by Irene Nemirovsky
The Random House Group
In the June 2009 review of The Shameful Peace I raised the question about fiction as truth and its relationship to the telling of history. It turns out that much good history is written within the context of a fictional story. Generally, the story is more interesting for a non-historian; and, the truth is told if the facts are held. The October 2007 review of Life and Fate is a sterling example and I declared it as one of the best novels I had ever read.
However, Debra in a comment about the June review challenged that assumption in a clever way by saying that Suite Française was one the best ever fictional histories that she has read. I could not resist the challenge so I have read it and I am in total agreement about its all-consuming story. Knowing her for some years I never doubted that would be the case. Interestingly, both novels are set in about the same time frame, WWII, and are about the life of the ordinary citizen in France and Russia coping with the War and their vile governments. The authors lived the life they wrote about.
Suite Française is the story of the initial 1940 German occupation of France largely from the viewpoint of the women and families left behind, as most of the men were prisoners or in the Army. Despite Nemirovsky’s Jewish roots, her novel focuses on the fates of the French non-Jews during the War. I was barely into the first story about the evacuation of Paris when I knew I was reading something special. The descriptive prose was Russian in its nature, as the Great Russian novels were Nemirovsky models for a planned 1000 page book encompassing five novels. Note the sarcastic play on Hitler’s 1000 year Reich. Click here for an introspective review of The Third Reich.
Every element of a civilization under stress comes alive under Nemirovsky’s hand. “Christian charity, the compassion of centuries of civilization, fell…. She needed to feed and protect her own children. Nothing else mattered anymore” is an example of the thin line that separates egoism and altruism in society as it is collapsing. The clash becomes palpable as the people become more desperate.
Altruism becomes what it is, a philosophy of misery, suffering, poverty, and the hatred of man for man as civilization is founded on the philosophy of egoism and individual rights. Civilized society endures the false promises of altruism when it can afford them, under wartime stress it cannot, families cannot, and a country cannot. Click here for a full discussion of George Reisman's "Real Right to Medical Care"
The story about the long delayed publication of Suite Française and the author is a story within itself. In 1918 Nemirovsky was a fifteen year old Russian émigré Jew to France turned Catholic; a prolific writer during the lead up to hostilities, married with two children, and subsequently sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1942. Her husband was gassed the same year. Her two young daughters were hidden and survived the War. Since the age of twelve and then for over sixty years, one daughter had the care of her mother’s leather bound notebook with the impression that it was a diary. To her amazement, when finally read, it turned out to be an unfinished novel in meticulous handwriting that, when published, became an immediate world wide best seller.
In reading Suite Française I would suggest that you begin with the appendices, which are from the handwritten notes on the situation in France and her plans for the novel, taken from her notebooks. They begin, “My God, what is this country doing to me? …let us watch as it loses its honour and its life.” Therein, the author bares her personal thoughts during the occupation as she confronts the hypocrisy, the compromises, and the hope.
The translator notes that Nemirovsky was writing from the depths of the French countryside, with a sense of urgent foreboding, nothing but her memory as a source, her immediate family suffering from financial ruin, and with an unknown but suspected dread for the worse. From that comes this most wondrous novel where Nemirovsky turns her truths into fiction to better tell the story of this brutish time in world history. Suite Française is now a well-deserved masterpiece of French literature
Unfortunately, she was able to complete only the first two novels of her planned series of five before her death, but they show the depth of her skill that was lost to mankind as she created, “…one of those rare books that demand to be read.” Suite Française is a most devastating indictment of French morals.
I was somewhat confused about the title so I asked my Nephew who lives in France and speaks like a native Parisian the meaning of it. His response is, “’Suite’ in the French sense means the ‘follow up’ or “what comes after’.” That was Nemirovsky’s fear as she saw the country coldly rejecting her and she would have to harden her heart and wait as would all others.
The novel is at a time and place, the beginning of WWII, when most C-133 crewmembers were young men with some already serving. Again, Debra was correct, it is transfixing and a must read. Enjoy!
39th ATS, KDOV
P.S. Go here for complete worldwide reviews in several languages: Suite Française Reviews
P.P.S. Most of the books I review for this site are mainly of interest to C-133 crew members and their experiences. However, the wives of our crew members will enjoy this novel, maybe more so, as it focuses upon the plight of the women and children who are left to cope with the ravages of a war that enters their immediate life. Let me know your thoughts.