Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
Chatto & Windus, London Translated from the French by Sandra Smith 2006
Suite Francaise is an interwoven collection of vignettes about life in Paris and rural villages during world War II and the German occupation. If you could imagine nowadays the entire Paris population vacating the city, not for holidays, but just with the shirts on their backs and anything they could carry, that is a good starting point for understanding the chaos of the times. It is too easy to forget these things, even though at this very moment people from Bagdhad to New Orleans, to Darfur have had to pack their life belongings in one bag and never look back.
Irene Nemirovsky wrote in her memos “If I want to write something striking, it is not misery I will show, but the prosperity that contrasts it.” Which scenes deserve to be passed on for posterity?” She asked herself.
“Waiting in queues at dawn. The arrival of the Germans. The killings and shooting of hostages much less than the INDIFFERENCE of the people.”
Nemirovsky’s insight into the pettiness, the jealousies, and the seething rage that hovers just behind the neat facades of townhouses, the hypocrisy and the arrogance of the litterarati and the chateau dwellers she depicts cuts with a well-honed blade.
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There are two ways you can read Suite Francaise. You can read it as you might linger over an exquisitely painted 19th century oil landscape. Or you might sneak a peak at the appendix which will tell you how Nemirovsky wrote this book – on scraps of paper because paper was scarce, and how ultimately she was picked up by the French police, sent to Pithiviers in the Loiret region and soon thereafter sent to Auchwitz where she died in a month after her arrival. Her husband, Michael Epstein, hoped naively that he might be able to ‘take her place’. He was subsequently picked up by the police and delivered shortly thereafter to the gas chambers.
If there were ever an argument for studying literature and an author’s biography in tandem, I think that it is crucial in reading Suite Francaise to understand the author knew full well that her days were short in number, and also to understand that she was wearing a Jewish star of David (required by Jews living in occupied France). Her commentary about the times becomes all the more poignant and her exercise in observation all the more courageous, for she writes with intense honesty and objectivity – not tolerance – but with a humane understanding of the soldiers (who would eventually be her executioners). She could see them as peoples’ sons, husbands, and in some cases lovers of those they had conquered.
Even though she was not French by birth (Nemirovsky was born in Kiev), one French reader marveled at the author’s ability to describe with such depth of insight the mood and spirit of the times.