Monday, July 12, 2010

N is for...

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

I apologize in advance--blogger is refusing to let me do accents, which is bugging me as, you can see from the cover pic, I'm missing accents aigus et circonflexes all over the place. Sorry.


I'm cheating a little here. Suite Francaise is not, technically, historical fiction, as it was written during the period it portrays. Nemirovsky describes the 1940 evacuation of Paris and subsequent German occupation of France not from a researcher's perspective, but because she lived through these turbulent times. Yet, I felt compelled to share her work here.

Suite Francaise is two books of a series originally planned to be five books long. The first, Storm in June, captures the palpable apprehension of Paris as the German forces moved in on the city. Told from a variety of perspectives, we are introduced to characters from all walks of life and social strata as they attempt to escape. There's the wealthy family with the invalid patriarch, the arrogant writer and his latest mistress, the poor couple so deeply in love you can't help but love them for their devotion. As the migration swells and breaks at the train stations, roadside hostels, petrol supplies, these characters begin to cross paths. The results are often surprising.

The second book, Dolce, takes place during the occupation in a small town now overrun with a German resident. As the town adjusts to the presence of the foriegn force, some residents rebel, some are complacent, and some collaborate outright. Their decisions are varied and complex, and Nemirovsky does not paint a simplistic picture of the situation. Most delicately rendered is the growing understanding and, eventually, relationship between the jilted wife of a French POW and the German officer billeted at her house. Their clandestine yet chaste and subtle love affair may be the most beautiful, soulful romance I have ever read.

The two books appear unrelated, but plot outlines and skeletons for the subsequent books show how Nemirovsky intended for them to intertwine. Those books were never written.



Because Nemirovsky was Jewish by parentage (though she had converted to Roman Catholicism), she was sent to Auschwitz by the same invading force she writes about in Suite Francaise. She died, likely in the gas chambers, in 1942. The tiny notebook in which she wrote Suite Francaise was originally assumed by her daughter to be an actual diary of her mother's time evading the Nazis. Thinking it would be too painful to read, she didn't open it until her mother's papers were being prepared for transferral to the National Archives in France. At this point, she opened the notebook and discovered this final unpublished novel.

Nemirovsky's circumstances make her balanced treatment of the story's characters all the more remarkable. As a writer, she looked past the labels of "collaborator" or "occupying force" to see the people underneath their assumed roles.

All this aside, the writing is pure beauty. Prose to make you weep. And even though you can see spots where, perhaps, Nemirovsky would have improved upon her work had she been given the chance to edit it, it stands as a beautiful piece of literary fiction and a window into the storm of WWII and the moments of sweetness within the tempest.



I've discovered that Sarah at Reading the Past has also posted on Nemirovsky--she's written a lovely review of Fire in the Blood, another of Nemirovsky's WWII era novels.

5 comments:

Connie said...

I loved this book!!

Sarah said...

How funny we both ended up writing about Nemirovsky! I enjoyed your review and am going to have to read Suite Francaise...

Miss Rosemary said...

I have had this on my shelf for a few years but have yet to read it. I am disappointed in myself

Rowenna said...

Connie--I know! Could read it again...

Sarah--I have Fire in the Blood on my list, so excited to have another one of her books to read!

Rosemary--no worries, you were just saving it for the perfect time :)

Marg said...

I read this book when it first came out. As much as I liked it, and would have liked to have seen how the various threads of the story linked together, it really was the author's own story which was fascinating to me.