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SUITE FRANCAISE by IRENE NEMIROVSKY. The story of an extraordinary novel

Something about the novel to start. It was written in 1941-2. There are two novels, linked by a small French community which appears in both tales. It doesn’t feel like an unfinished novel, but it is. The reader knows from reading the appendix that the author planned four, or perhaps even five, parts to the novel. Circumstances didn’t permit her to complete her task, but more of that later.

Unlike most novels set during the Second World War, Suite Francaise  was written a very short time after the events it depicts took place. The first part Storm in June follows the fortunes of a number of characters as they flee Paris when the Germans approach in June 1940. It’s not so much the events; attacks from the air, ground fired shells, firefights, broken down vehicles, shortage of fuel, lack of food, nowhere to sleep and so on, that are fascinating but different groups of people’s reactions to one another as they’re thrown together in a time of crisis. As France collapses, we meet people who are selfish, arrogant, vain, indifferent and courageous. Unease between France’s social classes comes sharply into focus.

The second part Dolce is set in a French village which the Germans have occupied. The soldiers themselves generally behave correctly but the villagers’ response to them varies according to age, gender and social class. The children enjoy the sweets the soldiers give them, the young women find them attractive, those young men actually there (some would still be prisoners of war) hate them as both the detested enemy and rivals for the attention of the girls, some are just indifferent and others use the authority that the Germans have established to settle old scores. As the story progresses, the unbearable stench of collaboration grows ever stronger.

Suite Francaise is superbly written (and brilliantly translated from the French by Sandra Smith). Nemirovsky’s  prose conjures up visions of the hell of war or the beauty of the rural France on a warm summer’s day. The characters are wonderfully drawn and entirely credible. It’s a wonderful book and all the better for having been written without hindsight.

Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903. She was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker. At the time of the October Revolution, the family were living in St Petersburg. They fled, dressed as peasants, to Finland and eventually found their was to Paris via Sweden.  Here her father became director of a branch of his bank and re-built his fortune. Irene enrolled at the Sorbonne where she graduated with a distinction in literature. She began writing and her first novel David Golder was published to great critical acclaim in 1926. She married another Russian Jewish émigré Michel Epstein in 1926. Throughout the thirties she was a celebrated French writer.

When war came in 1939, the family (they had two young daughters) moved to Issy-l’eveque in Saone-et-Loire in later occupied France where Irene continued her writing. She began Suite Francaise in 1941. On July 13th.1942 she was arrested by the French police and sent to the French concentration camp in Loiret. On 17th. July she was deported to Auschwitz where she died on 17th. August 1942.

Her husband Michel, desperate to find his wife, even wrote to Petain to appeal on her behalf. The only response was his own arrest and deportation to Auschwitz where he was gassed on arrival on the 6th. of November 1942. Shortly afterwards, the police came for the children but they were already on the run with friends of the family. They spent the rest of the war in hiding. Many years later one of the daughters Denise found the manuscript of Suite Francaise in a bag that she’d taken  from her home when she left to escape the French police all those years ago. She read the tiny writing, re-typed it herself and then found a publisher Denoel in 2004. The English translation appeared in 2006.

Now I must read those of Irene Nemirovsky’s novels that have been translated into English

#greatliterature #WWII

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