Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously published novel was written in 1942, rediscovered in 1998 and published in 2004. Originally it was planned as a sequence of five novels, but Némirovksy was deported and murdered in Auschwitz before she could complete it.
The two novels included in Suite Française – Tempête en juin and Dolce – can be read individually. There are a few characters that are mentioned in both but that does not affect the plot. Judging from the notes Némirovsky left, part three, would have reintroduced a number of the characters from the first books. We can assume, that all five books together would have worked a bit like Balzac’s Comédie Humaine.
Part one, Tempête en juin, which is much more episodic than part two, begins in Paris, in 1941 when the Germans arrive. Thousands of people flee in panic. The book follows several groups of people who all flee the town. Gabriel Corte, a famous writer, flees with his mistress. Some members of the Péricand family flee to Nîmes, where they have family. One of the sons is in the army, another one runs aways to join the army and a third, a priest, is guiding orphans out of the town. Charles Langelet, an aesthete and collector of art and porcelain, flees in a car. The Michaud’s, two bank employees, try to join the staff of the bank in Troyes. Their son Jean-Marie, who has been wounded, is recovering in Bussy.
The narrative moves back and forth between these people, yet the result is anything but disjointed because the tone is so similar and the descriptions so astute. At times it feels like a documentary. The reader is there all the time. We can see, hear and smell the chaos, the fear, the panic. But we also see people at their worst. Most of those Némirovsky chose to describe, with the exception of the Michauds, are rich people. Rich people with a lot of possessions that they don’t want to lose and cling to. People who think that even under dire circumstances, when there’s no food, no shelter, they should still be able to get what they want because they can pay for it. Most of these people are shown as materialistic, ruthless and selfish. They cling to their things in a way that’s absurd. The best example for this is the collector Langelet. He tricks a young couple and steals their petrol, just to save himself and his possessions. In the end, he has nowhere to go and returns to Paris. We see him unwrapping his collection, dine in expensive restaurants and return to his life as a socialite, until he has the most absurd accident.
Part one ends with the armistice and the Germans occupying large parts of France.
Part two begins right after the armistice and is set in the province, in Bussy. It shows how the French dealt with the German occupation and ends when Germany begins the invasion of Russia and the troops stationed in Bussy are sent to the Eastern Front.
Part two has two main story lines. One centers on Lucile Angellier whose husband is a prisoner of war. The Angelliers are one of the richest families of Bussy that’s why a Oberleutnant of the Wehrmacht is billeted at their house. Lucile and the Oberleutnant both seem unhappy in their respective marriages. After long shared walks and endless discussions about music and art, they fall in love but don’t engage in an affair.
The second story line follows a French farmer who was a prisoner of war and escaped. He’s one of those who has the hardest time accepting the new masters. While things look peaceful, under the surface it’s boiling. The French resent the Germans, resent that they eat their food, flirt with their women, live in their houses and make the rules. Who disobeys is shot.
Both parts are very good but I loved the first one more. The descriptions, the choice of details, the characterisations were so captivating that I could hardly put it down. I could also relate to it far more as my father’s family was among those who fled Paris when the Germans arrived. Nobody spoke about it. My dad had just been born, so he didn’t experience it and other members of the family didn’t talk about it. I know they fled to Brittany where my grandmother was from. Brittany was among the parts occupied by the Germans and they spoke about that. Just like in Dolce, they described the Germans as mostly very polite and even kind, but, like in Dolce, they found that even harder to take. Psychologically, an occupation is an extremely difficult experience. So many conflicting emotions play into it. Irène Némirovsky excels at describing this.
Obviously, this novel spoke to me because it shed light on some questions I had about my family’s history, but even without that, I would have loved this book for its minute details and because it focused on aspects of the war that are often just briefly mentioned. I can’t think of any other novel that focuses on the invasion of Paris and the early occupation. Most other books either focus on the fighting or on the resistance. I also liked how critical she seems of human behaviour. All too often historical WWII novels or period movies choose to show how people grow under the circumstances, how they overcome their pettiness and selfishness, turn into heroes. The shared tragedy brings out the best in them. While I’m sure, this is true for some, for many it isn’t. Since Némirovsky experienced what she described, I’m pretty sure, her description is more realistic than the idealized versions we usually see. In her book, the Michauds are the only people who seem to grow morally under the circumstances.
One could write endlessly about this book. I only scratched the surface. Suite Française is more than just an outstanding novel, it’s an invaluable document. What a terrible shame it wasn’t finished. That said, it doesn’t feel unfinished.
Suite Française is the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the German pre-war novel The Oppermanns – Die Geschwister Oppermann by Lion Feuchtwanger. Discussion starts on Wednesday, November 29, 2017. You can find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.