- Fizzy Thoughts: Suite Francaise

Suite Francaise

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Suite Francaise
Irene Nemirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith
367 pages

I honestly don't know where to start with this one. This book has received so much publicity, both for the story and the story behind it. So let's start with the story behind it.

Irene Nemirovsky was originally a Russian Jew. After her family fled the Bolsheviks, they eventually settled in France. As an adult, Irene was a well-known author, a wife, mother and a Roman Catholic. She was not, despite her efforts, a French citizen. Which is what eventually caused her arrest by the Nazis. Nemirovsky died at Auschwitz in 1942. I have read that she died of typhus, although I also read she was sent to the gas chambers.

After Nemirovsky's husband was also sent to Auschwitz (he was killed in the gas chambers), her daughters were sent into hiding for the remainder of the war. Denise, her eldest daughter, took what she believed was her mother's journal with her. She held onto the journal for years, although she was reluctant to dredge up painful memories and never read it. When she finally decided to donate it to a French institute, and sat down to translate it, she discovered the journal was actually an unfinished novel.

Suite Francaise was originally intended to be a work in 5 parts. Only the first two parts of the story were finished. Nemirovsky's notes are included as an appendix, and there are hints of the direction she was headed. However, this an incomplete work with unanswered questions...and it's heartbreaking to think of why.

The first section of Suite Francaise, Storm in June, tells multiple stories of various individuals and families as they flee Paris and the advancing German army. Most of the characters are shown to be petty and shallow, only interested in themselves and their status and the inconvenience that is the war. There is a lot going on in this section, and at times it is difficult to keep everyone straight.

The second section, Dolce, focuses on a particular village and how its residents deal with the occupying German army. Again, many of the residents (especially the Viscountess de Montmort...gawd, is she ever annoying) are self-serving. What is interesting is how extensive Nemirovsky portrays the collaboration between the French and the Germans to be...it runs the gamut from girls falling in love, to whats in for me.

Most (not all, but most) of Nemirovsky's characters are deplorable. She does not show the French in a good light. Interestingly, the Germans don't fare quite as badly. Also interesting is the fact that she never uses the word Nazi. She does mention the swastika flags, and there are a few heil hitlers, but this book is not about Hitler's final solution. It's about human nature and how she perceived people's reactions to the war.

It's hard to critique a book that you know is unfinished. Who knows what may have happened in those unfinished sections, or even as Nemirovsky edited what she had already written.

Have you read this book? If so, do you have any opinions on who the couple on the cover represent (or even if they are meant to represent any of the characters)? My vote goes to Gabriel and Florence, although he doesn't look quite supercilious enough for Gabriel.

7 comment(s):

Dar said...

I have this on my shelf and have wanted to read it for a long time. Not sure if it's something I want to pick up just yet after reading your review or not.

Hannah Furst said...

I recently read your post about Irène Némirovsky and wanted to let you know about an exciting new exhibition about her life, work, and legacy that will open on September 24, 2008 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage —A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française, which will run through the middle of March, will include powerful rare artifacts — the actual handwritten manuscript for Suite Française, the valise in which it was found, and many personal papers and family photos. The majority of these documents and artifacts have never been outside of France. For fans of her work, this exhibition is an opportunity to really “get to know” Irene. And for those who can’t visit, there will be a special website that will live on the Museum’s site www.mjhnyc.org.
The Museum will host several public programs over the course of the exhibition’s run that will put Némirovsky’s work and life into historical and literary context. Book clubs and groups are invited to the Museum for tours and discussions in the exhibition’s adjacent Salon (by appointment). It is the Museum’s hope that the exhibit will engage visitors and promote dialogue about this extraordinary writer and the complex time in which she lived and died. To book a group tour, please contact Tracy Bradshaw at 646.437.4304 or tbradshaw@mjhnyc.org. Please visit our website at www.mjhnyc.org for up-to-date information about upcoming public programs or to join our e-bulletin list.

Thanks for sharing this info with your readers. If you need any more information, please contact me at hfurst@mjhnyc.org.

ya ya's mom said...

i've been wanting to read this, it's on my bookmooch wishlist, so i'm just waiting for it....

Amanda said...

I thought this book was ok. But I think I like the idea of this book better. Ok, so maybe what I really want is a fictional account of Irene's life...or maybe a fictional movie based on the life of Irene. But Suite Francaise the story didn't do much for me.

softdrink said...

Dar, it wasn't as depressing as I thought it would be, but it wasn't as compelling, either.

Hannah, thanks for the info! I wish I lived on the East Coast!! I will check out the website, though.

yaya's mom - my copy came from paperspine.com, my new bestest friend.

Amanda, yes I agree. I read it more for its history than because of the story.

LisaMM said...

Yeah, I agree that it's weird reading an unfinished book. I read one recently through Penguin Classics and it stopped so abruptly it kinda made my head spin.

Arukiyomi said...

Helpful review which I've linked to on mine. Thanks.

In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish. ~S.I. Hayakawa

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
~St. Augustine

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
~Mark Twain

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