Mon, 05 Oct 2020
Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky is a bold and ambitious saga chronicling the German occupation of France during the Second World War.
What marks this remarkable book out from the many fictional accounts of the same period, is that Némirovsky was living through it – in fact the Russian-Jew paid the ultimate price when she was taken to Pithiviers concentration camp and from there to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942.
Her magnum opus remained unfinished, with just two of the five planned movements of the suite completed. The book was only translated and published about 15 years ago, when one of her daughters realised what it was.
The first thing to say about it, is how extraordinarily fresh and contemporary it feels. Whether this is down to the skill of the translator Sandra Smith or whether it is precisely because Némirovsky was living through the goings-on in France, I couldn’t say, but for me it gives it an extra poignancy, knowing that the author had witnessed the sort of behaviour, fear, courage and absurdity she chronicles in this epic.
The story opens in Paris, as news of the Germans’ imminent arrival spreads and various families and individuals get ready to flee to the south of France. There are the wealthy Péricands, whose preparations for departure are a source of ridicule for the reader as they witness their impractical priorities about what to take.
Another character, the author Corte, is most concerned about preserving his manuscripts and the eccentric Charles Langelet thinks everyone is out to get him and also expects to be looked after at every turn – he provides some of the funniest moments in the book, particularly when he returns to Paris, no spoilers.
There are the kind-hearted down-to-earth Michauds, whose son is missing, but they have faith he will return to them. The reader discovers more about the injured Jean-Marie Michaud when he makes an appearance in the second ‘movement’ of the suite and hopefully it was intended that he would eventually reunite with his parents.
The description of the journey that the various families and groups undertake borders on the absurd in some instances and highlights both the selfishness and goodness of humankind.
The next part of the book takes us to Bussy where the locals secretly resent the presence of the Germans who have taken over the town. The ‘heroine’ of this section is Lucile Angellier, who has to deal with her cantankerous mother-in-law, as well as her growing affection for Bruno von Falk, the German who is billeted in their house.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Germans are treated with some compassion by Némirovsky, who shows them as humans with flaws and hapless puppets in the bigger drama that is being played out.
The tensions surrounding the different characters in the town, the way townsfolk tell on each other to protect themselves and how families unite to protect those in trouble is beautifully and exquisitely told.
It is an extraordinary example of fiction that was written in extraordinary times, making it all the more compelling.