This is my review of Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.
The recent film version prompted me to reread “Suite Française”, in which Part 1, “Tempête en juin” comprises vivid accounts of various Parisians escaping by car or on foot from the feared imminent German invasion of 1940, only to find themselves strafed from the air by enemy fire, or struggling to find adequate bed and board. Irene Nemirovsky’s characters are often stereotypes: the rich are mostly concerned to protect their possessions and status, and rapidly regress under pressure. A wealthy connoisseur of art, his car loaded with carefully packed porcelain, callously steals cans of petrol from a gullible young couple when he runs out of fuel. A pious mother who has encouraged her children to share their sweets with others descends to scolding them for this when she finds there is no food left to buy in the shops en route. The poor with little to lose are often more generous.
Part 2, “Dolce”, the core of the recent film, is much less fragmented, focusing on the effects of the military occupation on the small provincial town of Bussy. While the sight of German soldiers arouses bitter thoughts in the wives and mothers whose men are dead or missing at the Front, the young single girls are rapidly attracted to the soldiers, like moths to a flame, as are the swarms of local children. A complex relationship develops in which the locals resent having to hand over their firearms and horses, but the shopkeepers enjoy the chance to sell goods at inflated prices. The “heroine”, Lucille has led a quiet life, dominated by her wealthy but embittered mother-in-law, Madame Angellier, obsessed by the loss of her son emprisoned in Germany. Lucille has rather more ambivalent feelings about the husband she was pressurised into marrying who has turned out to be unfaithful, openly expressing disappointment that she has proved much less well off than he was led to believe. When Mme Angellier is obliged to billet Lieutenant Bruno Von Falk, Lucille finds herself drawn to an "enemy" she has been instructed to cold shoulder, yet feels drawn to as an individual.
A continual insight in this novel is the way people in war suffer because they are forced to “follow the herd”, losing their individuality in the process. The characters with “finer feelings” share the sense of being consoled by what the put-upon bank clerk Maruice Michaud describes to his wife as “the certainty of my inner liberty….this precious and inalterable gift, which it rests only with me to lose or to conserve..The first thing is to live. From day to day. Endure, wait, hope”.
Irene Nemirovsky, does not flinch from allowing the violent hand of fate to strike down some characters on a fairly arbitrary basis, as was the case for the author herself. Already obliged to wear the yellow star, she was deported to Auchswitz only to be gassed shortly after completion of the second part of her novel. So, the intended five-section, one thousand page French equivalent of “War and Peace” was sketched out but tragically never completed.
Read in French, “Suite Française” has a particularly powerful impact. When writing about the weather, scenery, the rural way of life, animals – especially cats – the author’s lyrical style reminds me of Colette’s. She had the ability to capture and explore people’s internal thoughts, their shifting perceptions and the development of their relationships, often expressed with a wry sense of humour.
Since she cannot have had time to edit it, the work is remarkably coherent and well-developed. The poignancy of her fate casts a shadow over the book as one reads.