Vintage International, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4000-9627-5.
Reviewed by Penny Appleby
Posted on 03/20/2008
This novel is remarkable in several ways: how it came to be published, its structure, and it contains the author's notes and correspondence during this period. And it's a good read.
Russian-born Irène Némirovsky established herself as a writer in Paris in 1929 at age twenty-six with the publication of her first novel, David Golder, which was an overnight success. She began Suite Francaise early in the 1940s. From her notes, it's clear that the story was meant to be an epic novel; however, Nemirovsky was taken by the Germans in July 1942 and died in a concentration camp in August. Fortunately, friends were able to take her two young daughters away before they were captured. As a remembrance, the daughters took with them what they thought was their mother's journals. It was more than fifty years later before they could bring themselves to read them. What they discovered were the two novellas their mother had written that were the beginnings of a larger novel, which would be published as Suite Francaise.
Though this is a novel, its origins clearly were in Nemirovsky's own experiences. When World War II broke out, she and her husband took their daughters to the countryside outside Paris to stay. The couple continued to live in Paris for a while, commuting to see the girls, before they eventually also left.
From the beginning, this book draws you in and transports to that time and place. The author's sense of place and understanding of human nature is reflected over and over in the lives of the characters who flee the Nazi occupation of Paris. Though the individuals are very different, they reflect the same sense of denial over what is happening to them. How they cope with the change in their own lives and with what is happening to their country is what Nemirovsky writes about so beautifully. She presents the German soldiers in the same way she presents her French characters—as human beings caught in a terrible tragedy. She doesn't make the Germans appear as the "bad guys," but tells a story that rings with truth.
The book's translator indicates that Nemirovsky envisioned the entire book to be like a musical composition. It's too bad that we were denied this. These two novellas give you enough to imagine what a great composition it would have been.
Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev into a wealthy banking family in 1903 and emigrated to France during the Russian Revolution. After attending the Sorbonne, she began to write and swiftly achieved success with an early novel, David Golder, which was followed by The Ball, Snow in Autumn, Dogs and Wolves, and The Courilof Affair, among others. She died in 1942 at Auschwitz.
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