Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky [A Review]

Suite Française is a superb achievement and magnificently evokes the chaos of Paris following France’s early defeat in the Second World War and life under German occupation in a small provincial French town. The circumstances under which it was written only adds to its triumph.

Suite Francaise

Suite Française is one of those books where it is not possible to discuss the story in the book without discussing the story of the book.

Its author, Irène Némirovsky, was born in Kiev in 1903. Her father, a self-made banker, built extraordinary wealth for his family but Irène experienced a largely lonely childhood due to her cold, distant mother. Her ‘ferocious hatred’ of her mother and ‘disdain for her Jewish milieu’ would find expression in her fiction. Reading offered Irène an escape and, when the Russian Revolution broke out, she spent her many hours in hiding reading literature.

The family lost much of its wealth as a result of the revolution but managed to survive and escape, eventually reaching France where her father’s talent as a banker saw him remarkably rebuild much of their wealth. Enrolled at the Sorbonne where she graduated with distinction in literature, Irène also lived the life of a high-society party girl, dancing until the small hours and flirting scandalously.

She married Michael Epstein, also a Russian Jewish émigré, in 1926. A few years later she sent a novel she had been working on anonymously to a publisher. Much impressed, the publisher struggled to believe that such an accomplished work could have been produced by a wealthy society girl. The novel, David Golder, was a huge popular success, much admired by critics and, by the time Irène had her second daughter in 1937, it had been made into a film.

Danger lay on the horizon and with the outbreak of war with Germany and France’s swift capitulation, Irène and Michael left Paris for a village near the demarcation line between occupied and unoccupied France. Living separately from their daughters to protect them, they lived in hope for a swift end to the war and a resumption of their previous lives without fear.

It was during this period, in 1941, that Irène embarked on her most ambitious project. She wanted to capture, without illusion, the situation and experience within occupied France. To illuminate, amongst other things, the contrast of misery with prosperity, the individual and the collective, egoism and cowardice and the realities of daily life under occupation such as the growing obsession with food and supply.

‘In her writing she denounced fear, cowardice, acceptance of humiliation, of persecution and massacre. She was alone. It was rare to find anyone in the literary and publishing worlds who did not choose to collaborate with the Nazis.’

She envisioned a large novel of five parts, composed like a symphony, with many disparate characters; from cities and villages, wealthy and poor, collaborators and resisters, German soldiers and French girlfriends, artists and bankers, farmers and aristocrats.

In July 1942 she was arrested and within days she was transported across the continent to Auschwitz where she was killed the following month. Michael spent a few desperate months not knowing the fate of his wife, trying every avenue he could to discover her whereabouts, even offering to take her place before, in October, he too was arrested, transported to Auschwitz and sent immediately to the gas chambers.

Miraculously both their daughters not only survived the war but managed to hold on to their mother’s writing while doing so. In one of the most disturbing episodes of this history, the daughters return to Paris to seek out their grandmother, who turns them away telling them that if their parents are dead they should find an orphanage!

The decades pass with neither daughter having the strength to read their dead mother’s writing which they presume to be journal entries and not a manuscript for a novel. The notebook, containing the first two parts of the planned novel, were not examined until 1998 and were only published in French in 2004 where they became a critically-acclaimed bestseller.

As you can appreciate, the story of the book is remarkable, what can we say about the story in the book?

All we have are the two parts of the planned five part epic, named A Storm in June and Dolce respectively, and published together under the title Suite Française.

A Storm in June follows the experiences of disparate sets of characters, most of whom have nothing to do with each other and whose paths do not cross, in the fall out of France’s swift and shocking defeat in the war.

The Péricands are a middle-class catholic family living in Paris.  Following France’s fall, Charlotte Péricand flees Paris for Nîmes with her children and her senile father-in-law. Her husband is to stay in Paris. A museum curator, he is going to safeguard France’s national treasures from the arrival of the Germans and the possibility that Paris might be bombed. The Péricands fill their car with possessions and food scraps and try to leave Paris whose streets are filled with panic-stricken residents all trying to do the same.

Meanwhile their seventeen year old son, Hubert, full of youthful patriotic pride, is equally excited at the prospect of war and humiliated by France’s surrender. Though too young to enlist, Hubert dreams and schemes of running away from his family and joining the war effort. With their eldest son, a priest, still missing, the family face the real prospect of losing both of their sons to a war that has already been lost. Rather than be horrified, the family feels considerable pride at their sacrifice.

‘“I gave birth to a saint and a hero”, she said. “Our sons are making sacrifices for other people’s sons”. And she looked darkly at her cousin Craquant whose only child had managed to get a peaceful little post in the home guard in Toulouse.’

Elsewhere, Mr and Mrs Michaud, employees at a Paris bank and whose son they have not heard from is in the army, are hoping to escape Paris for Tours where the bank expects to resume operations. They have been assured a ride to Tours with Monsieur Corbin, a director at the bank, but after a fight with his mistress he has to tell the Michauds that he has no more place for them as he is taking his mistress instead.

Gabriel Corte, a writer of some fame, is also leaving Paris for Tours with his mistress but is soon infuriated by the chaos on the roads. Encountering starving people and hastily set up soup kitchens, he tries to use his name to get preferential treatment and, fearing that he may have lost his manuscripts, is indignant at the suggestion that others have lost more.

