Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky is a posthumously published novel about the German invasion of France. Written before her death in a concentration camp, Madame Némirovsky's manuscript did not see the light of day until 2006. Of Jewish extraction, she and her family escaped the Communists, became devoted French citizens and Catholics, only to be killed by the Nazis. Due to the author's murder, the novel has a slightly unpolished feel about it and the ending leaves the reader hanging in some ways. It is brilliant nevertheless and captures all the fear and uncertainty of the early days of the invasion. According to The Guardian:
It was Némirovsky's habit to go into the woods to write, and to make notes on her work-in-progress. This was to be a novel written in five sections, dealing with France under German occupation. The book, she thought, would be a thousand pages long: an ironic reference to the German fantasy of a thousand-year Reich. She completed the first two sections, "Storm in June" and "Dolce", and together these make the novel now published as Suite Française. Even these sections were not finished, in Némirovsky's view. She intended to revise, noting that the death of one character was perhaps schmaltzy, and that she found "in general, not enough simplicity".Like Katherine Mansfield, whose journal she took to the woods on that July day, Némirovsky was an incisive critic of her own work. This search for simplicity reflects Mansfield's own longing to purge her work of effective little writerly tricks. Némirovsky knew what she was aiming for, how high a standard she had set for herself, and how hard it would be to achieve.
Her model for this large-scale novel set in wartime was Tolstoy's War and Peace, which she knew intimately. There is a great deal of play and echo between War and Peace and Suite Française, some of it respectful, some experimental. Némirovsky creates brilliant and often ironic parallels between scenes in the two novels. For example, Tolstoy's description of the Rostov family loading their possessions into carts as they prepare to flee Moscow before Napoleon's advance is echoed in a scene in Suite Française where the wealthy, bourgeois Péricand family crams its worldly goods into the car as the Germans advance on Paris. But while Natasha Rostova is horrified by her family's materialism, and shames them into emptying the carts and filling them with wounded soldiers, the Péricands behave throughout with selfishness barely cloaked by convention. Their departure is absurd, and it is observed with cool, merciless comedy. The high-minded, religiose Péricands delay not because they wish to help anybody else, but because the monogrammed linen is not yet back from the laundry. Némirovsky understood very well the callousness of those who consider themselves virtuous. Unlike the Rostovs, the Péricands cannot be abashed, and cannot repent.
In her increasing isolation and danger, Némirovsky had good reason to understand the psychology of collaboration. Her portrait of French society in the tumult of war and occupation is not judgmental, but it is devastating. The Michauds, clerks who belong neither to the bourgeoisie nor to the working class, are almost alone in their kindness, their gentle, practical goodness and their realism about human suffering. This couple resembles the wise innocents so cherished by both Tolstoy and Dostoevky, who become touchstones for those around them without making the slightest claims to moral grandeur.
Tolstoy's technique fascinated and inspired Némirovsky, as her notes on the composition of Suite Française show. Némirovsky had been forced to leave Russia at the age of 15, after the revolution, and French became her everyday language as well as the language in which she wrote. But her work does not repudiate her Russian identity: instead it reflects the historical interplay of the French and Russian languages in Russian literary culture. Némirovsky comes across as an intensely Russian writer, lyrical, forceful, earthy, idealistic and yet without illusions.
The influence of Turgenev and Chekhov is also apparent. Her descriptions of the French rural landscape have the blend of realism and poetic tenderness that Turgenev perfected in Sketches From a Hunter's Album. Like Chekhov, she observes and powerfully expresses the detail that fixes a scene, whether interior or exterior. For example, when the injured soldier Jean-Marie Michaud is sheltered by a farming family in a remote hamlet, a girl puts a bunch of cherries next to him on the pillow. Jean-Marie is delirious and has returned to a childlike state as he slips in and out of consciousness. But all the time he's aware of the cherries. "He was not allowed to eat them, but he pressed them against his burning cheeks and felt content and almost happy."
When she began Suite Française, Némirovsky was in her late 30s and already a well-known novelist. From her notes, it's clear that she knew her new work was of a different order. "Today, 24th April, a little calm for the first time in a very long time, convince yourself that the sequences in Storm, if I may say so, must be, are a masterpiece. Work on it tirelessly." Her longing to complete the masterpiece which she believed she had in her is immensely moving, given that she was never able to go beyond the second section of the novel. Two days after Némirovsky sat writing for the last time in the Maie woods, she was arrested by the French police under a directive that affected "stateless Jews between the ages of 16 and 45". She was taken first to Pithiviers concentration camp, and from there was deported to Auschwitz, where she died on August 17 1942. Her husband, Michael Epstein, had begged for her release but was also arrested and sent to the gas chamber immediately after he arrived at Auschwitz on November 6. Her children escaped death only because of the dedication of their carers.
The manuscript of Suite Française was preserved by Denise Epstein, Némirovsky's daughter, who was 12 at the time of her parents' murder. She kept her mother's leather-bound notebook with her each time she and her younger sister were moved from one place of safety to another. Almost 60 years later, Denise read the notebook and discovered that it contained not a diary, as she had always supposed, but a novel. The history of the manuscript, and its survival, is remarkable enough. The authority of the novel, though, does not come from its history, but from its quality. Incomplete as it is, lacking the revision that its author undoubtedly wished to give it, the narrative is eloquent and glowing with life. Its tone reflects a deep understanding of human behaviour under pressure and a hard-won, often ironic composure in the face of violation.
Némirovsky understood that her own life was about to be horribly violated, even though she could not know exactly what was intended for France's Jews. She created characters who would coexist comfortably with these violations, such as the author Corte, a man of letters whose preciousness about his own creativity is matched only by his mean-spiritedness. Némirovsky noted that "Corte is one of those writers whose usefulness will become glaringly obvious in the years following the defeat; he has no equal when it comes to finding euphemisms to guard against disagreeable realities".
In the fictional world of Suite Française, everything is in flux. Some are stunned, while others already jockey for position in the new order. A few prepare themselves to resist. But nothing is abstract; everything is made present, whether it's the cherries on the pillow, the privileged little dinner that Corte secures for himself and which is then snatched away by a hungry man, or the sound of music drifting over a lake at evening while young German soldiers celebrate. Perhaps Némirovsky's most extraordinary achievement is the humanity of these individual Germans, and the sense of tragedy when their celebration dissolves at the news that Germany has invaded the Soviet Union. Their dreams of peace vanish; fantasies of a bargain between conquerors and conquered cannot survive. (Read more.)
What struck me most about Madame Némirovsky's work is her insistence upon upholding the humanity of every single character, even the German invaders. There are no Nazi stereotypes in the novel, which shows the author's ability to rise above the hatred of the time. Such greatness of spirit is even rarer now, which makes this book shine like a light in the darkness.
|Michelle Williams stars in the upcoming film version.|