Suite Française

Irène Némirovsky

translated from the French by Sandra Smith
Chatto and Windus 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
Suite Française has two parts: "Storm in June" follows a number of Parisians fleeing before the German arrival in 1940 and "Dolce" is set in a village in central France the following spring.

"Storm in June" consists of loosely connected episodes following different characters in the panic-stricken flight of refugees from Paris. The eldest son of the wealthy Pericand family is a priest who ends up shepherding a group of orphans, his teenage brother Herbert runs off to fight the Germans, and grandfather accidentally ends up in a nursing home. Then there are the effete novelist Gabriel Corte and his mistress Florence, the courtesan/dancer Arlette Corail, and the antique collector Charles Langelet. At a lower level of society are the Michauds, bank employees, their son, a wounded soldier recovering in a small village, and a broad range of other characters.

"Dolce" begins with the arrival of German troops in the village and ends with their departure. Lucile lives with her mother-in-law in one of the village's bourgeois households; she is one of many women with husbands who are missing or prisoners-of-war. She falls in love with the German officer billeted on them, but her patriotism remains unaffected. Other strands touch on a farming household and an aristocratic one, exploring class differences and the dominance for the older generation of memories of the First World War. The result canvasses the accommodations, collaborations, liaisons, and compromises of the Occupation.

Written in France soon after the events it describes, Suite Française has the immediacy of firsthand experience. Némirovsky also offers a more analytical view, achieving something of a historical perspective even without knowledge of the war's result, though this is always integrated into the story. She skillfully manages her characters, keeping the reader involved even with the less sympathetic ones.

Four or five parts to Suite Française were planned, but in July 1942 Irene Némirovsky — a Russian Jew whose family had fled the Revolution — was arrested, deported to Auschwitz, and killed; her husband desperately attempted to find her, but suffered the same fate three months later. Their two daughters survived, concealed by friends, but they didn't go through their mother's papers until much later, with the result that Suite Française wasn't published until 2004.

This background story risks overshadowing the novel itself, which may be why in this translation the preface of the French edition has been moved right to the end. In eight pages this gives an outline of Némirovsky's life and describes the fate of her daughters and manuscripts. Preceding that, Appendix I contains some of Némirovsky's notes on writing Suite Française. Appendix II contains letters to and from Némirovsky, and then to and from her husband, and then between their friends, giving a hauntingly immediate account of their disappearance.

Some critics have compared Suite Française to Tolstoy's War and Peace and Némirovsky's own notes reveal that that was one of her models. The test of that would have been in the completion of a work of similar length and in Némirovsky's ability to deal with material outside her direct experience. As it stands, though, the two parts of Suite Française make effective novellas that can stand alone as lively studies of life in France in 1940-1941.

January 2007

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%T Suite Française
%A Némirovsky, Irène
%M French
%F Smith, Sandra
%I Chatto and Windus
%D 2006 [2004]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0701179937
%P 403pp