Date Published: April 10, 2007 (Originally published in 1942)
Number of Pages: 448
Print Price: $10.20
eBook Price: $11.99
I had the good fortune to stumble upon a paperback copy of Irene Nemirovsky’s magnificent novel, Suite Francaise, at an airport bookstore about a year or so ago, and I devoured it during a long wait between flights. I just finished reading it again and found it no less absorbing or satisfying the second time around. I’ve always had a weakness for stories set during the Second World War, and that’s what drew me to Suite Francaise; but one needn’t be a World War II history buff to enjoy this extraordinary book.
Suite Francaise is divided into two parts, the first of which is “Storm in June.” The story begins in June of 1940, on the eve of the Nazi occupation of Paris. Chaos ensues when the panicked citizens of the city, as if jolted awake by a sudden thunderclap, realize the time has come to flee the approaching German army. They hurriedly throw their valuables into suitcases, strap mattresses to the roofs of their cars, carelessly pack the small food rations they believe will see them through the crisis, and join the mass exodus.
The dusty roads become clogged with cars, bikes, prams, wagons, carts, and hordes of people traveling on foot. The villages the refugees pass are either empty or completely out of food, and petrol is hard to find. Cars are abandoned by the roadside, train stations are closed. Eventually, enemy planes flying overhead begin to fire upon the defenseless civilians. Nemirovsky describes the scene so vividly that you can almost imagine walking along with these weary travelers—hungry, dirty, exhausted, and terrified: “You could smell the suffering in the air, in the silence,” the author writes. “Even people who were normally calm and controlled were overwhelmed by anxiety and fear.”
Members of the different social classes have been thrown en masse into a living hell, and as a common storm rages around them, the lines that normally separate them become blurred.
When the going gets tough, people show their true colors – and trust me, it isn’t always pretty. Charlie Langelet is a wealthy bachelor who showers more love on his priceless porcelain collection than on any human being, and Gabriel Corte is an arrogant, self-absorbed writer who takes to the roads with his mistress and his precious manuscripts; will these materialistic men learn, through surviving the horrors of war, what’s really important in life?
Madame Pericand is an upper middle class mother of five, a proud and outwardly pious Catholic woman whose oldest son is a priest; but when food supplies run low, will she practice Christian charity and compassion, or will those virtues fall from her “like useless ornaments, revealing her bare, arid soul”?
The Michauds are a devoted middle class couple who never lose their dignity and kindness, no matter what happens; will they ever see their beloved only son, Jean-Marie, again, or will he be one of the many soldiers whose lives will be sacrificed for the cause? Father Phillippe Pericand – a saintly but rather tortured priest with “a kind of impatience to be holy” – is given the unwanted task of shepherding a group of thirty hardened teenage boys from their orphanage to a safe haven in the countryside; will he find the grace to truly love these “shut off, walled up, secret, and silent” semi-savages, to overcome his deep fear that they “might not come from God but from an Other”?
By the time all of Nemirovsky’s well-developed characters – whose lives intersect in the most surprising ways –have returned to Paris to endure the remainder of the war, these questions and many more have been answered.
In the second part of the novel, “Dolce,” the action moves on to describe the realities of the German occupation and the reactions of the French citizens who are most intimately affected by it. Madame Angellier, whose son Gaston is being held in a German prisoner-of-war camp, and her daughter-in-law Lucile shares a home with her in rural Bussy. Lucile doesn’t love Gaston, who has been a cruel and unfaithful husband, but Madame idolizes her only son; so “between these two women, every topic of conversation was a thorn bush they only approached with caution.”
Once the Germans arrive to occupy their small country town, the Angellier women are forced to allow a young German soldier named Bruno von Falk to be billeted under their roof. Madame Angellier is bitter and angry, and she can’t bring herself to be civil to the young officer – she’d much sooner rip his eyes out, seeing him as personally responsible for her son’s capture and suffering; but the kinder, gentler Lucile thinks, “That’s how war is; it isn’t this boy’s fault.”
“Dolce” explores the mysteries of the human soul, and shows that even among those we must call “enemies” we can find people filled with charity, compassion, and many other good qualities to love. When the dreaded occupiers arrive in Bussy, most of the town’s matrons – the mothers of prisoners and fallen heroes – beg God to curse them, yet others can’t help but forget sometimes that these German boys are the enemy and feel an inborn maternal pity and concern for them. Pretty young single girls, starved for attention from the young Frenchmen the war has stolen from them, can’t help but enjoy the company of the charming enemy soldiers of the Third Reich who have taken over their town.
And ultimately, Lucile can’t help but fall in love with Bruno, a kind and sensitive gentleman who is a kindred spirit and shows her more genuine affection than her husband ever did, even though she realizes only too well that there is no way their story can ever have a happy ending. These would-be lovers are bound by sacred vows to the spouses from whom they’ve been parted, and needless to say they both know that their countries are at war with one another; isn’t it inevitable that their fragile relationship will become just another casualty of that war?
Some of Nemirovsky’s most affecting prose is used to describe the sweetness of Lucile and Bruno’s chaste love affair: “In the heart of every man and every woman a kind of Garden of Eden endures, where there is no war, no death, where wild animals and deer live together in peace. All we have to do is to reclaim that paradise, just close our eyes to everything else.” In love and war, however, nothing is quite that simple.
Suite Francaise is a poignant, engrossing, and brutally honest portrait of France and her people – warts and all – during this tumultuous period in history. Once started, it is hard to put down. And what makes it even more powerful is the knowledge that Irene Nemirovsky, already a successful author by that time, was writing about real events as they were taking place around her, furiously scribbling notes in the smallest handwriting she could manage in order to save ink and paper.
In Appendix I at the back of the book you will find these notes, wherein she outlines her plans for an epic 1,000-page novel divided into five parts. Sadly, Irene Nemirovsky never got to finish what she’d started and left behind a work in progress. She and her husband, Michel Epstein, were Catholics, but they were of Jewish descent; in 1942, she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she was put to death.
Appendix II is filled with a collection of heartbreaking letters, some written by the author in 1941 and others written by her husband to various authorities after her arrest, showing his unsuccessful attempts to secure her freedom.
Irene Nemirovsky’s daughters held onto her notebooks after her tragic death, but for a long time couldn’t bear to even look through them. After sixty-four years of remaining hidden away and unknown to the world, their mother’s interrupted masterpiece was finally brought to light and published. Officially, Suite Francaise is not a “finished” novel; however, each of its two parts can stand alone, and together they form an utterly unforgettable work of fiction.
The characters (some of whom play roles in both parts) are complex and compelling, the writing is impeccable, and the subject matter is fascinating. The strong Catholic character of France during the 1940’s is referenced throughout, in a matter-of-fact manner that is delightful in its simplicity. I highly recommend this amazing book, as well as the informative appendices at the end that serve to add extra layers of interest to the story.
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
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