Tuesday, July 1, 2008

“Suite Française,” a Novel

“Suite Française,” by Irène Némirovsky; translated by Sandra Smith

Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 and immigrated to France to escape the Russian Revolution. She was a successful writer in France before the Nazis invaded. She died in Auschwitz on August 17, 1942.

“Suite Française,” by Irène Némirovsky is a historical novel written as the author, a Russian Jew, is in the midst of the Nazi invasion of Paris and the subsequent Nazi occupation of France. That Némirovsky wrote at all, with the struggle to stay alive in order to save her husband and small daughters, is remarkable; that her writing is exceptional is a miracle.

“Suite Française” is two novellas, depicting life in France from June 4, 1940 as the Nazis invade Paris, to July 1, 1941 when they pull out of France to join in the invasion of Russia. The first novella “Storm in June,” opens with the thunderous sounds of the German Army advancing on a sleeping Paris. Némirovsky’s characters exhibit a range of human reactions to the catastrophe of war, some doing what they deem necessary to preserve a privileged life and some merely trying to stay alive as they react to the invasion.

The second novella, “Dolce,” takes place in a Nazi occupied French village, with only women, children and old men remaining. The French have lost the war, but the war continues in the form of internalized struggle. The villagers struggle to find some normalcy with the enemy billeted in their very homes. There is, on the surface, collaboration but with an undercurrent of resistance and real acts of heroism and honor carried out by some individuals. In occupied France, whether in Paris or a provincial village, Némirovsky’s characters show us that not all occupying troops were monsters and not all Frenchmen were honorable.

The most poignant part of this book is the story of how it came to be a book. Before Némirovsky was arrested July 13, 1942 by the French police who were enforcing Nazi race laws, she gave a suitcase to her two small daughters, which they took with them into hiding. The suitcase contained a leather-bound notebook in which Némirovsky had written what would become “Suite Française.” Denise, her eldest daughter, saved the notebook for fifty-six years before reading it. She had been fearful that reading, what she thought was a journal, would bring back horrific memories of a childhood in hiding and the death of her parents in concentration camps.

After reading her mother’s book, Denise had it published in France, sixty-two years after her mother had left it with her. “Suite Française” was awarded the French Prix Renaudot for 2004. This was the first time the prize has been awarded posthumously.

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