Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

4 of 52 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

Suite Francaise is a must read. I give it five stars for historical insight. Five stars for writing style. Five stars for human sensitivity. Go read it now. It’s great.

The book is made up of two separate novellas. The first depicts slices of varying levels of French society as the citizens of Paris flee the city in June of 1940 on the eve of the German invasion. The second shows us village life in occupied France.

Nemirovsky planned to write several more sections. She wrote these fictional accounts of the war as the real historical events they are based on were actually taking place. Her intent was to continue with a sequence of novellas depicting each phase of the war. She was unable to complete the work because she did not survive the war. She was sent to Auschwitz where she died. The manuscript for the first two sections of Suite Francaise remained unpublished until 2004 when her daughters discovered it among her notebooks.

What we have in Suite Francaise is an eye witness (if fictionalized) account of the events in France leading up to and during German occupation. To have the story written by someone who was there as the events actually took place is priceless. Though the work is fiction, we can’t ask for anyone to have a better understanding of the reality of the situation it is based on.

That said, the two novellas have two entirely different tones to them.

Part 1, “Storm in June,” is mainly about fear and the kinds of human betrayals that happen in moments of great fear. A priest is murdered, an aging father-in-law is left behind to die, a young couple’s car is stolen, and all of these crimes are committed by people who would have behaved much differently in different circumstances. Meanwhile, the upper classes cling to their sense of superiority while behaving as despicably as anyone else. In fact, their behavior is probably worse than others because they at times care more about saving possessions than lives.

Part 2, “Dolce,” essentially follows the theme of “people are people,” regardless of whether those people are conquerors or conquered. This is perhaps also the theme of “Storm in June,” in which people become desperate under great fear without regard to whether they are upper or lower class. In “Dolce,” the German soldiers want to be admired and respected, not just obeyed. They want to be loved even. They want to be seen as people, as noble and humane people even. They form relationships with the French people whose houses they occupy. They are personally hurt when those people choose loyalties to France rather than to them.

Perhaps the real theme of the book is that evil happens without the people perpetrating ever seeing themselves as evil. They may respond to danger through purely animal natures and a drive to survive at all costs. Or they may follow orders through what they believe is real dignity. They may even consciously choose between loyalty to one person and loyalty to another. Any of these motivations could lead to great harm toward others, but the people acting on them see themselves as having no other choice.

What a horrible that tragedy that Irene Nemirovsky did not survive to complete this work. What a horrible tragedy that she never saw the peace that she believed would be the subject of the final section. But what a wonderful treasure she has left us in this incomplete suite.