From My Bookshelf: Suite Française

Now that the paperback edition of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française has been released, the novel may be reaching a whole new group of readers. This might therefore be a good time to post the review I wrote when the hardcover appeared (particularly since just a few days from now translator Sandra Smith will receive the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Translation Prize in New York specifically for her work on this novel).

The original version of my review appeared in The Missouri Review 29:3 (Fall 2006).

Suite Française: A Novel
By Irène Némirovsky
Translated from the French by Sandra Smith
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 416 pp., $25.00

Virtually every review I’ve seen of this exceptional, unfinished war novel sets it within the context of its writing–it was penned in tiny print on precious paper during the very war it describes–and also frames it with the story of its author’s tragic death: Irène Némirovsky, a Russian-born writer of Jewish descent whose family fled the Bolsheviks in 1917 and settled in France two years later, was arrested in July 1942. Deported to Auschwitz, she died the following month, at the age of 39. Her husband was deported and killed shortly thereafter.

But their two French-born daughters survived, along with a valise containing family papers. For decades they didn’t read these papers; they didn’t know Suite Française existed. The book wasn’t published in France until 2004; this year it became a bestseller in translation in the United States.

Deservedly so. Comprised of two sections (Némirovsky apparently envisioned a massive five-part tome; an appendix of her notes provides some of her ideas for other volumes), the book is divided into “Storm in June,” which focuses on the fall of France in June 1940, and “Dolce,” set in a German-occupied French village the next spring.

Némirovsky was an experienced novelist by the time she was writing Suite Française; it’s worth noting that she’d also written a biography of Chekhov (also published posthumously), and his influence shows in this work. It doesn’t seem to be a novel in draft form; the prose is seamless and often gorgeous, as in this description of Paris under an air raid:

All the lights were out, but beneath the clear, golden June sky, every house, every street was visible. As for the Seine, the river seemed to absorb even the faintest glimmers of light and reflect them back a hundred times brighter, like some multifaceted mirror. Badly blacked-out windows, glistening rooftops, the metal hinges of doors all shone in the water. There were a few red lights that stayed on longer than the others, no one knew why, and the Seine drew them in, capturing them and bouncing them playfully on its waves.

On a more substantive level, this book’s central accomplishment is its incisive and realistic fictional depiction of France and the French, first, under encroaching German invasion, and then, under occupation. It’s true that the portraits of various individuals, couples, and families fleeing Paris in “Storm in June” won’t surprise, say, anyone familiar with the opening moments of René Clément’s 1952 film, Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games), with its images of refugees clogging roads while bombs fall from above. Nor will the variety and degrees of moral challenges, and the ways in which people fleeing Paris (or, in “Dolce,” those living alongside the occupant) face them, shock anyone who already appreciates that not every French citizen could be categorized as either a collaborator or as a resister (not to mention that “collaboration” and “resistance” themselves took infinite forms). But if this history is new to you, prepare to be impressed not only by how Némirovsky evokes this complex historical moment, but by what she evokes, too.

Which leads to another point. While much of the press surrounding this book has focused on the circumstances of its author’s death, far less attention has gone toward her life. In this respect, neither readers nor reviewers have been particularly well served by the omissions in the translation of the French version’s preface. These omissions, including a mention of how much the famous collaborationist and anti-Semitic writer Robert Brasillach admired Némirovsky’s early work, would have informed us of an uncomfortable yet significant aspect of her biography: her own apparent antipathy toward Jews and Judaism.

It’s perfectly accurate and correct to describe (and promote) this book as the writing of a Holocaust victim, and there’s no question that Némirovsky’s fate was tragic. But once again, the full history is more complex. And despite the omissions, enough remains here, especially in the appendix of correspondence primarily between Némirovsky’s distraught husband and those from whom he sought help for his wife after her arrest, to suggest it.

In one letter, for example (addressed to the German ambassador in Paris), Némirovsky’s admittedly ever more frantic husband argues that his wife should be freed because it is “both unjust and illogical that the Germans should imprison a woman who, despite being of Jewish descent, has no sympathy whatsoever–all her books prove this–either for Judaism or the Bolshevik regime.” Under the occupation Némirovsky also contributed (pseudonymously) to Gringoire, a newspaper with a reputation, to put it again in her husband’s words to the German ambassador, for “certainly never [having] been well-disposed towards either the Jews or the Communists.” After the Liberation, many French writers were blacklisted and otherwise punished for appearing in such publications; Brasillach, for one, was executed.

We’re bound to learn more about Irène Némirovsky’s life when Jonathan Weiss’s biography, published in Paris in 2005, is released in English this fall. Whatever we may find out then, Suite Française stands on its own merits as an exceptionally well-told story, authentic in every way, of France and the French in the early years of one of the most difficult episodes of their history.