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Suite Française Paperback – April 10, 2007
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“Stunning. . . . A tour de force.” —The New York Times Book Review“Remarkable.” —Newsweek“[Némirovsky] sees the fullness of humanity. . . . A lost masterpiece.” —O, the Oprah Magazine“Gripping. . . . Brilliant. . . . Endlessly fascinating.” —The Nation“Transcendent, astonishing. . . . The last great fiction of the war.” —The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette“Superb.” —The Washington Post Book World“Extraordinary. . . . A work of Proustian scope and delicacy, by turns funny and deeply moving.” —Time
About the Author
Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 into a wealthy banking family and emigrated to France during the Russian Revolution. After attending the Sorbonne, she began to write and swiftly achieved success with her first novel, David Golder, which was followed by The Ball, The Flies of Autumn, Dogs and Wolves and The Courilof Affair. She died in 1942.
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Némirovsky was a writer with Jewish forebearers living in Paris during the occupation and witnessed the events she wrote about. After writing this book, although having converted to Catholicism, she was arrested in July, 1942 and sent to Auschwitz where she died. Her husband, Michel Epstein, was arrested three months later, and was sent to the gas chamber at Auschwitz never knowing the whereabouts of his beloved wife.
Nemirovsky must have written the book during the occupation and hidden it away because it didn't surface until sixty-four years later. The deprivations she surely endured while imprisoned were after the writing of this book and thus were not reflected within its pages. Instead we read about the fear, discomfort, and unpleasant upheaval suffered by most citizens during the occupation in clear and focused language that is strangely poetic and tranquil. Consequently, as a reader, I was able to feel the resolve and the courage of the French people as described by a writer with the ability to illustrate in a pastel style rather than garish prose. I was able to savor her stories rather than be bludgeoned with them.
The stories were carefully rendered to present the many different mechanisms for coping. A man known for his frugality met an unusual end that denied him the enjoyment he longed for. A young couple who catered to an oppressive employer got retribution in an odd way. A young woman whose unfaithful husband is a held prisoner by enemy forces finds growing attraction for a young German officer who has commandeered a room in her farmhouse. An aristocratic woman scoffs at the locals for failing to appreciate her ability to get what she wants from the oppressors. A husband returns from the front and finds a German officer billeted in his home with obvious intentions towards the wife he left behind. I'll leave the conclusions to these circumstances for the reader to uncover.
There is no single theme to the book other than presenting the many ways the conquered French were impacted by the occupation, and the various ways they chose to cope with it. There are both comical and tender moments. There is prosperity to be found amidst paucity. There is infidelity that is tempered by incredible loyalty. Every act of inhumanity is tempered through bravery and strength.
Ordinarily I'm not fond of translated works but Sandra Smith deserves special praise for her efforts with this novel. It was obscure and a work-in-progress so Smith, as she explains in her book notation, had to correct some minor errors and clarify some confusion. Her respect and admiration for the author allowed her to take some "leaps of faith" and liberties with the story without essentially altering the tone and intention of Némirovsky's writing.
There are also marvelous appendixes with a transcription of Némirovsky's handwritten notes, correspondences from 1936-1945, including information about the author's imprisonment and death, and the preface to the French edition published in 2004; great reading that provides valuable background information. The correspondences are poignant and painful to read considering the barbaric end to the lives of both Nemirovsky and her husband.
I enthusiastically recommend this book as a motivating read absent the coarseness of so many current novels. If you love language and a writer who uses it beautifully, don't miss "Suite Française."
Schuyler T Wallace
Author of TIN LIZARD TALES