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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.

8 Comments

  1. Anonymous Anonymous
    February 18, 2007    

    Excellent review and what a great set of quotes you chose! You already know I loved this book (except for the snottiness of the wealthy characters – and you chose a great quote to reflect that aspect). Thanks for leaving me a URL so I could read your review!! I need to add you to my links. 🙂

  2. Anonymous Anonymous
    February 18, 2007    

    Thanks for your comments…I had marked more than 20 passages in this book and it was hard to whittle it down! Would love to be added to your links 🙂

  3. Anonymous Anonymous
    February 19, 2007    

    Wow. This sounds like something I need to get my hands on. I have never heard of this book until your review and I thank you for introducing it to me, Wendy.

  4. Anonymous Anonymous
    February 19, 2007    

    Fabulous review, Wendy! Makes me wish I could go back and read the book all over again. Maybe I’d enjoy it more than I did now that I’ve read all the author’s notes. You chose some excellent passages to include in your review. Well done!

  5. Anonymous Anonymous
    February 19, 2007    

    Glad I was able to maybe sway you a bit, Les *grin*
    WendyCat…I’ll look forward to seeing your review of this book in the future 🙂

  6. Anonymous Anonymous
    February 23, 2007    

    I am so glad you enjoyed this too, Wendy! It is so strikingly measured and polished for an unfinished work written amid such tumultuous personal and historical events.
    Here’s something I was wondering about our NYT Notable Books Challenge – Since the small group who is participating is reading so many of the same books, might it be profitable to have a “group blog” where we all post copies of our blog entries and reviews relating to these books in a single convenient place? I am going to look in to creating such a group blog now – let me know what you think.

  7. Anonymous Anonymous
    February 23, 2007    

    I like this idea A LOT! I’m not too savvy about things like this…I know it is possible to have a blog where you allowmultiple people to post, just not sure how to set this up. Does Blogger allow this? Blogharbor *does* allow it, but it is a paid blog.

  8. July 13, 2009    

    I recently saw your post about reading Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. I wanted to pass along some information about an exciting exhibition closing August 30 about Némirovsky’s life, work, and legacy. I urge you to see Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage —A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. The exhibition includes powerful rare artifacts —including the valise in which the original manuscript for Suite Française was found, as well as many personal papers and family photos. The majority of these documents and artifacts have never been outside of France. For fans of her work, this exhibition is an opportunity to really “get to know” Irene. Don’t miss this opportunity to learn more about this beloved writer! And for those who can’t visit, there is a special website devoted to her story http://www.mjhnyc.org/irene.

    Although we are in the lazy days of summer, book clubs and groups are invited to the Museum for tours and discussions in the exhibition’s adjacent Salon (by appointment). It is the Museum’s hope that the exhibit will engage visitors and promote dialogue about this extraordinary writer and the complex time in which she lived and died. To book a group tour, please contact Chris Lopez at 646.437.4304 or clopez@mjhnyc.org. Please visit our website at http://www.mjhnyc.org for up-to-date information about upcoming public programs or to join our e-bulletin list.

    Thanks for sharing this info with your readers. If you need any more, please do not hesitate to contact me at hfurst@mjhnyc.org

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