Suite Francaise (Nemirovsky)

Suite Francaise 
Irene Nemirovsky, Trans., Sandra Smith, 2006
Random House
431 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781400096275 


Summary
The first English publication of Suite Française will be a major event. Suite Française is an extraordinary novel of life under Nazi occupation—recently discovered and published 64 years after the author's death in Auschwitz.

In the early 1940s, Irène Némirovsky was a successful writer living in Paris. But she was also Jewish, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Her two small daughters, aged 5 and 13, escaped, carrying with them, in a small suitcase, the manuscript—one of the great first-hand novelistic accounts of a way of life unravelling.

Part One, "A Storm in June," is set in the chaos of the tumultuous exodus from Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion. As the German army approaches, Parisians seize what belongings they can and flee the city, the wealthy and the poor alike searching for means to escape. Thrown together under circumstances beyond their control, a group of families and individuals with nothing in common but the harsh demands of survival find themselves facing the annihilation of their world, and human nature is revealed for what it is—sometimes tender, sometimes terrifying. Part Two, "Dolce," is set in a German-occupied village near Paris, where, riven by jealousy and resentment, resistance and collaboration, the lives of the townspeople reveal nothing less than the essence of the French identity. The delicate, secret love affair between a German soldier and the French woman in whose house he has been billeted plays out dangerously against the background of Occupation.

Suite Française is both a piercing record of its time, and a humane, profoundly moving work of art. Riveting, impossible to put down, it makes us witnesses to life as it was in wartime France, and leaves us wondering how we too might behave in such a perilous situation.

An immediate #1 bestseller in France, Suite Française has captured readers' imaginations not only for the tragic story of its author, and the circumstances of its rediscovery, but for its brilliantly subtle and compelling portrait of France under Occupation. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—February 11, 1903
Where—Kiev, Ukraine
Death—August 17, 1942
Where—Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi Germany
Education—Sorbonne


Irène Némirovsky was the daughter of a Jewish banker from Ukraine, Léon Némirovsky. Her mother was not interested in her, and often denied that she had a daughter, because it would make her "look old".

The Némirovskys lived in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where she was brought up by a French gouvernante, almost making French her native tongue. Irène also spoke Yiddish, Basque, Finnish, Polish, and English (probably learned while strolling the Rue des Rosiers in Paris, according to an interview).

The Némirovsky family lived for a year in Finland in 1918 following the Russian Revolution, and then, in 1919, moved to Paris, France, where Irène attended the Sorbonne and started writing when she was only 18 years old.

In 1926, Irène Némirovsky married Michel Epstein, a banker, and had two daughters: Denise, born in 1929; and Élisabeth, in 1937.

In 1929 she published David Golder, the story of a Jewish banker unable to please his troubled daughter, which was an immediate success, and was adapted to the big screen by Julien Duvivier in 1930, with Harry Baur as David Golder. In 1930 her novel Le Bal, the story of a mistreated daughter and the revenge of a teenager, became a play and a movie.

The David Golder manuscript was sent by post to the Grasset publisher with a Poste restante address and signed Epstein. H. Muller, a reader for Grasset immediately tried to find the author but couldn't get hold of him/her. Grasset put an ad in the newspapers hoping to find the author, but the author was "busy": she was having her first child, Denise. When Irène finally showed up as the author of David Golder, the unverified story is that the publisher was surprised that such a young woman was able to write such a powerful book.

Although she was widely recognized as a major author, by Jewish authors like Joseph Kessel and anti-semitic authors like Robert Brasillach alike, French citizenship was denied to the Némirovskys in 1938.

Irène Némirovsky was Jewish, but converted to Catholicism in 1939 and wrote in Candide and Gringoire, two anti-Semitic magazines—perhaps partly to hide the family's Jewish origins and thereby protect their children from growing anti-Semitic persecution.

By 1940, Némirovsky's husband was unable to continue working at the bank—and Irène's books could no longer be published—because of their Jewish ancestry. Upon the Nazis' approach to Paris, they fled with their two daughters to the village of Issy-l'Evêque (the Némirovskys initially sent them to live with their nanny's family in Burgundy while staying on in Paris themselves; they had already lost their Russian home and refused to lose their home in France), where Némirovsky was required to wear the Yellow badge. On July 13, 1942, Irène Némirovsky (then 39) was arrested as a "stateless person of Jewish descent" by French police under the regulations of the German occupation. As she was being taken away, she told her daughters, "I am going on a journey now." She was brought to a convoy assembly camp at Pithiviers and on July 17 together with 928 other Jewish deportees transported to Auschwitz. Upon her arrival there two days later, her forearm was marked with an identification number. According to official papers, she died a month later of typhus.

