Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, Sandra Smith
Published by Vintage
Publication date: April 10th 2007
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary
There are novels that come with a backstory so complex and heartrending the book itself can be overwhelmed. Irène Némirovsky, was a Ukrainian Jew living in Paris with her husband and two young daughters. She was a successful author and had written the first two parts of Suite Française in Paris during the German occupation. In 1942 at age 39 she would be sent to her death at Auschwitz. After she was deported her eldest daughter kept her notebooks without ever opening them, thinking they were her journals and would be too painful to read. It was only prior to donating them in the late 1990s that she discovered they were the beginnings of a novel which her mother had not completed because as she said in her notes, “the work is in limbo, and what limbo! It’s really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens.” With such a tragic history how could the author’s words compete? It seems impossible but Némirovsky’s words do. This book is so beautifully written, each word precise and delicate, that doing it justice doesn’t seem possible.
Suite Française is set in Paris and the villages of occupied France from 1940 to 1941 and follows the lives of a mixture of aristocrats, the middle class, villagers and German soldiers. These were the times in which Némirovsky lived but her work is intimately crafted fiction not journalistic reporting. The plot is rich with the intermingled lives of the characters and her understanding of human nature in all its beauty and ugliness is profound. Of a young German lieutenant she writes,
He was cruel but it was the cruelty of adolescence, cruelty that results from a lively and subtle imagination, focused entirely inward, towards his own soul. He didn’t pity the suffering of others, he simply didn’t see them: he saw only himself.
While situationally this sentiment sounds abhorrent with Némirovsky’s deft touch it seems understandable. She skillfully explores the many levels of feeling for both the conquered and the conquering and the reader is swept along.
While this is not a ‘happy’ book it is one that will deeply envelop the reader into the lives of its characters. Like Némirovsky herself they were trying to survive in precarious and dangerous times.The tragedy is that there is no more, either of the story or its gifted author.