Yet another one of my delightful finds at the now-famous books by the kilo sale from December 2012, “Suite Française” is an excellent addition to my growing collection of books based on the Second World War. A veritable masterpiece, though written in 1941 during and after the siege of Paris, when the author herself was arrested and transported to Auschwitz, the book was only discovered sixty five years later, making the book even more remarkable. (Read more about her life and how the book came into being here.)
Irène Némirovsky’s tour de force comes in two parts, the fiction composed itself of two novellas, “Storm in June” and “Dolce” and a second factual section containing her notes during the writing of the book.
Set in the year France fell to the Nazis, “Storm in June” starts with the great exodus of the Parisians towards the South just before the Naris invaded the French capital and traces the struggles of not one, but several characters as they flee towards the countryside, surrounded by chaos, overcrowded trains and roads, a shortage of supplies and the constant dread of being bombed by the enemies. The crisis treats everyone equally: the Pericands, a haut-bourgeois family, Gabriel Corte, a rich and extremely egoistic writer, Maurice and Jean Michaud, a middle-aged couple that works in a bank, Monsieur Courbin, the Directeur of the Bank where the Michaud’s worked, Arlette, his mistress, Charles Langelot, a rich collector of porcelain objets d’art and antiques, and several other people from all walks of life are all embroiled in a desperate struggle to survive. It was a survival of the fittest and this section ends as the French surrender, leaving us with the survivors who straggle back to their city.
“Dolce” the second is based far from the tumultuous capital, in the French countryside and follows the lives of the inhabitants of a small village in the by then occupied France. The villagers, unprepared for French defeat, are forced to accept and welcome the Germans in their village. While they sway between the stereotype of the bestial “boche” (French slang for “blockhead” and a reference to big heads of the Germans) and the smiling, polite foreigners who were often not much older than their own boys, Lucile Angelier whose philandering husband Gaston has been taken as prisoner of war falls in love with Bruno von Falk, a German officer.
Irène Némirovsky balances facts and fiction very deftly in this amazing narrative that celebrates human courage in the face of conflict, leaving us with a very deep and interesting insight into human psychology and more specifically French society and manners at that time.
Her notes reveal that she had planned to create a chef d’oeuvre with three more sections, “Captivity,” “Battles” and “Peace.” Though “incomplete”, Suite Française is nevertheless an extremely poignant and incisive narrative that must be read.Related reading: The NY Times review by Paul Gray The Guardian Review by Helen Dunmore