Her husband was sent to Auschwitz shortly thereafter, and was immediately put to death in a gas chamber.

The rediscovery
Némirovsky is now best known as the author of the unfinished Suite Française (Denoël, France, translation by Sandra Smith, Knopf), two novellas portraying life in France between June 4, 1940 and July 1, 1941, the period during which the Nazis occupied Paris. These works are considered remarkable because they were written during the actual period itself, and yet are the product of considered reflection, rather than just a journal of events, as might be expected considering the personal turmoil experienced by the author at the time.

Némirovsky's oldest daughter, Denise, kept the notebook containing the manuscript for Suite Française for fifty years without reading it, thinking it was a journal or diary of her mother's, which would be too painful to read. In the late 1990s, however, she made arrangements to donate her mother's papers to a French archive and decided to examine the notebook first. Upon discovering what it contained, she instead had it published in France, where it became a bestseller in 2004.

The original manuscript has been given to the Institut mémoires de l'édition contemporaine (IMEC), and the novel has won the Prix Renaudot—the first time the prize has been awarded posthumously.

Némirovsky's surviving notes sketch a general outline of a story arc that was intended to include the two existing novellas, as well as three more to take place later during the war and at its end. She wrote that the rest of the work was "in limbo, and what limbo! It's really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens."

In a January 2006 interview with the BBC, her daughter, Denise, said, "For me, the greatest joy is knowing that the book is being read. It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life. It shows that the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her. It is not vengeance, but it is a victory." (From the author's website.)



Book Reviews 
The improbable survival of her two novellas is a cause for celebration and also for grief at another reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust. She wrote what may be the first work of fiction about what we now call World War II. She also wrote, for all to read at last, some of the greatest, most humane and incisive fiction that conflict has produced.
Paul Gray - The New York Times


While diaries give us a day-to-day record, their very inclusiveness can lead to tedium; memoirs, on the other hand, written at a later date, search for highlights and illuminate the past from the vantage point of the present. In Némirovsky's Suite Française we have the perfect mixture: a gifted novelist's account of a foreign occupation, written while it was taking place, with history and imagination jointly evoking a bitter time, correcting and enriching our memory.
Ruth Kruger - Washington Post


This is not a diary or a novel written years later in cool contemplation. These are historical novellas written while the author lived through the events. Yet with the detachment of hindsight and the craft of a fine, experienced author (she had successfully published nine novels), Nemirovsky shapes into novel form the stories of a small gallery of French Parisians and villagers and occupying German officers and soldiers, each with his or her national and personal idiosyncrasies and destinies. This was to have been the first of five novellas in an ongoing war saga, but in 1942 the Germans discovered the Jewish writer living in a small village. She was arrested and shipped to Auschwitz, and died a month later. 
Publishers Weekly


Nemirovsky (1903-42), a Sorbonne-educated Jewish migr born into a wealthy Russian family, had planned to write a five-part novel documenting the turmoil of Nazi-occupied France. Instead, she was deported in 1942 and died in Auschwitz. Her daughters hid their mother's notebook in a valise, and it remained unread for over 60 years. This Knopf edition includes the first two books of the projected quintet, as well as appendixes with the author's notes and correspondence, and the preface to the French edition. The latter includes biographical information that tells the remarkable story of the book's provenance. Part 1, "Storm in June," describes the panic and confusion accompanying several Parisian families' exodus to the countryside as the Germans enter Paris. The pettiness of an arriviste banker and his mistress contrasts sharply with his employees' acts of courage the kind of heroism of ordinary people that history generally does not record. Part 2, "Dolce," relates the complicated relationships between the occupying Wehrmacht army and French peasants, village merchants, and ruling class aristocracy. Some resisted, some cooperated as necessary, while others welcomed the conqueror into their arms. "Dolce" illuminates wartime economies of scarcity, the brutality of martial law (anyone caught with a radio risked immediate execution), and cultural hegemony (church bells were reset to German time). Throughout the narrative, the uncertain plight of two million French prisoners of war and painful memories of previous invasions haunt the characters. In a notebook excerpt, N mirovsky reminds herself to "simplify" the language and the narrative. The result is a world-class "you-are-there" proto-epic that is essential for all fiction and European history collections. —Mark Andr Singer, Mechanics' Inst. Lib., San Francisco
Library Journal


