Having read much history about the 1940 fall of France, including such indispensible first person accounts as Bloch's "Strange Defeat," I have read nothing that captures the human experience of that debacle (arguably any debacle) as immediate and gripping as Ir?ne N?mirovsky's two novellas, all that was completed of what would have been the five part "Suite Fran?aise" (her title). Characters are as real as people we know well. They are vividly and deeply etched, with a focus and an economy of utterance that belie how engrained they become in the reader's mind. Without a central narrator, through the depiction of lives that in some cases are interlocking, in others tangential, indeed in most merely coeval, the feel of a world in dissolution has never been so effectively conveyed, both the general maelstrom and the personal experience. Transcending its time and place, it reminds us today how transitory everything is, how off-kilter, unbalanced, insecure life can suddenly become, indeed of the fragility of our existence, of how supporting structures such as class, belief, position, employ, wealth, can be swept away by happenstance or a tide of events we do not fully understand or foresee. When all material support is gone, all the characters (we) have left is what they (we) find within. For some, it's emptiness and pretension which always engender brutishness. Others are surprised by habits and qualities they took for granted or were not even aware they had: integrity, empathy, resourcefulness, even the grace and generosity inherent in good manners. Riches indeed. Ironically, the novelist as well as we, have always known that brutishness is not always punished nor does virtue always heal.
This novel speaks to the heart directly and, through the heart, to the intellect. The writing is thorough and gripping, detail is probed and embelished only when necessary. Some have described N?mirovsky's writing as Proustian. I think this is so only to the extent that the emerging picture is so flavorful and complete. The writing is always flowing yet compact; I don't recall a sentence which, unlike in Proust, could be remotely described as rococo. Though the events and composition are more than half a century removed from our time, the feel is oddly contemporary, the narrative's impact immediate and timeless.
The first novella has to do with the flight from Paris and the French defeat; the second, with life in a village under the occupation. But, of course, this is as adequate as saying that "War and Peace" is about Russia and Napoleon.
Read this book and be moved.
Recommendation: skip the introduction and don't browse the appendices first. Read the novel without concerning yourself with provenance. Afterwards by all means do read everything else. You will realize what a truly remarkable person wrote the gripping masterpiece you have just read, and the love and dedication by the author, her daughters and relevant others that ultimately brought this book into being. But, it must be emphasized: the greatness of "Suite Fran?aise" lies in the work, not in the circumstances of its provenance.
on November 29, 2006
This novel bridges the divide between fact and fiction and as such is just my cup of tea. Irène Némirovsky, a successful Russian born novelist, was living in Paris at the start of the second world war - 1939. Although of Jewish parentage, she was in fact a Catholic, married and with two small children. By 1940 it was clear that France would be overthrown and Paris would be occupied by the Nazis. The Parisienne, and particularly the Jewish citizens of Paris, on hearing the guns of war outside their city, then proceeded by the thousands, to flee, and make for the rural communities of France hoping to avoid the wrath of the Nazis. In the case of the Jews, it was in order to save their lives. Némirovsky and her family fled to a small town in central France and she began to write the first of what she planned to be a series of four or five stories about the French experience during the war. She had completed her drafts of the first two of these, when she was discovered by the German SS and sent immediately to a concentration camp. Within a month, at the age of 39, she was executed. After a relatively short time her husband suffered the same fate. The children were taken by a friend and hidden from the Nazis for the duration of the war, and survived. They took their Mother's manuscript into hiding with them and some 60 years later, it was taken by Némirovsky's daughter, Denise Epstein to a publisher. It was published first in France, where it has already been very successful, and with a fine translation by Sandra Smith, now in English. The first of the two stories, "Storm in June" tells of the mass, panic exodus at the eleventh hour from Paris, where families, some of them used to a life of luxury, and most used to a degree of comfort and pleasure, were thrown into a situation where they had no control over their circumstances, and where real friends were distinguished from the fair-weather kind. Some of them found tolerable accommodation, some eventually returned to Paris, and some died under the guns of German fighter planes. The second story, is titled "Dolce" and it continues from the first in telling of life for the evacuees in a small rural village, occupied by German soldiers. Some of the French accommodated themselves to the soldiers and adapted a lifestyle in spite of them, some never accepted their presence, some resisted, some collaborated and some died. These are not great stories, but they are told with a sensitivity which could only come from the pen of a very good writer. Unfortunately, she never had the opportunity to review and polish them and the translator has faithfully translated leaving what errors there may be in place. There are two appendices in the book, the first containing the author's notes, the second contains her correspondence at the time. They add a considerable measure of poignancy to the stories, and in fact, I recommend that you read them first. It is a wonderful story, hailed in Europe as a French "Anne Frank". I heartily recommend it to you.
