Book Review: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

Publisher: Vintage Books
Selected Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-099-48878-1
Published: 2007 [2006]
No. of Pages: 403
Price: £7.99

This is such an interesting account of the Nazi Occupation in France, and given its back story it becomes all the more poignant. Irène Némirovsky was a Russian émigrée of Jewish descent who spent most of her life in France and was in her lifetime a published author. The manuscript for Suite Française was kept by her daughter after Némirovsky’s death in Auschwitz, unread, for 50 years before its publication in 2004.

The novel is really two, split into the first volume Storm in June, which chronicles the accounts of Parisians fleeing Paris for the country side; and Dolce which describes the first few months of the German Occupation in a small town outside of Paris. Although linked by characters and theme, the two volumes could be read separately and although I loved the depictions of the characters in the first volume, I found the second much more compelling.

In Storm in June we get to know various characters, from the French upper class and literary elite, to the working class and orphaned children. It is interesting to see the different reactions to the outbreak of war and the threat of occupation; the chaos on the roads and railways leaving Paris, the scramble for somewhere to stay, theft of food and petrol, lost and abandoned belongings. The rich stop to gather together their silver and family heirlooms while the working class take family photos and clean their rooms before leaving. The most striking thing about these portraits is what it reveals about human nature – our ability to survive, cope and adapt. One character in particular, a man called Michaud who was working as a bank clerk, struck me for his ability to philosophise and rationalise even when faced with nowhere to stay and no means of transport to leave Paris:

He felt pity towards his fellow sufferers, but his pity was lucid and detached. After all, he thought, these great human migrations seemed to follow natural laws. Surely such occasional mass displacements were necessary to humans, just as the migration of livestock was to animals. He found this idea oddly comforting.

Their are no feelings of injustice in the novel which I found really interesting. Yes, there are thoughts of revenge and loathing towards the Germans, but everything is accepted. Again it is Michaud who vocalises this:

It all seems caused by this man or that, by one circumstance or another, but it’s like in nature: after the calm comes the storm; it starts out slowly, reaches its peak, then it’s over and other periods of calm, some longer, some shorter, come along. It’s just been our bad luck to have been born in a century or storms, that’s all.

It is strange that I almost forgot that the Germans occupying the town are Nazis. There are, of course, flags bearing the swastika being hung up, and references to labour camps, but Dolce is quite insular. Part of me wonders if this was a deliberate attempt to show how little the French knew about the Holocaust at the time, whether it was ignored because it didn’t affect them, or whether simply that Némirovsky wasn’t aware of the full horrors of what the Nazis were doing to Jews at the time.

The overwhelming sense you get in Dolce is that of shared humanity and nobility even in the least permitting circumstances. Even a French woman with a son on the front line feels pity for the German soldiers, young women are excitable at the prospect of so many young men coming to the village, villagers are eager to sell their wares to the Germans at ever-escalating prices and the children play freely in the company of the German soldiers, innocent of the word ‘enemy’ and all that that means. The only real acts of violence described in the novel are done by French hands, either in a fight for survival or against German soldiers.

It is inevitable in an occupation that relationships of sorts will develop, and the relationship between Lucile, a young upper class lady whose husband is a prisoner of war, and a German officer who is residing in her house shows this conflict well. Lucile is curious about her lodger and wants to know about Germany and the officer’s life back home. Lucile’s marriage is loveless and in this new situation she becomes friendly with the German and feelings start to develop. There is a detachment however, with the Germans – they are very rarely referred to by their name, just simply, the German, or the officer so that they begin to merge into one another and there is this strange conflict between the individual and the group. It feels like the novel tries to show them as individuals but the generalisations say otherwise. I can’t make my mind up about that.

Indecisions aside, what I am sure about is that I really enjoyed this book, the second part in particular. I hadn’t read much about the Second World War from a French perspective before so I found it really interesting to see it from their side as sometimes it is hard to think about this period of history without that shadow of the Holocaust, or even seeing it from a British perspective as that is what we learn about in schools. A great read, and although its subject is war, its lasting effect is not one of the horror that humans are capable of inflicting on each other, but the acts of kindness and nobility that stop us from losing our humanity.

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6 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews

6 responses to “Book Review: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

  1. I’m reading this right now but am still on Storm in June. I am quite enjoying the reading. Thanks for the insights to look for and ponder in Dolce.

  2. An excellent book and her other shorter novels are excellent as well.

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