Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Suite Francaise is one of the most interesting novels I have read this year.
First, there is the background and history of the author which clearly and very directly affects the work in every way.
Irene Nemirovsky, the novelist, was a Jew living in Paris during World War II. Need anymore necessarily be said about that? She exited Paris in 1941 with the other panic stricken Parisiennes who were convinced they could find shelter and safety in southern France.
In that manner, Suite Francaise can be viewed as autobiographical even though the characters depicted are fictional, certain scenes no doubt would have be born through what Nemirovsky saw while fleeing Paris.
The book begins with a description of Paris is chaos, the Germans having broken through the border and making their way directly to the capital. A mass exodus begins with people of all backgrounds, religions and colours leaving the city that they believe will be bombed and destroyed. Families pack their most precious belongings (hand embroidered linens seem to rate high on that list) and catch a ride any way they can from the city; most people are reduced to travelling on foot, trudging through the dust.
How can we even know or fully understand what fears these people suffered through? For those of us born and living in a country relatively untouched by war, we cannot grasp this situation, the idea of leaving one’s home and simply walking….nowhere.
Divided into two sections (“Storm in June” and “Dolce”), the first introduces us to multiple characters that collide into each other in ethereal far reaching ways. We can make the connections between them (“He stayed at the farm in the village where that other family stayed!”), but they certainly could not and inevitably we see the eventual demise of several characters.
“Dolce” brings new characters to the novel and even though they are very loosely attached to a few characters in the first part, we focus mainly on these villagers, farmers and land owners who are now forced to billet German soldiers, allowing them into their homes and their lives.
What this novel very effectively does is capture what must have been the feelings of Nemirovsky herself as she saw her beloved country taken by intruders, all French citizens forced to treat the soldiers with respect and humility. The different individuals that we grow close to struggle with feeling interest for these young men, anger that their own sons or brothers are dead or P.O.W.s, frustration that they are unable to do anything actively to protect France and each other… The myriad of emotions described is almost incomprehensible, but yet the author manages to express herself through her characters very clearly.
At moments I was transported to the idyllic village, the silence interrupted by the marching, the clanging of hobnailed boots on the cobblestones.
Before we begin to see France truly oppressed, before Jews are rounded up in cattle cars and sent to their deaths, before famine spreads across Europe and the German soldiers become pinched and hungry…this is a depiction of France before the war truly set in, when the citizens still had hope for their future.
Would I recommend this novel? 100% yes. It is possibly the first piece of fiction from WWII and the emotions behind the story are remarkable. The novel is made even more tangible by the fact that Nemirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942. Her manuscript was undiscovered until 1990 and the book was only recently published in 2004. A somewhat easy read, Suite Francaise has an important message to every single reader:
“I swear here and now never again to take out my bitterness, no matter how justifiable, on a group of people, whatever their race, religion, convictions, prejudices, errors.”
-Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise
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