on March 17, 2006
I think this is a wonderful book, so moving and beautifully written that you realize after only a few pages, that you are reading a timeless classic, something that
will endure for ever in the same way as the great works of Tolstoy or
Flaubert. Actually the author has all the lyricism of Tolstoy - and the
breadth of vision - but doesn't hammer on about her 'message' as he can do.
Think of those passages in Anna Karenina where the great man begins to
describe Levin and the ideal life in the country. There is none of this in
Suite Francaise. And the wonder of it is that you don't realize the author
was a Jew living life on borrowed time , exiled to the French countryside and
with the full knowledge of what this invasion meant for her personally and
her family. There is no fear in the book. It is essentially and creatively
feminine. That Irene Nemirovsky was about to be taken and killed , that she was a
Jew in the middle of a European abomination , this never intrudes. You
don't read the book for what the author suffered, despite her knowledge of
her own personal perilous position, she just lets her art take over so what
we get is a timeless brilliant classic which is so much more of an amazing
legacy to her and those who died than any personalized or angled account
could ever have been. What real heroism to do this, what an achievement, to
rise about the fear and humiliation and write this wonderful work. And the
translation is fantastic just because we don't notice it specially. Sandra
Smith ( translators like editors are surely born to live in the shadows )
has done a fabulous job in not making the book seem at all foreign. There
are no jarring phrases and odd distracting foreignisms that often get in
the way of really enjoying a great work like this . Of course we are
reading Irene Nemirovsky but every word on the page is Smith's and they are
all beautifully chosen to match the lyricism of the original. This is one
of the most important books to emerge for years and, it sounds rather
plangent but a triumph of life and art over the forces of death and
It must be remembered that this one book consists of two novellas. With the exception of minor mentions in the second book of a few characters from the first, there is nothing in common between the two. Thus, they really should be evaluated as two books.
The first was about Parisians fleeing Paris before the German occupation in June, 1940. Most are from the upper class and they are forced to "mix" with the lower classes. Almost all the characters are unlikeable and the characterizations almost seem to be caricatures of snooty Frenchmen and women. It is amazing that a French author would draw such scathing portraits.
Although the writing is good, I found the pacing extremely slow and tedious. There was a relentless litany of whining and complaining without corresponding renderings of real suffering. At one point I thought the tedium was by design, to show the relentless hardship. If that were the purpose, it did not work. The first book was simply over-written, slow and tedious. There really was no plot. It consisted of mere accounts of the plight of some atypical Parisian refugees.
The second book, "Dolce" was much much better. I wish I had not been jaded by the first novella. It was the account of the occupation by the Germans of a small rural town. It had tensions between farmers and town people, rich and poor (rich were still lambasted mercilessly), sympathizers and patriots and, best of all, the internal tension of a French woman forced to billet a German officer. This was the heart of Dolce. The woman's husband is a prisoner of war. Despite that, she realizes she is falling love with the German officer and he with her. The plot rotates around this tension and events that effect it.
In sum, I wish I had skipped the first novella but enjoyed the second. Thus, the average to 3 star rating.
on November 27, 2006
I found Nemirovsky's work, especially the second part (the WWII German occupation of a town in France) masterful and gripping, with an ever-growing sense doom for the both the nations at war as well as for the relationship between Lucile, an upper middle class French woman unhappily married to a French soldier-POW, and Bruno, an aristocratic German officer of the detested occupying force. That the author could craft this work knowing that her own end was likely fast approaching is nothing short of amazing. The first appendix of correspondence read very much like the copies of letters I still have of letters written by my father, newly arrived in the US from 1939 - 1941, trying to locate friends and relatives still in Europe, and some of their responses, first optimistic and reassuring, then resigned, and then not at all. Nemirovsky's own notes give clues as to how carefully she crafted these sections of what was to be an epic. And the final appendix (the forward to the French Edition) brought tears to my eyes. Murdered talent. Murdered relationships. And a stroke of luck that Denise, the author's daughter, thought to put the MS, unread, into her suitcase as a memento of her mother.
