Classic review: Suite Française
[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on April 25, 2006.] Everyone knows you can't write history as it happens. Years, maybe even a couple of decades, are needed to gain the necessary distance and insight for fiction. (You're nodding sagely right now, aren't you?) Well, as so often happens, everyone is wrong.
Exhibit A: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, a Russian Jewish émigré living in France whose final work was first published 62 years after her death. The two novellas - which total about 400 pages - vividly and ironically describe the character of the French people under Nazi occupation with an almost casual brilliance.
Némirovsky, a celebrated novelist ("David Golder") envisioned "Suite Française" as a 1,000-page, five-part epic, modeled on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. She never completed the work. She was arrested in July, 1942 and died at Auschwitz on Aug. 17. Her husband, Michael Epstein - whose frantic letters on behalf of his wife are included in an appendix - was sent to the gas chambers in November.
Némirovsky had no illusions as to her prospects. Two days before her arrest, she wrote to her editor at Albin Michel (who continued to send money even though they were no longer allowed to publish her work): "My dear friend ... think of me sometimes. I have done a lot of writing. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but it helps pass the time."
The story of how "Suite Française" survived the war - even though its creator did not - is as gripping as a World War II thriller. After their parents were taken, Némirovsky's two daughters fled. The older girl, Denise, took a suitcase full of family mementoes that included a thick leather notebook of her mother's writings.
With the help of a friend of Némirovsky's, her publisher, and friendly schoolteachers, the girls survived the war in a series of hiding places, including a Catholic boarding school and various Bordeaux cellars. They never lost the suitcase.
After the war, neither Denise nor her younger sister, Elisabeth (who went on to write a fictionalized life of her mother, "The Watch Tower"), could bring themselves to read Némirovsky's notebook, which they assumed was a journal or perhaps notes of some kind. It wasn't until decades later, when Denise decided to donate the notebook to a public institute and began making a typewritten transcript of the minuscule handwriting, that she realized that she was holding two completed novellas.
French critics hailed "Suite Française" as a masterpiece when it was first published there in 2004. They weren't exaggerating. The writing is accomplished, the plotting sure, and the fact that Némirovsky could write about events like the fall of Paris with such assurance and irony just weeks after they occurred is nothing short of astonishing. In her notes on the novels to come, the titles of Parts 4 and 5 are written with question marks - underscoring the fact that Némirovsky, and the rest of the world, still had no idea how the war would turn out.
Of the two novellas, the first, "Storm in June," is the more impressive. It opens with an air raid, as the residents of Paris realize that there is no stopping the Nazis and simultaneously decide to hit the road. As E.L. Doctorow did last year in "The March," Némirovsky conjures up the confusion of the mass exodus by having the narrative jump from character to character.
"My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let's watch as it loses its honour and its life," Némirovsky wrote, and "Storm in June" features plenty of acid observations on the conduct of the French civilians.
"If events as painful as defeat and mass exodus cannot be dignified with some nobility, some grandeur, then they shouldn't happen at all!" Gabriel Corte, a celebrated writer, complains after being stuck in traffic next to a homely wounded woman who dares to talk to him. There is nobility on display, though almost all of it belongs to the Michauds, a middle-aged couple who were assigned to leave Paris with their boss. They arrive to find their places usurped by his mistress and her dog. Their boss takes the opportunity to berate them for not working hard enough and then threatens them: "If you want to keep your jobs, take this as a warning. Both of you must be in Tours the day after tomorrow at the latest. I must have all my staff."
Quietly, the Michauds return home, eat lunch, and then begin the trek on foot. Their concern is all for their son, Jean-Marie, a soldier, whom the reader learns was wounded and is being cared for in Bussy, the site of Némirovsky's second novella, "Dolce."
"Dolce" concentrates on village life under German occupation. Quieter and more gentle than "Storm in June," it focuses on Lucile Angellier, whose philandering husband is a prisoner of war. She is living uncomfortably with her disapproving mother-in-law when a German officer is billeted with them.
Bruno von Falk is clean and polite, plays the piano, and reads Balzac. But Némirovsky is interested in more than forbidden love in wartime. A farmer has killed a German officer, and his wife (who, incidentally, helped nurse Jean-Marie Michaud in the first book) comes to Lucile for help.
Némirovsky certainly isn't the first person to be able to draw inspiration from the world events that engulfed her, but her ability to write so ably under such straitened conditions is heroic. She is not unlike World War I poets like Wilfred Owen and Charles Sorley, who also didn't survive the war they chronicled.
In her notes, Némirovsky wrote, "The most important and most interesting thing here is the following: the historical, revolutionary facts etc. must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides must be described in detail."
Although unable to finish her epic, Némirovsky nonetheless achieved her goal.