Thursday, June 29, 2006

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

He wrote with a chewed-up pencil stub, in a little notebook which he had against his heart. He felt he had to hurry: something inside him was making him anxious, was knocking on an invisible door. By writing, he opened that door, he gave life to something that wished to be born. Then suddenly, he would become discouraged, feel disheartened, weary. He was mad. What was he doing writing these stupid stories, letting himself be pampered by the farmer's wife, while his friends were in prison, his despairing parents thought he was dead, when the future was so uncertain, the past so bleak?

Suite Francaise is an emotional novel, written, as it was, while the real-life events echoed within were occurring. Comprised of the two completed sections of an intended five-part novel, which the author was unable to complete before her death in a concentration camp, the book also includes notes by the author, correspondence from 1936-1945 (three years beyond her death), and a preface for the French edition published in 2004.

The two parts of Suite Francaise could easily stand alone, but they're interconnected and their stories would have been drawn to fuller conclusions, had the author lived.

The first section (or book, as some describe it), Storm, describes the German occupation of Paris and massive evacuation by its inhabitants. Refugees rush to the countryside with mattresses piled on top of cars and their most important possessions crammed inside, by foot or by train if they have no car. During this slow and tedious exodus, they experience the horrors of war firsthand. Bombs fall around them, trains cease to run, fuel and food become scarce, cars must be abandoned, weary and injured soldiers retreat, people sleep on the ground or in their cars and steal from each other. In the countryside, farmers take in refugees but fear they'll run out of food for their own families. All is seen through the eyes of a few people and, for the most part, the characters are snobs. Nemirovsky, herself, wrote in her personal notes: "In general, they are often characters who have too high a social standing."

This inclination toward characters with a "high social standing" is the only real annoyance in Suite Francaise. Nemirovsky's writing is beautifully crafted, obviously skilled, and painfully visceral.

The second part, Dolce, adds some new characters and moves on to the next phase of occupation as German soldiers enter, and are billeted in, the small village where many of the characters in Storm have taken refuge. As they become accustomed to life with enemy soldiers sharing their homes and their dwindling food supplies, milling about the village square, and engaging in maneuvers with confiscated horses, conflicts naturally arise. Torn between recognizing the humanity of soldiers they know were ripped from their own lives in Germany and the reality that their own sons and brothers are imprisoned, there are moments of gentle conversation, inward confusion and paralyzing fear.

An absolutely gut-wrenching and amazing book. Because it was written with a focus on emotion rather than history, I found I could only read a little at a time until I became accustomed to the raw emotion; and, I did have to get used to those snobby characters. Dolce has a slightly broader focus, as the reader gets a glimpse into the former lives of some of the German soldiers, but I also believe it's a bit more palatable because by the time one begins to read Dolce, he is well-versed regarding the antipathy between French classes.

Okay, don't call me modern: I'm going with the "he" rather than "he or she" of modern English. So sue me. Long story short: thumbs up and worthy of a spot on the keeper shelves. I plan to search for the book Vichy, France - a history of Occupied France referenced repeatedly in the notes after the novel - and hope that if none of the author's other books (9 of which had been published before the war) are in print, that they will be revived because of this release.

I should probably warn you that the notes and correspondence are particularly poignant and kept me up most of the night, tossing and turning as I reran the desperation of the author, her husband, and her publisher, mentally. But, then, I'm a lousy sleeper, the spouse was snoring like a jackhammer, and the kiddo incomprehensibly decided to steal the futon (my location of last resort). Just read the book, if it's your thing.


  1. Wow, this sounds amazing. Great review of it. I'm most definitely intrigued.

  2. Thanks, Andi. This one's going on the good shelves. Although, to be honest, I'd probably keep it just for the smashing cover. :)

  3. Great review! I've been curious about this one since it was released in France a couple of years ago. It's definitely moving up the 'must read' list now! :)

  4. Hi Nat! Thanks! I read about Suite Francaise in two newsletters, about a month ago and caved. Fortunately, the hubby even gave it the nod. He seldom encourages me to buy books, but I was having a bad day and books are my upper. :)

  5. Great review. Definitely something my dh and I would both enjoy reading. BTW, I love your blog. Stumbled on it via Nat's. Now I'm off to read all your archived posts.

  6. Hi Lesley!

    I'm pretty sure I've been to your blog, but I'm in a post-vacation fog. I'll have to look. Nat has some great links. :)

    Thanks so much, btw! I'm glad you like my blog! I'm brand new to blogging, as you can probably tell from the archives. So far, I've only managed to knock out one book, this month, thanks to preparation and then the actual vacation. Horrors! But, the vacation was fun, so I shouldn't complain. There is much laundry to be done. My week off is definitely over. LOL

    Happy reading!!!

  7. I just finished reading this book yesterday...and felt immensely moved by it (I also reviewed it over on my blog: if you're interested!). I also couldn't stop thinking about her notes and coorespondence in the This book really put a human face on the Holocaust...sort of like Anne Frank's diary.

  8. Thanks, Wendy!

    I loved your review; I've also left a comment at your blog. :)


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