Saturday, September 8, 2012

Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky

The English edition of Suite Française was published in 2006 so I'm coming to it late (but then, as I tell myself about my own novel, a good book is timeless).

Of course, Némirovsky wrote the novel in 1941 and 1942 and the manuscript was unknown until about 60 years later when her daughter began to transcribe what she thought was her mother's notebook and discovered only then it was the first two books of a planned five-volume novel.

Némirovsky, born in Kiev to a prosperous Jewish family that escaped to Finland during the Bolshevik revolution, eventually settling in France in 1919. In July 1942, the French police arrested her. She was shipped to Auschwitz where she died. In November 1942, her husband was arrested, shipped to Auschwitz, and gassed. Her two daughters managed with the help of French friends to survive the war and keep their mother's notebook safe.

Némirovsky had been a popular and successful novelist before the war, so it was only natural that she use her experience of the German invasion and occupation of France to create fiction. And what fiction! Book One of Suite Française, "Storm in June," follows a large case of characters as they flee before the invading German Army in panic, or irritation, or stoically. Book Two, "Dolce," follows a much smaller (and mostly different) cast as they live under the German occupation in a provincial village.

Both books can be read as studies of human character under stress. And Némirovsky has no illusions about humanity. Decent people will do terrible things with the right provocation. Ordinary people can rise to a kind of unexpected heroism. The invading Germans are not all brutes. The French villagers can be selfish, petty, and cruel. Everyone is reacting to forces and conditions—political, emotional, psychological—beyond their control. The books have no clear villain although they are filled with people who are not very nice.

I cannot judge the quality of the translation (by Sandra Smith), but here is a sample of the writing. From the first book, refugees are in a town, there are German and Italian planes overhead, but they appear to be harmless. "Suddenly, one broke loose and swooped down at the crowd. He's going to crash, Jeanne thought, then, No, he's going to fire, he's firing, we're finished . . . Instinctively, she covered her mouth to stifle a scream. The bombs had fallen on the train station and, a bit further along, on the railway tracks. The glass roof shattered and exploded outwards, wounding and killing the people in the square. Panic-stricken, some of the women threw down their babies as if they were cumbersome packages and ran. Others grabbed their children and held them so tightly they seemed to want to force them back into the womb, as if that were the only truly safe place. A wounded woman was writhing around at Jeanne's feet: it was the one with the costume jewelry. Her throat and fingers were sparkling and blood was pouring from her shattered skull. Her warm blood oozed on to Jeanne's dress, on to her shoes and stockings . . ."

Suite Française does not read like an American novel, although I would have trouble explaining why. It reads like something true and real. I believed these characters would think and speak and act the way Némirovsky shows them. I agree with other reviewers: Suite Française is stunning.

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