As you might tell, A Storm in June is more a series of vignettes than a complete linear story. The experiences of the above characters and many others provide a powerful evocation of the situation in Paris and elsewhere following the fall of France.

The writing rings true not just because of the circumstances under which it was written, but that it confirms what you may already be familiar with from the history of these events. Namely, the reluctance of the French to fight, yet again, against the Germans when memory of the previous war is still fresh. Particularly amongst middle-aged reservists fortunate to have survived last time now being called up to fight again. The panic and disbelief in the major cities on hearing the Germans had broken through the French line so soon and so easily. The panic leading to countless other woes on the roads and in the villages. The scale of the (in hindsight) unnecessary suffering and a complete breakdown of conventional morality, provide some of the best passages in the book. And the relief, even joy, at the surrender and armistice. Némirovsky, however, tempers that joy with reminders of the failure of France’s leaders and the horrors that followed the panic, all of which may soon be forgotten.

‘And to think that no one will know, that there will be such a conspiracy of lies that all this will be transformed into yet another glorious page in the history of France. We’ll do everything we can to find acts of devotion and heroism for the official records. Good God! To see what I’ve seen. Closed doors where you knock in vain to get a glass of water and refugees who pillaged houses; everywhere, everywhere you look, chaos, cowardice, vanity and ignorance! What a wonderful race we are!’

The joy for the armistice was based on the assumption that surrender meant their war was over, that it will be a simple matter of handing over certain provinces, paying a certain amount of money, shaking hands and saying better luck next time. They were completely unprepared for prolonged occupation.

It is life under German occupation that is the focus of the second part, Dolce. Set a year after the events of A Storm in June and in a small provincial town of Bussy, Némirovsky draws us into a close knit community coming to terms with living under the power of foreign invaders and perhaps managing it a little too easily for the comfort of some.

Unlike A Storm in June, Dolce in itself is more of a complete story with a couple of characters from the first part included. The story mostly centres on the Angellier household. Middle-class by the village’s standards, though they seem to be managing occupation comfortably, it is a house submerged in tension.

The austere Madame Angellier is stoically grieving for her son, Gaston, now a German POW. She resents her daughter-in-law, Lucille, who lives with her and who she feels is not a loyal and loving wife to her son. Her greatest source of bitterness though is that she is forced to house the local German commander, Lt Bruno von Falk. A handsome and gentlemanly soldier, he is sensitive to the inconvenience he and his soldiers bring to the village but is hopeful for peaceful coexistence between the Germans and the French.

Madame Angellier is also opposed to any cooperation with the Germans above that which is formally required. Watching her daughter-in-law behave politely, even cordially, with the German officer deeply offends her. She is right to be watchful. Both Bruno and Lucille were in unhappy marriages before the war. Long separation from their partners has left them with confused feelings simmering beneath the surface.

Elsewhere in the village, Némirovsky delivers a provocative portrait of life in a French village under German occupation. Here the town’s clocks have been changed to reflect German time and village girls are harassed by German soldiers, not all of it unwelcome. Némirovsky pulls you into the murky waters of French collaboration in a small community. Not a simple case of obsequiousness, or creating personal advantage, the motives can be less clear and more well-intentioned yet inevitably open divisions between rich and poor, farmer and aristocrat, zealous patriot and well-meaning pragmatist.

Followers of this blog may have noticed that Suite Française was not on my 2015 reading list, though it did not miss out by much having stood on my shelves for about 6 years. It has jumped ahead courtesy of the forthcoming film adaptation, featuring Kristin Scott Thomas as Madame Angellier (in a role perhaps similar to her one in Easy Virtue), Michelle Williams as Lucille Angellier and Matthias Schoenaerts as Bruno von Falk. It is directed by Saul Dibb, best known for another period film, The Duchess, and another adaptation from literature, The Line of Beauty.

The film opened last month to mixed-to-positive reviews. The film is mostly drawn from Dolce rather than both parts and seems to focus on the relationships between Lucille Angellier, her mother-in-law and von Falk, rather than the complex and fragile allegiances amongst the French villagers and their relationship to their German occupiers. Although it was the reason for me reading this book sooner than planned, I do not have high expectations for this film adaptation.

Even without the extraordinary story of its creation and survival, Suite Française is an exceptional work. Though the unwritten third part exists only as an outline, and we can’t even speculate as to what the fourth or fifth parts may have produced being written in step with real events as it was, we can say that Irène Némirovsky was on to something very special here. The Vintage edition I read includes appendices of her notes and plans for Suite Française as well as her and her husband’s correspondences during the war period. They illuminate the disturbing circumstances under which the work was written and abruptly ceased. It also includes the introduction to the French edition which provides the readers with the details of Némirovsky’s extraordinary life.

Though a bit rough around the edges, Suite Française contains provocative scenes and memorable images delivered with beautiful language. Most remarkable is how it achieves this with very few words. Considering the scale of these events, the horrors they contain and emotion for the characters, the writing is very tight and succinct. Némirovsky’s work is deserving of its rich accolades for powerfully rendering a difficult and complex time with an artist’s eye for minimalism.


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