Acclaimed in France and the U.K., here are two sections of a hugely ambitious novel about World War II France, plus authorial notes and correspondence; the remaining three sections were never written, for the already established Russo-French-Jewish author died at Auschwitz in 1942. These sections should be seen as movements in the symphony Nemirovsky envisaged. Part one, "Storm in June," follows various civilians fleeing a panicky Paris and a victorious German army in June 1940. Here are the Pericands, middle-class Catholics, secure in their car; Madame offers charity to refugees on foot, but strictly for show. There is Gabriel Corte, famous writer and "privileged creature" (so he thinks); Charles Langelet, the ice-cold aesthete who steals gasoline from innocents; Corbin, the obnoxious bank director who forces his employees, the Michauds, out of his car. They can handle that; they're an admirable couple, sustained by their humility and mutual devotion. What interests Nemirovsky is individual behavior in the harsh glare of national crisis; keeping the Germans in the background, she skewers the hypocrisy, pretension and self-involvement of the affluent Parisians. There is no chaos or cross-cutting between multiple characters in part two, "Dolce." Here the focus is on one middle-class household in a village in the occupied zone in 1941. Madame Angellier agonizes over her son Gaston, a POW; her daughter-in-law Lucile, who never loved him (he kept a mistress), is less concerned; the women co-exist uncomfortably. Tensions rise when a young German lieutenant, Bruno, is billeted with them; he and Lucile are drawn to each other, though they do not become lovers. Then another complication: Lucileagrees to shelter a peasant who has shot a German officer. An honest soul, Lucile is forced into duplicity with Bruno; Nemirovsky relishes these crisis-induced contradictions. Her nuanced account is as much concerned with class divisions among the villagers as the indignities of occupation; when the soldiers leave for the Russian front, the moment is surprisingly tender. A valuable window into the past, and the human psyche. This is important work. 
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. The novelist, who herself fled Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion, wrote the book virtually while the occupation was happening, most likely making Suite Française the first work of fiction about World War II. How do you think she managed to write while she herself was in jeopardy? Do you think it was easier for her to capture the day-to-day realities of life under occupation? In what ways might the book have been different if she had survived and been able to write Suite Française years after the war?

2. Suite Française is a unique pair of novels. Which of the two parts of Suite Française do you prefer? Which structural organization did you find more effective: the short chapters and multiple focus of "Storm in June," or the more restricted approach of "Dolce?"

3. What is the significance of the title "Dolce?"

4. How does Suite Française undermine the long-held view of French resistance to the German occupation?

5. Discuss Irène Némirovsky's approach to class in Suite Française. How do the rich, poor, and the middle classes view one another? How do they help or hinder one another? Do the characters identify themselves by class or nationality?

(You might consider the aristocratic Mme de Montmort's thought in "Dolce": "What separates or unites people is not their language, their laws, their customs, but the way they hold their knife and fork.")

6. In "Dolce," we enter the increasingly complex life of a German-occupied provincial village. Coexisting uneasily with the soldiers billeted among them, the villagers—from aristocrats to shopkeepers to peasants—cope as best they can. Some choose resistance, others collaboration. Each relationship is distorted by the allegiances of war. What happens when someone—who might have been your friend—is now declared your enemy during a war?

7. The lovers in the second novel question whether the needs of the individual or the community should take priority. Lucille imagines that "in five, or ten, or twenty years" this problem will have been replaced by others. To what extent, if at all, has this proved the case? Has Western society conclusively decided to privilege the individual over the group?

8. How does Suite Française compare to other World War Two novels you have read? How would you compare it to the great personal documents of the war (for example, those written by Anne Frank and Victor Klemperer), or to fiction?

9. "Important events—whether serious, happy or unfortunate—do not change a man's soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows of all its leaves." —"Storm in June," p.203

Do you agree?

10. Consider Irène Némirovsky's plan for the next part of Suite Française (in the appendix). What else do you think could happen to the characters?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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