February 17, 2007 archive

Suite Francaise – Book Review

To lift such a heavy weight
Sisyphus, you will need all your courage.
I do not lack the courage to complete the task
But the end is far and time is short.
    -The Wine of Solitude-  by Irene Nemirovsky for Irene Nemirovsky
    -penciled at the top of the original first page of Suite Francaise-

Suite Francaise is an amazing piece of literature – a work in progress by a woman who lost her life in a German concentration camp before she could complete her masterpiece. Irene Nemirovsky had intended to write a 1000 page novel consisting of five parts: Storm in June, Dolce, Captivity, Battles, and Peace. Because of her untimely death at Auschwitz in August 1942, she drafted only the first two parts of the novel – a story with the promise of greatness. After turning the final page, I was left with the feeling of sorrow that we will never get to read Irene Nemirovsky’s finished work.

Both Irene Nemirovksy and her husband died in Auschwitz. Their two children, hidden from the Nazi’s by a family friend, survived the war – and in so doing, saved Irene’s work, Suite Francaise, to be published 64 years after her death.

As a Jewish writer living with her husband and two children in France at the time of the Nazi occupation, Nemirovsky brings the reader a unique perspective of the war. She indicates in her notes a desire to write a novel not merely about history, but one with a greater depth of experience:

Never forget that the war will be over and that the entire historical sides will fade away. Try to create as much as possible: things, debates…that will interest people in 1952 or 2052.
 -From the notes of Irene Nemirovsky, 2 June 1942-

Nemirovsky’s writing is beautiful. She captures a sense of place and time with ease. Her descriptions of nature seem almost surreal when contrasted with the reality of war:

It was an exquisite evening with clear skies and blue shadows; the last rays of the setting sun caressed the roses, while the church bells called the faithful to prayer. But then a noise rose up from the road, a noise unlike any they’d heard these past few days, a low, steady rumbling that seemed to move slowly closer, heavy and relentless. Trucks were heading towards the village. This time it really was the Germans. -From Suite Francaise, page 92-93-

Important events -whether serious, happy or unfortunate- do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves. -From Suite Francaise, page 167-

The novel opens with Book I (Storm in June) on the eve of the Nazi invasion of France. Nemirovsky introduces a cast of characters who include a writer, a priest, a family of the upper class, a working class couple – all fleeing Paris. They have lives which seem parallel to each other, and yet their stories intersect in surprising ways.

In spite of everything, the thing that links all these people together is our times, solely our times.
-From Irene Nemirovsky’s notes, 24 April 1942-

The contrast between the rich upper classes and the poor or less fortunate, is stark.  We know from the author’s meticulous notes that this is intentional:

If  I want to create something striking, it is not misery I will show but the prosperity that contrasts with it. -From Irene Nemirovsky’s notes, 30 June 1941-

Nemirovsky deftly shows these class differences between characters and how this impacts relationships:

What separates or unites people is not their language, their laws, their customs, their principles, but the way they hold their knife and fork. -From Suite Francaise, page 291-

In Book II (Dolce), the setting is a French village which has just become occupied by the Germans. It is here that Nemirovsky’s novel begins to soar as she weaves together the stories of the people – the Mayor and his snotty wife, the farmers, the women who are mourning the loss of sons and husbands, and the soldiers. Amazingly, given that Nemirovsky wrote this novel as the war was unfurling and she was being victimized by the Nazis, she portrays the German soldiers without hatred or malice. With honesty and skill, she deconstructs the idea of the Nazi invader – revealing men with the capacity to think and feel as all humans do.

In the heart of every man and every woman a kind of Garden of Eden endures, where there is no war, no death, where wild animals and deer live together in peace. -From Suite Francaise, page 321-

Although Suite Francaise is a novel – a piece of fiction – it trembles with a sense of truth; an almost autobiographical feel that I could not shake and which touched me deeply. There were moments when the reality of Nemirovsky’s life resonated within the pages of her book.

He wrote with a chewed-up pencil stub, in a little notebook which he hid against his heart. He felt he had to hurry: something inside him was making him anxious, was knocking on an invisible door. By writing, he opened that door, he gave life to something that wished to be born. Then suddenly, he would become discouraged, feel disheartened, weary. He was mad. What was he doing writing these stupid stories, letting himself be pampered by the farmer’s wife, while his friends were in prison, his despairing parents though he was dead, when the future was so uncertain and the past so bleak?
-From Suite Francaise, page 179-

There is no doubt that had Irene Nemirovsky survived the war, she would have gone on to polish and finish her book. She established herself as a writer of exceptional quality having already published her highly acclaimed novel David Golder. Suite Francaise is an important story which deserves to be read and savored. It is heartbreaking to read the author’s notes, as well as the frenzied communications shared between her husband and friends following her arrest.  Irene Nemirovsky writes in her notes dated 1 July 1942, only days before her deportation to a Nazi concentration camp:

What lives on:
1. Our humble day-to-day lives
2. Art
3. God

By reading Suite Francaise, we insure that her art lives on.

To read more reviews or discussions on this book, please visit The NYT Most Notable Book Blog.

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