Suite Francais. A review

by

Jenny Haines

Suite Francais is an unfinished novel by Irene Nemirovsky, written at the time of the fall of France and its occupation by the Nazis. It was meant to be a suite of stories, similar to a symphony, but only two parts of the suite were completed before the author was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1942.

The first part tells of the flight of Parisians as the Nazis invaded. The stories tell of the aristocats, sophisticates, the wealthy, the middle-class merchants and the desperate poor all on the road, scrabbling for what they could get, struggling to survive. Their stories are told with a raw, bitter, piercing eloquence. Irene Nemirovsky spares the reader nothing in her record of human nature in these circumstances: the generous, the greedy, the selfish, the dreamers, the survivors and those who die, oppressed by the circumstances.

The second suite is about life in a small village occupied by the Nazis. There is no doubt some autobiographical storytelling in this suite through the character of Lucille, who has a difficult and tense relationship with her mother in law, embittered by the incarceration of her precious son in an internment camp. Lucille struggles with boredom, loneliness, the truth about her loveless marriage and a growing attraction to a German officer billeted in her house. The second suite ends precipitously with the exodus of the occupying Germans to the Russian Front

Irene Nemirovsky wrote a detailed, beautiful, passionate portrait of life at the time. She had no illusions about the French masses, calling them “loathsome in their defeat and collaboration”. She wrote denouncing their “fear, cowardice, acceptance of humiliation, of persecution and massacre”, but she also wrote of the intimacies of their minds and hearts, their longing and their pining for friends and family members interned or lost, their shame at the fall of France, and their stubborn pride in dealing with the occupying Nazis.

At the end of the two parts of the suite, this edition contains her notes for the remaining parts of the book. Following her notes are letters written by her desperate husband Michael after she was taken away by the Nazis, to her publishers and various public officials, trying to find out what had happened to her. The letters become increasingly desperate and frantic, and once you know that she is dead, unreadable.

Irene Nemirovsky was born a Russian Jew of wealthy parents in Kiev in 1903. She was an only child with a testy relationship with her mother that seems to be reflected in the relationship between Lucille and her mother in law. In 1918 her family fled the Bolshevik Revolution, settling first in Finland, and then when the Red Russians came to close they caught the boat to France. Ironically she was taken to the concentration camp by the Nazis, due to percieved sympathy for Jews and Bolsheviks. Even her conversion to Catholicism did not save her.

Her father was able to re-establish the family’s wealth by taking over a branch of his bank in France. The family became part of the wealthy Russian emigre social scene in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. In the middle 1920s, Irene married Michael and had two daughters, Denise in 1929 and Elizabeth in 1937.

In 1940, the occupying Nazis started issuing decrees that made life very uncomfortable for the family in Paris so they moved to a small village in occupied France, Issy-L’Everque. It was here that Nemirovsky started writing Suite Francais

Her two daughters survived the war, hidden in convents by sympathetic nuns. Michael died in a concentration camp a couple of months after Irene, after he was sent there by the Vichy Regime for lobbying incessantly for her release. Michael did not understand that once you were taken away there was no return.

Le Monde reviewers write of Suite Francais that it is “a mastepiece … ripped from oblivion”. There is no doubt that had she lived, Irene Nemirovsky would have been a great writer.

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