If you want a feel-good, happy-time novel, Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française is not for you. After all, the author’s story itself is so utterly tragic, and one so closely tied to the book that the reader can’t help but think of Némirovsky while turning the pages. Here’s why:
The Ukrainian-born Némirovsky planned for Suite Française to be a five-part novel portraying life in France during the German occupation, which began in June of 1940. With parts one and two (“Storm in June” and “Dolce,” respectively) complete, Némirovsky then loosely sketched her plans for part three (“Captivity”) and considered titles for parts four and five (“Battles” and “Peace”). Before she was able to begin working on “Captivity,” however, Némirovsky was arrested for being “a stateless person of Jewish descent”; a month later, she died at Auschwitz. Both the manuscript and Némirovsky’s notes survived, as did Némirovsky’s daughters Elisabeth and Denise. Denise, the eldest, took her mother’s writing with her into hiding, thinking the notebook was merely a diary, and one too painful to read. Fifty years would pass before the two sisters would discover their mother’s novel-in-progress, which would then be considered to be one of the first works of fiction written about World War II.
As if that’s not heartbreaking enough, then we have the remaining parts themselves, which tell the story not only of life during the Nazi takeover, but also of the invasion as well. With “Storm in June,” Némirovsky introduces us to an epic cast of characters spanning a myriad of class distinctions; they join the masses fleeing Paris with the hopes of evading the advancing German forces. There is the bank manager who takes the precious promised space in his car from his two employees and gives it instead to his cosmetics-loving mistress and dog. We have the beaux-arts collector who ranks his acquisitions higher than his countrymen, only to trot speedily down a tragically karmic route. There’s the trusting priest who shepherds orphans out of trouble, only to have them turn on him, and his patriotic younger brother who abandons his family to join the army even though he has yet to come of age.
Via incredibly sparse language (some of which must be credited to translator Sandra Smith), Némirovsky’s characters endure the impossible turbulence of a terrified exodus — only to skate onto the uneven ice of occupation. In “Dolce,” Suite Française slows its pace to reflect country life in the pastoral village of Bussy, where a German garrison is billeted. Some characters overlap from “Storm in June,” such as a docile adopted farmer’s daughter married to a fugitive, but Némirovsky produces even more personalities: the incorruptible aristocrat whose son is incarcerated in a German prison; her emotionally-conflicted daughter-in-law; the officer assigned to their house; the affectionate cook who works in the kitchen.
That’s just in one house. Némirovsky gives equal coverage to the other villagers, creating a story that I can only describe as miraculous. Think about it — Némirovsky wrote Suite Française as it happened, meaning the events her characters endured were the same that Némirovsky herself endured, almost simultaneously. In a sense, the novel is an example of in medias res; we are thrust into the middle of the action just as the author was.
The tragedy, of course, is that Némirovsky was unable to complete the novel, but there’s more to be mournful of than simply that. My edition contains two appendices; one is devoted to Némirovsky’s notes on the story she would never finish, the other is reprints of letters to, from and about the author. In her last letter, she writes to her husband and daughters, “My dearest love, my cherished children, I think we are leaving today. Courage and hope. You are in my heart, my loved ones. May God help us all.” Through his correspondence, we learn that her anguished husband searches for Némirovsky until he too is deported to Auschwitz after securing hiding places for Denise and Elisabeth.
I’ll end this with the last two paragraphs from the beginning of Suite Française, which I urge all of you to read.
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 peaceful, held tight against their monthers’ 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.