A few months ago, I started reading Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française in French, but then decided to switch to English about a quarter of the way through. The French version had been given to me, a gift at the bottom of a box of donated French teaching supplies from a retired teacher. I really didn’t want to give up on the French and felt a little ashamed at how much I was struggling. After a few chapters in English, though, I was no longer ashamed. Némirovsky is often compared to Tolstoy, an apt descriptor for this Russian-born author who fled the communists there, eventually landing in France. Although the English version was a translation, it was incredible, and even more so when I realized that what I was reading was essentially a rough draft, as the author was unable to complete her story as she envisioned it. (I just learned that a movie version is in the works as well.)
Némirovsky wrote the first two movements of Suite Française as the German Army was sweeping through France and during the subsequent Nazi Occupation. These two historical events also provide the setting of her story, which she intended as a literary symphony of five parts. She wrote about these events as they were unfolding, and indeed as she was caught up in them, incorporating the reactions and sentiments as Parisiens fled their beloved city in the first portion of the book. Those fortunate enough to leave in their cars soon ran out of fuel, and those who were able to procure tickets on the trains encountered bombed-out railway lines, and so people of all classes and means found themselves on foot, wandering into villages overrun with refugees like themselves, in desperate search of limited food and shelter. These throngs of people, who found themselves carrying useless but sentimental items, were routinely strafed by German planes, which killed a number of them and terrified the rest.
The second part deals with the Occupation as it affected various residents of a large village. Here, women, mostly, were obliged to provide lodging to Nazi officers while coping with the realization that their conscripted soldier husbands were likely prisoners of the German Army. The underlying class divisions and political tensions typical of any small town in any age created a lot of conflict as the residents struggled with the shame of defeat, their fears for the future, and concerns about the unknown fates of their loved ones. Some are frightened of the Germans, others are defiant, and much of the upper crust acquiesce and collaborate, wanting to keep their social standing with the powers-that-be.
The descriptions of the various settings are vivid and nearly every character is well drawn and nuanced. The plot moves along slowly and deliberately (just like a Russian novel, yes?) with attention to detail and motive. The French characters are complex. Not one is pure and wholesome; they are as real and warty as any of us with strengths and flaws and personal agendas. In short, they are human. It is interesting to note that the German soldiers, when individualized, are equally treated: not one is evil incarnate, but perhaps a husband and father and musician with as compelling a backstory to return home to as anyone.
The book ends with Russia being invaded by the Nazis in June of 1941. At this point, the war in Europe was not even two years old, and unbeknownst to them will carry on for four more years, but many of the French characters believe the war is nearly over. Throughout the book, character after character reveals a sense that the struggles they are dealing with are likely as bad as they are ever going to get. There is a sense that they feel that they might as well accept what is happening because this is the worst that will happen, not unlike the attitude of many of the Jews in Europe prior to being deported to the concentration camps. Suite Française is a perspective of World War II without benefit of hindsight into the most terrible of acts, such as death camps, kamikazes, and nuclear weapons, the likes of which had never been seen prior. With the backdrop of the Great War, as World War I was then called, the main sentiment seems to be here we go again.
Némirovsky herself, an exile of the Russian Revolution and a Jew, eventually was deported to Poland, where she died of typhus at Auschwitz. While it is impossible to place a value on any human life, it is most devastating to learn of lives cut far short, like Némirovsky’s. She was not without controversy, even during her lifetime, and was a successful published author in her 20s and the mother of two daughters before World War II began. In spite of her conversion to Catholicism, she was refused French citizenship. By 1940, her husband had lost his job and her work was no longer publishable, both due to anti-Jewish laws and persecution. They fled Paris as the Nazis approached, just like the characters of the first book of Suite Française. On 13 July 1942, just a year and a few weeks after the end of the second part of this fictional book, she was arrested, at age 39, due to her status as a “stateless person.” She was considered a “degenerate artist” and was ordered to be gassed at Auschwitz, but died of typhus after what was likely a very long month in the camp. Her husband died in the gas chamber, but their daughters survived, having been sent away to friends’ homes prior to their parents’ arrests.
It is remarkable that her manuscript also survived. Her older daughter kept it for half a century before she found the courage even to read it – it was handwritten and she believed it was her mother’s personal diary. But she finally did read it and wanted her mother’s papers donated to a French archive of personal accounts of the war. The two novellas that were designed to be the first of five that would comprise Suite Française were not even published until 2004. It won the Prix Renaudot and has been translated into thirty-eight languages.
Suite Française is a snapshot into the situations and psyches of the French during the early years of the war. It is a reminder, too, of the lives that remained unfinished due to the circumstances of war. Not only due to the intentional extermination of millions by the Nazis, but also of the soldiers killed and maimed, and the lives put on hold by their families and loved ones and markedly altered. (I think of my grandmother’s dear friend whose new husband was shot down over Normandy. She was probably in her twenties, definitely no more than thirty. She never remarried, but eventually, as a senior citizen, traveled to France to meet the villagers who witnessed his end and took her to visit his grave. She had a life-long correspondence with them.) It would not be an exaggeration to say that much of the planet's population was affected in some great way by the war. We never fully recognize the price that is paid, and paid dearly, for the expenses of war. And we never seem to acknowledge these lessons. We humans continue to play the role of aggressor, marching across the globe, greedy and inexorable, always wanting and leaving more wanting in our wake.