She was apparently a renowned novelist living quite luxuriantly in 1930's Paris, but it is this just-published incomplete work which will assure author Irène Némirovsky her legacy. The circumstances behind this work are just as compelling as the stories presented in the book itself. A Ukranian-born Jew forced to wear a yellow star to show the Nazis her status, she was sent to her death at Auschwitz in July 1942 just as she was completing two of the stories that were to comprise a five-part novel. Her daughters survived the camps and miraculously held onto their mother's manuscripts. This is the work we are privileged to read now along with an appendix outlining what her plans were for the final three parts of the book.
With the first story, "A Storm in June", Némirovsky vividly describes the different classes of people forced to flee Paris in June 1940 to the countryside. There is an unblinking honesty to her account of panic-stricken Parisians, especially the bourgeois class, in which the vile circumstances induced the worst behavior. She is particularly sharp in painting the individual portraits, whether it is Langelet, who treasures his porcelain collection more than people; or Gabriel, the pompous writer expressing his disdain of the masses from the comfort of his chauffeur-driven car; or Madame Péricand who does not let the bombing prevent her from maintaining her pre-war sense of entitlement, keeping her fine linen close to her bosom and conveniently forgetting her debilitated father-in-law en route. The author, however, does not present a purely cynical recollection since she poignantly describes the struggles of the underclasses. Regardless of their status, all are subject to the humiliation of living under Nazi occupation, which translated into food shortages and not knowing the fate of their loved ones drafted into military service.
Némirovsky is particularly evocative in describing what the French countryside looked like at the time and how the physical beauty still persisted amid the persecution and bloodshed. This talent especially serves her well in her second story, "Dolce", a more straightforward account of several French citizens in a provincial village where a German regiment has just arrived. Némirovsky's major accomplishment here is showing the German soldiers as multi-dimensional as the French in character. There is even a bit of a romance novel element in the detailing of an affair between a lonely village woman and a young German officer. Even with this somewhat predictable twist, the author dexterously explores the inherent conflict between loyalty and love with a surprising freshness. Moreover, she has each villager come to accept his or her own rationale for surviving and confront the consequences of their actions.
Had Némirovsky been able to fulfill her complete vision, the scope of her book would have likely been comparable to Tolstoy's "War and Peace", especially since she admired the epic Russian writers according to her notes. The resulting book has hints of that wide canvas, yet it ultimately feels more intimate like Anne Frank's diary. There is the same sense of impending doom in the face of guarded optimism that makes the irony of her death at the Germans' hands indisputably poignant and dramatically resonant. Intriguingly, the author's daughters read the manuscripts for the first time only a decade ago for fear of reliving the wartime horrors. Sandra Smith has done a superb job translating this memorable work.
on February 9, 2007
Suite Francaise is, on the surface, the story of individuals fleeing from Paris in 1940 as the Nazis approach. It follows four specific tales from the rich family leaving their fancy home to stay safe and their priest son trying to escort a boy's orphanage, to a vain writer and his girlfriend, a self absorbed hedonist and a working couple.But it is the story within and behind the story that is noteworthy.
While it would be expected that it is a tale of bravery, courage and caring, it is far from it. Nemirovsky has done a masterful job of portraying the fear and the disorder of the crowds as they leave Paris with their belongings, mattresses tied to the top of cars, bird cages on their laps. As they progress along congested roads with bombs falling, bodies exploding and death all around, it becomes a matter of personal survival. The villages along the way are over run with refugees seeking shelter and food. This novel vividly exposes the bedlam and madness that affected the people evacuating as the enemy progressed. It is not a celebration of human spirit but a portrayal of the madness of war, the pain and suffering involved. It is one of the most damning condemnations of war possible- the truth.
What makes this novel the definitive authority on the evacuation is that it was written by Nemirovsky in 1940 as the events were occurring around her. She was a well known author in France at the time that was broke out. She had planned a five part work, a "suite" but was only able to complete the first two parts. It was written in tiny handwriting on scraps of paper. She was arrested by the Nazis and died in Auschwitz in 1943. The manuscript was owned by her daughters but they did not read it as they were afraid it would cause them too much heartache. When the papers were rediscovered by her daughters in a suitcase in 1992 they transcribed them and agreed to have them published. The only two pieces of the suite written were Storm in June and Dolce, both included in the translation published by Alfred A. Kopf.
on July 7, 2008
Another brillant piece of writing by a Russian emigrant in a second language. The book remained tragically incomplete; in its current shape it has 2 of the 5 intended parts. The 3rd one was supposed to be called Captivity and was intended to cover the resistance, according to the notes in the appendix to this pocket book. (Irene herself was arrested and died in captivity. So did her husband, who was also Jewish. Her 2 daughters escaped and saved the manuscript for 60 years.)
