France on Friday
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.
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.”
Of 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.