Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky

Several people recommended this wonderful book to me, for which I’m grateful. As most people know by now, the story behind this book about the German occupation of France during World War II is almost as interesting as the book itself. Nemirovsky, an established writer of Ukrainian origins living in France, wrote the two novellas making up Suite Francaise almost as the events depicted in them were unfolding. They are part of Nemirovsky’s projected five-book series about the war. Ironically, the third book was to be Captivity but Nemirovsky herself was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she died, followed shortly by her husband. Her daughter preserved the notebooks containing these two novellas but did not read them until the late 1990s.

As a writer, I am mightily impressed with Nemirovsky’s ability to write about what was even then occurring, without the leisure for reflection and analysis. Her grasp of the larger issues stunned me, as did her detailed observations of people’s reactions to events and her recognition of what they said about France as a whole. And I can’t say enough about her evocative language, her use of dialogue, her ability to see into the hearts of so many different sorts of people.

For all I have read about both world wars, this is the first time I’ve read an account of what it was like for ordinary, middle-class folks when the Germans descended on Paris. “Storm in June” follows several families and individuals engulfed by the panic and chaos as they try to flee. Sometimes funny, sometimes sardonic, sometimes sweetly sympathetic, Nemirovsky allows us to experience their uncertainty as they struggle with the practical details of leaving town. Do you take the cat? Linens? Artworks? Where do you get gas for the car? Are the trains still running?

What I found most interesting was how long it took some people to understand the extent and ramifications of what was happening, like the mother who tells her children that as good Christians they should share their cookies and chocolates with other refugees until she realises that she cannot buy more because the stores are empty. I was also fascinated by how the panic affected the social structure and norms, what broke down and what remained.

“Dolce,” the second novella, takes place in a small rural town where some of the refugees have come to rest. Unlike the usual tales of the Resistance and collaborators, these extraordinarily realistic characters struggle to balance their patriotism and pride against the obvious humanity of the German soldiers who occupy the town. Throughout both novellas, Nemirovsky’s characters are minutely observed and insightfully depicted. One reviewer compared her to Flaubert in her realism which I think is true.

And it is the characters who drive her themes of greed and betrayal. The upper middle-class and aristocracy seem concerned only with themselves, like the bank manager who callously abandons two of his elderly employees whom he’d promised to drive out of Paris, simply because his mistress wants the car. At the same time, he demands that they meet him in Tours in two days or lose their jobs, without seeming to recognise that they have no way to get there other than walking. Or the rich aesthete who loads his car with his precious artifacts and, when he runs out of gas, tricks two young lovers in order to steal their gas. Yet Nemirovsky manages to balance the egotistical pettiness of her characters with humane sympathy for their limitations.

Some reviewers have complained that she did not address the issue of anti-semitism and the fate of the Jews, particularly since she herself was Jewish. Similarly, some reviewers complained about McEwan’s Saturday because he didn’t write about the anti-war march itself. However, I believe writers should be allowed to write what they want, what they are compelled to write. Even though I’m often guilty of criticising a book because it doesn’t tell the story I wanted or expected it to, I at least recognise that I’m the one at fault. I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys having a slice of history come to life, or meeting unforgettable characters, or simply reveling in gorgeous language.

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