Suite Francaise feels epic for a number of reasons. First, because of the scope of the fear it documents-that of French civilians on the eve of and during German occupation. Second, because it artfully balances the anguish (and verisimilitude) of any unsparing portrayal of war with the pretty, carefully wrought language of a good nineteenth-century novel. Most important, however, Suite Française feels significant because of the circumstances in which it was conceived, written, and published.
Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev to a wealthy Jewish family. She emigrated to Paris during the Russian Revolution, and eventually became a successful writer there. In 1942, two volumes into her projected five-volume war novel, here gathered until the title of Suite Française, Némirovsky was arrested by the Nazis and deported. The juxtaposition of her tragic death at Auschwitz (she was thirty-nine) and the dramatic survival of her novel (which lived, unfinished, in the suitcases of her daughters, who were miraculously spared in the camps) lends an eerie authenticity to the work. The second volume, written in Paris as paper was becoming scarce, is rumored to have been penned in tiny, almost illegible script. Her daughter would later spend years painstakingly transcribing it.
Suite Française is narrated from the perspectives of a revolving cast of characters. In the first volume, 'Storm in June', these include the pious and affluent Pericand family, the beleaguered but charming Michaud couple, and the astonishingly pompous writer Gabriel Corte and his mistress, Florence, among others. Storm in June, is set in 1940, and documents the exodus of Parisians to the French countryside as German troops advanced. The second volume, Dolce, takes place in a provincial French town occupied by the Nazis, and focuses on the relationship between Madame Lucile Angellier and a German officer, with appearances from characters introduced earlier.
Neither of the volumes chronicles any singular triumph over adversity, as war stories often do; the novel is certainly concerned with heroism, and the lack of it, but on an unmistakably human, and sometimes intimately personal, scale. Némirovsky clearly aims not to conjecture about humanity in the throes of grand historical upheaval, but rather merely to document the millions of trials, capitulations, boons and betrayals of hard times. The result is a steady stream of meditations, bound only to the values and judgments of the characters, but bearing no greater formal or thematic obligation within the work as a whole. Although the lives and fates recorded here intertwine in unexpected ways, the author manages, by impressive sleight of hand, to make these moments appear the true products of chance, instead of her own machinations.
At times the novel clings to the cliché. There are occasional lapses into the tropes we recognize from various vulgarized representations of World War II, as when the naive young Hubert Pericand ignores his mother's prohibitions and joins the French army out of an irrepressible sense of patriotism and lust for glory. Or the scenes in which formerly aristocratic families huff and puff cartoonishly over the sacrifices required by their new reality. But Némirovsky's great gift–perhaps in part the result of her outsider perspective as an emigre living in France– is piercing her own delicate, at times even dainty prose, with observations that are bracingly grotesque, honest and sad. To her credit, Némirovsky accords almost as much attention to the abstract truths governing war as she does to her human characters. For example, hunger as a staple of war is explored in these pages in nearly as many ways as it is experienced: a horrifying injustice, an enemy of sanity and calm, a precursor to death, or simply a quiet gnawing torment that lasts clean through dark breadless nights and into new days. The issue of class-and its relative mutability in wartime-is also as weighty a presence as some of the book's more dynamic personalities.
Some of Némirovsky's manuscript notes are presented here as an appendix. Musing about how she will tie up her final volume, she writes “What lives on: 1) Our humble day-to-day lives, 2) Art, 3) God.”
For better or worse, the extraordinary biographical fact that marks Némirovsky-the cruel theft by the Nazis of her chance to maintain a “humble day-to-day life”-makes this a literary contribution that will forever be narrowly contextualized. But this should not lessen its impact, nor deter future generations of readers. The novel is, above all, about the nebulous realms of complicity, collaboration, and choice, and the catastrophes and challenges detailed within are profoundly compelling.
Nina Renata Aron is a freelance writer and a graduate student at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.