Suite Française by Irene Nèmirovsky
Many years ago, during my English Department’s annual Yankee Book Swap, Irene Nèmirovsky’s Suite Française made the rounds as one of the popular books to swap for and steal. I did not end up bringing the book home, but I did write the title down and add it to my enormous To-Be-Read list. I found it at my library in hardcover years later on sale for $1. Of course, as what typically happens, I bought it and then never read it until now. I’m disappointed I’ve never read Nèmirovsky’s work, and I intend to tell as many people about her as possible.
In order to appreciate Suite Française fully, I think a little context is necessary. Nèmirovsky intended a five-volume series on the beginnings of World War II, most specifically the Nazi occupation of France, where she was a citizen, but also a Jew. Before she finished writing, she was captured and died in a concentration camp in 1942. She had written two volumes. Her daughters hid the manuscript for decades until it reached publication in 2004.
The novel itself is a collection of stories that weave together many characters and conflicts in Paris as they flee the occupation into the countryside. Families, priests, husbands, wives, men, mistresses, single women, the wealthy, the poor, soldiers, and children are all affected by the sudden disturbance to their daily life and reduced circumstances. Only one couple, the Michauds, find themselves with anything resembling a happy ending, which seems realistic, considering the tenor of the time in which their story is written. The book itself is shocking and tragic, which, when you consider how Nèmirovsky never lived to see the end of the war, makes sense.
This novel is worth the read, for it portrays a war in progress, with no sense of the end in sight or the winners and losers that would go on to shape the narrative arc of the history. Therefore, I argue that this is an important entry in the WWII literary canon, as it shows the effects of occupation and the problems of writing a war as it is happening. I will be haunted by this book and its extraordinary author’s ambition and all-too-short life.