A Question of Survival in Occupied France

France on Friday


Book Cover: Suite FrancaiseDestination: France

Book: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (Published in French, 2004/English 2006.)

Traveling in France, it was impossible to imagine the life of French people during the German occupation of World War II. And then I read Suite Française. IrèneNémirovsky brings to vivid life the actions and reactions of ordinary, and not-so-ordinary people as they reluctantly accept that their troops have NOT defeated the Germans, and they WILL have to evacuate Paris. Then she follows their lives as they adapt to a new world.

What could be an unrelentingly grim story of hardship, is leavened with touches of humor. We follow several individuals and families through two books of a planned work of four or five. These people are not all heroes. Perhaps because she was a Russian emigré, Némirovsky is able to stand apart and describe not just the people who rise to the situation, but those who petulantly insist on retaining their privileges, or find ways to cheat and steal from others for their own benefit.

The Suite certainly stands on its own, but what happened to the other two books and why these two– written while she was living in the midst of the chaos that she describes–disappeared and reappeared makes another gripping story. The paperback edition of Suite Française that I read– published by Vintage Books–has appendices with author’s notes and letters from and to her publisher, her husband and friends that explain  Némirovsky’s own story.

Irene Nemirovksy at 25

Already a successful author in the 1930′s, Némirovsky had long abandoned her Jewish roots, as had her husband, Michel Epstein.  They thought of themselves as French Catholics. Thus, although there may be echoes of Anne Frank’s tragic story, Suite Française does not set out to tell a Jewish story, but rather a French story.

The German government had a different opinion. Because Epstein and Némirovsky had Jewish grandparents, they had to wear the yellow star, were limited in the way they could work,  and eventually paid the price that so many people of Jewish lineage paid. While Suite Française stands alone as a masterpiece of presenting the human reaction to great catastrophe, the appendices make this moving novel even more poignant.

Describing one of her characters, a self-centered collector of decorative arts, she writes in her book:

Important events–whether serious, happy or unfortunate–do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves.  Such events highlight what is hidden in the shadows; they nudge the spirit towards a place where it can flourish.

Because she is writing events as they happen, she doesn’t know how it is going to turn out. She plans Storm (in June), the first section–retreat from Paris– and Dolce–life under occupation– then Captivity (which would talk about the concentration camps) and others–perhaps Battles and Peace. In her journal she says “It’s really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens.”

No EscapeOf the section called Captivity, she says “Keep it simple. Tell what happens to people and that’s all.”  But in the great irony of her life, when she was taken captive, her husband struggled for a year to find out what had happened to her, and did not learn that she ultimately had been killed at Auschwitz. Then he was taken captive, too. She never had a chance to finish her story.

The rough draft survived with one of her daughters, who was only a child in 1942 when her parents were taken away. As an adult, when she finally was able emotionally to read her mother’s words, she realized the value of what she had and began the long process of converting hand written notes to a manuscript. It was published in France in 2004.  Sixty-four years after Irène Némirovsky’s death, we can read her book in English.

Read this book. If you want to know more about France. If you are interested in the writer’s process. Or if you want to read a masterpiece on the level of Irène Némirovsky’s literary hero, Tolstoy. Read it. It is that good.

Have you read other war-time novels about France during the occupation? I would like to hear about them.

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler’s Library, recreating her family’s past at Ancestors In Aprons. She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

Vera Marie Badertscher – who has written posts on A Traveler's Library.

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons. She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

11 thoughts on “A Question of Survival in Occupied France

  1. I too loved this book. One of the things that intrigued me about it was how she portrayed the German occupiers. I expected to see only the brutality, but she tells a story of real people. In many ways a positive picture of these soldiers. It’s been quite a while now, but I remember the scene of the banquet where the soldiers borrow all the good china and linens from the local women, and the care they take with these treasures.

    For a heartbreaking story of World War I in the French trenches, read Birdsong by Sabastian Faulks. It’s as fine an anti-war novel that has ever been written and one of the best books I’ve ever read.

    1. Thank you, “monkey”, for an interesting read. For anyone who wants another opinion on Nemirovsky, this very lengthy, and well researched article, includes analysis not only of her books, but of the publicity and the criticism of Suite Francaise.

      I realize that I spent at least as much time talking about the author’s life as about her works. It seems I am not alone.

      The conroversy continues. This time, not a controversy about whether the author was anti-Semitic (although that is briefly discussed) but about whether her work would stand on its own without her dramatic personal story. Here’s the conclusion, in case you don’t have time to read the whole article. (Although if you have time and interest, I recommend reading the whole thing.)

      “Némirovsky’s circumstances were incredible, but we do not read her circumstances, we read her books, and it remains to be seen if, without the crutch of the author’s tragic life, they can stand tall among the works of the 20th century. To find out, we will have to resurrect the critic.”

  2. Thanks so much for this great recommendation! This is one I will definitely have to read. Your travels through France, and the everyday things that made you think back to how the people must have felt during the German occupation, are exactly those moments I look for when I travel as well. Not the over-the-top excited “wow” but those quiet, reserved, almost punch-in-the-gut “wow” moments. Following your travels in France has made me want to return to France myself. I’ll definitely pick this book up to read. Thanks for sharing!

  3. This is one of my all-time favorite books – I’ve recommended it to many. The more I travel, the more I realize how much there is to know about in the world – both past and present. I agree with Libbie, it is a sad book, however, I found it so compelling I could barely put it down.

  4. This book is dark and sad, and I found it difficult to read. My friend who borrowed my copy liked it. I felt that she was writing with so much bitterness and anger against the French people that she made caricatures of her subjects.

    In contrast, I recently read “Sarah’s Key.” The first half of that book tells another story of the Nazi occupation of France — a very tragic, fictional story. That author did a brilliant job of describing terrible events in a way that allows the reader to have a rest from the brutality of the story. I thought the first part of that book was very well done, although I found the second half disappointing.

    The two books make an interesting and contrasting pair.


  5. Thank you for your recommendation. I can also suggest the remarkable story of Nancy Wake by Peter Fitzsimon – a Kiwi born girl with a 5M Franc price tag on her head by the Germans for her resistance efforts in France during WW2. awarded numerous topline honours by France, UK, USA, Australia and is a superb true story of bravery, street smarts and will by someone who continue to live in her elderly years in Britain.

  6. Thank you for this excellent review. I read the book and will read it again and plan to read all of her books. As a bookseller, I always recommend it. Her characterizations and imagery are superb. I love her wit and charm, as well as her finesse. By finesse, I’m referring to the way she observes and then attacks certain types of people in this book.

    PS: check Fançaise in the title of your post

  7. This book has been on my list for awhile, at the recommendation of friends, but your review is pushing it to the top of the pile. Having lived in France, from 1969 to 1998, except for one year back in the States, I met a lot of people who experienced the war, but French people, like my former in-laws, not French people who had converted, and the stories they told were amazing. Tourists to Paris are constantly reminded of the war, through the plaques on buildings, “So and so was shot here by the Germans,” etc. The “Occupation” was always uttered with a deep regret and some fear. Oh, I will read this book. Thanks so much for recommending it.

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