The story behind Irène Némirovksy's Suite Française is painful and extraordinary, a story yearning to be told. Written in occupied France in 1941–42, the book was published in that country over sixty years after its author's death. Némirovsky, born in Russia in 1903, lived in France from 1919 onward, but never took French citizenship. She was a celebrated novelist (her first book, David Golder, appeared to great acclaim in 1929 and was made into a film, and by 1937 she had published nine novels), as well as a member of high society. With the fall of France, she discovered that, as a Jew, she was not protected by her talents and privileges. With her husband and two small daughters, she retreated to Issy-l'Évêque, where she worked on Suite Française with a growing sense of despair about the war, French collaboration, and her own situation. She wrote to her editor on July 11, 1942, "My dear friend . . . think of me sometimes. I have done a lot of writing. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but it helps pass the time." Arrested two days later, she was deported, and she died in Auschwitz in August 1942 at the age of thirty-nine.
Her husband suffered the same fate soon afterward. Their children, hidden throughout the war, unaware that they had become orphans, carried with them their mother's notebook, only to discover in 1945 that they could not return it to her. The prospect of reading her minute handwriting was too painful to contemplate, and it was not until the end of the century that Denise, Némirovsky's elder daughter, undertook to decipher and transcribe what she thought was her mother's diary. What she found instead were these remarkable and luminous works of fiction. "Storm in June" and "Dolce," the two existing volumes of Némirovsky's projected five-volume Suite, are sections of what would have been a masterpiece.
Set during and after the fall of France, this is a bleak and often harrowing satire, one that unmasks the pettiness and self-involved terrors of a privileged people confronted with the physical and ethical collapse of their way of life. But it is also, perhaps paradoxically, darkly funny, a book that, in cleaving to life's tiny, quotidian details, captures the comic essence of experience—as when Madame Péricand, a grande bourgeoise, invites her servants into the living room to hear the radio announcements of the Germans' approach, thinking "such a breach of the normal rules seemed a frightening indication of things to come. It was in just this manner that the different social classes all ended up on the top deck during a shipwreck," while Maria, the cook, enters the drawing room "embarrassed because her hands smelled of fish."
An exhilarating hybrid of Chekhov and Anthony Powell, "Storm in June" charts the mass exodus from Paris in 1940 as the Germans approached, through the experiences—bumbling, venal, pompous, darkly hilarious—of a cast of characters from diverse social backgrounds, but primarily, like Madame Péricand, from the elite. "Dolce," like the adagio that follows a molto allegro, is the slower, more emotionally complex and poignant account of the inhabitants of an occupied rural village one year later. In particular, it focuses upon a young woman named Lucile, whose indifferent and unfaithful husband is a prisoner of war, and who cannot help her feelings for Bruno, the German officer billeted in her mother-in-law's house. "His voice, when he spoke German, especially with that commanding tone, took on a sharp, resonant quality. Hearing it gave Lucile the same pleasure that a slightly rough kiss might—the kind of kiss that ends with a little bite. She slowly brought her hands to her burning face: ‘Stop it!' she said to herself. ‘Stop thinking about him, you're asking for trouble.'" If "Storm in June" feels like a tour de force, a remarkable but ultimately anecdotal panorama that would have relied upon subsequent sections to carry its full weight, "Dolce" has the sustained significance of a novel, complete in its own right.
The achievement of the two volumes together is a picture, both sweeping and intimate, and as clear as a mirror, of the French bourgeoisie, rural and Parisian, during the occupation. (Fascinatingly, there are no Jewish characters: They are invisible in this fiction as they must have been to the majority of the French at that time, especially in the provinces.) Writing in
her notebooks two days before she was arrested by the French police, Némirovsky noted, with regard to her fiction: "[T]he historical, revolutionary facts etc must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides must be described in detail." And again: "What lives on: 1. Our humble day-to-day lives. 2. Art. 3. God."
The clarity of vision manifest in Némirovsky's journals (excerpts from which are provided in an appendix) and above all in the novel itself is astounding, given her circumstances. Suite Française is not a political novel, in any propagandistic sense; nor, as we can clearly see from Némirovksy's fate, did it change anything. But, as Auden rightly said of verse that makes nothing happen, "it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth."
Némirovsky convincingly inhabits both the mind of a naive and pampered adolescent boy—for whom war seems a great adventure—and that of a young farm girl, whose attachment to a wounded soldier is bound up with her Bovary-esque longing for a grander life. The author charts, with aching precision, the fibrillations of Lucile's heart: her unsought attraction to the German officer and the intellectual recoil with which it alternates. Némirovsky shows how collaboration is inevitable because people—always, everywhere—desire, and think, and live. For her characters, war does not change their natures—it simply reveals them. It would be a remarkable novel had it been written only recently, in comfortable circumstances; given its provenance, and its history, it is a book that demands to be read: It is the legacy of a writer who might have been great. Her hope in the midst of hopelessness—it is a rare gift to us today.
Claire Messud's novel The Emperor's Children will be published later this year by Knopf.