, Dolce.
Dolce is quieter, more controlled, still full of tension as it’s about a small village occupied by the Germans during 1941. What is so amazing about this part is the balance that Némirovsky achieved in portraying the tightrope that the French had to walk in their relationships with the occupying troops. There are no caricatures, the French and the Germans are shown in detail as both compassionate, caring people, swept up in the consequences of war, largely beyond their control.
It is, of course, what happened to Irène Némirovsky that dominated my thoughts as I read this book, including the Appendices. Appendix I is a transcript of her handwritten notes on the situation in France and her plans for Suite Française, taken from her notebooks. Appendix II is a selection of correspondence 1936- 1945 and is so painful to read as it reveals how Irène was interned in France because she was of Jewish descent. Despite all their efforts her friends and family were unable to find out where she was sent and her fate in Auschwitz was not known until after the end of the war.
Suite Française is written is beautiful prose, translated by Sandra Smith, capturing the fragility, pathos, terror and hopes of the times.