The first part, called Storm, is about the time when Germany was winning the war in France and the citizens of Paris made a mad dash South. It introduces a broad spectrum of characters from different shades of middle class plus farmers and the servant class. Workers are outside the spectrum of the book, which may be an accurate reflection of Mme Nemirovsky's social experience. Central characters are the members of a rich upper middle class family, the Pericands, and of a lower middle class one, the Michauds.
The armistice causes the exodus to stop, life becomes 'normal' again, in a situation of occupation. The narrative in part 2, Dolce, moves to a small town near the demarcation line between the occupied and the 'free' part of France. We meet some new people, mainly the two Angellier women, and some old aquaintances. The aristocracy becomes a relevant player in the plot. The village has German troops billeted in every house. Biology takes charge: many young men from the village have left as soldiers, are in captivity or have died. The German troops and officers provide a solution to a felt need. Collaboration grows on simple physical and psychological factors. This phase is temporary: the war in Russia starts, the troops move out of France, the resistance begins to show up.
In the first two parts, IN did not touch on the situation of the Jews in France. Actually, none of the many characters in the story seem to be Jewish. This is odd and I have no explanation for it.
I realize this is the only fictional account of WW2 in France that I have read or that I can remember. Also odd. I also realize that my French has become too rusty for this level. I also realize that I need to give up on my arrogance which makes me often ignore the 'best books of the year' selections. I have often been disappointed by such dignitaries, but Nemirovsky demonstrates that the jurors can also be right.
This book is a must read. I've just finished it and I'm in awe. The author wrote the book as she was living it. There is no other explanation for the absolute realism she achieves. The first part of the book (only 2 of 5 parts were finished) shows exactly how people act in a mass crisis. At first everyone helps out and shares what they have. A few days later, it's everyone for himself, with stealing, looting, and even killing. The first part concerns the evacuation of Paris as Hitler's army invades. There is no one main character; the story moves back and forth between many people, who were intended to become interrelated later in the book. You get the feeling of overall chaos and also its effect on individuals. The closest I came to being in such a situation was trying to get out of Lower Manhattan with some other people on 9/11. It's not the same thing, of course, but we didn't know what was going to happen and I can say Part I is realistic. Part II is called Dolce and takes place during the occupation. Compared to what happened to the author and her family, this section is idllyic. Both the author and her husband were deported and died at Auschwitz, and the book was never finished. Strangely, but maybe because we don't have the last parts, there is barely any mention of anti-semitism and no Jewish characters. Nemirovsky herself was a stateless Russian Jew in France at the time of the Nazi invasion, probably the worst position anyone could be in at the time. The writing is exquisite, the story breathtaking. I would say do NOT miss this book, published almost 60 years after it was written. No research and imagination could produce a book like this.
on June 15, 2007
Russian/Jewish author, Irene Nemirovsky set out to write a 4 or 5 part epic in 1939, just prior to WW2. She achieved only two of the books which were to make up her epic before being captured by the Germans and killed in Auschwitz concentration camp. Her surviving work, which was scribbled in tiny writing in notebooks, was somehow saved by her daughters and remained lost for over 50 years. This book is the first two sections of her work, unedited and without a final polish, nevertheless it is a masterpiece of simple yet superb writing, detailing the lives of various classes of Frenchmen, and how they all coped with bombing, evacuation, lack of food and amenities and the things which make up everyday life. Some of the so called upper classes do not come out of it smelling like roses, while the so called "noble peasants" appear brutish and ugly with selfish and animal like behaviour. When I started this book, I was expecting to read about acts of unspeakable cruelty, committed by the Gestapo but the author did not live long enough to write about these future events. The world has surely lost by not being able to read this lady's thoughts over the years of late 1941 and into 1942, as her writing is masterly yet simple and without any of the so called "clever tricks" that some writers aspire to in order to appear more brilliant. M/s Neminovsky writes without pretension and from the heart.