When I first arrived in Paris back in 1971 one of the things that surprised me most was how the French continuously spoke about WWII as though it had happened yesterday. Gee, I would say to myself, it happened 25-30 years ago, let it rest! I was nineteen at the time.
Being part of the “Baby Boomer” generation, World War II was something I read about in my history books at school, not something you constantly looked back on as part of your memories. Well, as the years have gone by and I can now look back upon my own life; we may regret the loss of certain things, such as smooth skin, thicker hair, less pounds, etc., but if we’re lucky, we gain knowledge and wisdom as time goes by.
Twenty-five, thirty years….it’s like yesterday, and now I understand that the war to many in France was just that - yesterday. Yes, Suite Francaise is a book about the Nazi occupation marching into Paris and occupying France, but it’s so much more when you realize that Irène Némirovsky, a young Jewish immigrant from Russia, was living her story as she wrote it.
I am not one of those people who read the last page to find out how a story ends before starting a novel, but I am going to suggest reading the preface, (which in the English translation of the book is in the back) and then the Appendix II before starting.
“Why?” you ask. Because the most poignant part of this book is in fact, in my opinion, the preface and the second appendix, which lets the reader see who the author truly was and sets the tone for the entire novel. The first appendix should be read after reading Suite Française to see where the author’s ideas were going with the characters.
Irène Némirovsky’s life in Russia as a young girl was sad and lonely. Her father, one of the richest bankers was never there, and her mother, who was only concerned about her own physical appearance, had no maternal instinct or love for her daughter.
As a child, Irène led a life of luxury; a beautiful home in St. Petersburg, summer holidays on the French Riviera, and a governess all of which gave no indication of what was to come. In 1917 when Irene was only 14, the Bolshevik Revolution broke out and the Némirovskys were forced to flee their country to Finland , then Sweden and finally to France.
Irène loved Paris, studied at the Sorbonne, and led a glamorous and exciting social life where she gambled at casinos, loved to dance, and got drunk with life, but it was also a time when she wrote. She became a successful writer publishing articles, short-stories, and nine novels.
In 1926 she met and married Mikhail (Michel) Epstein, a banker whose father was the President of the Union of Russian Banks. A few years later in 1929 she gave birth to her first daughter, Denise. By the time she had her second daughter Elisabeth, eight years later, one of her books, David Golder had been turned into a film .
Soon after war broke out, Irene and Michel sent their children to live with their nanny’s mother in Issy-l’Evêque. For two years Irène and Michel lived across the street from their children in a small hotel to be near them. As the days passed and things continously grew worse for the Jews, Irène continued to write. She began Suite Française in 1941, but the lucidity of her situation and the people around her gave way to an intuition and understanding that she might not be able to complete her novel.
The novel itself is broken into two parts: Storm in June and Dolce. Storm in June begins on the eve of the Nazi occupation of Paris in June 1940. We not only meet many of the main characters in the story, but we also see the French, as a people, reacting in dire situations; some heroically, others selfishly. Not since reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads to Freedom: The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Troubled Sleep do we get an insider view of the fall and occupation of France.
Her characters start out hollow like single notes played with the right hand on a piano. Do we care about Mme. Péricand and her bourgeois ways, or the egocentric writer Gabriel Corte and his subservient mistress Florence? Not really. Even Father Philippe Péricand’s demise by the orphan children incites no strong reaction. Just like in a song, the melody being played does not evoke emotion until the left hand accompanies the right with its harmonic chords to create a fullness and a richness that touches you.
The harmony comes when Jean-Marie Michaud finds himself in a remote village and stirs up feelings in both Cécile and Madeleine and the story begins to resonate. In Dolce, we see a cohabitation between the people of the town of Bussy and the German soldiers. Irène brings a human side to the enemy, through Bruno von Falk, a married German officer, who’s a sensitive, well-mannered, musician who seems to find himself caught up in a war that was brought about by those in power; yet it’s the common man who must follow orders and suffer the consequences.
When Lucile Angellier, whose husband is a prisoner of war, and the German officer begin to have feelings for one another under the ever watchful eyes of Lucile’s mother-in-law, the story begins to build to a crescendo, but,….only to end abruptly.
End….as Irène Némirovsky’s life ended. On July 13, 1942 Irène was arrested and taken to a concentration camp first in France and soon afterwards was deported to Auschwitz in Poland. She died on August 17, 1942. In October Michel, her husband, was deported to Auschwitz and died a month later in the gas chamber on November 6.
Their young daughters, Denise (13) and Elisabeth (5) went from hiding place to hiding place; Denise carrying her mother’s journal as a memento the entire time, keeping only one step ahead of the police hunting them down until the very end of the war. Ironically their grandmother, Irène’s mother, had lived out these turmoiltuous times quite comfortably in Nice. When the children went to see their grandmother after the war she refused to open the door shouting that they should seek help at an orphanage.
It wasn’t until years later when the girls, now grown women with careers of their own, (Elisabeth following in her mother’s footsteps as a writer) decided to give Irène’s notebook to the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine. Denise painstakingly typed the hand written notes only to discover an incredible manuscript in its first stages unfolding before her eyes. Elisabeth passed away in 1996 before being able to read it. Sixty-four years after Irène Némirovsky’s death, Suite Française became a well-deserved bestseller.
Maya Muses: I first wrote this review for the Paris Traveler, but I feel this is one post that bears repeating.
Photo Credits: Flickr