Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (audio), trans. by Sandra Smith

Pagesofjulia earlier published a guest review of this audiobook by my father. He did an excellent job of telling the backstory, so I’m just going to quote him here.

Much of the impact derives from knowing the author’s own story and how the book came to life. Born 1903, she was a Russian Jewish immigrant to France (1918), converted to the Catholic Church (1939), published numerous works of renown before the war (including one brought to film), was denied French citizenship in 1938 due to Jewish heritage, and has since been criticized for being a self-hating Jew. She was in the course of writing this work as events unfolded, expecting to create a novel in 5 parts. She finished two parts, was denounced by French collaborators and deported to Auschwitz where she died within a month. Many more of her writings were published since the war. But her daughters retained this notebook manuscript, keeping it unread until 1990 due to anxiety over the expected pain of reading her wartime “journal” – only then, before donating the pages to an archive, did they realize what powerful words those pages held. Written 1940-42, it was published in 2004, acclaimed, translated and read internationally.

(I don’t know where he gets his info from, but his write-up appears to agree with what the rest of the interwebs tells me.)

The backstory does indeed increase the impact of this story for me. For one thing, knowing that she wrote without knowledge of how the story ended makes some of her predictions and judgments especially poignant.

I think the most remarkable aspects of this book for me were the beautiful writing, and the tone of dry humor. See my Teaser Tuesday and Book Beginnings posts featuring this book for a few snippets I appreciated. The poetry flowed so naturally and yet painted such lovely pictures, without ever feeling forced. And as for the tone – Némirovsky does not spare the French, particularly the upper classes. While they are “victims” of the Nazis, they don’t read as sympathetic characters most of the time; see again that teaser post above for some of her cutting satire (and it goes on from there). The Germans sometimes come across more sympathetically, which I found interesting and not entirely expected. It’s easy to denigrate the Nazis, right? But Némirovsky gives us a truth: these were all just people, elementally.

Perhaps the point that drove Némirovsky’s story home for me the most – that is, both Suite Française and her own real-life story – was the ending of the book. Némirovsky’s daughter chose to publish as one book the first two in an intended series of five novels (so says Wikipedia). She also left behind the outlines of the third part. But in effect, this book ends very abruptly to me, leaving many threads unresolved. The abruptness of the ending was of course made more stark for me in audio format – I’m walking along, listening to the book on my earbuds, and then, nothing. What? Is that the END? I had gotten so engrossed in the story – worried about Bruno, wondering what Lucile would do next – that I’d forgotten the similar plight of the author herself (in that her future was being torn apart and eventually her life ended by the same forces at work in the book). So the cutting off of her work in progress ended up telling the same story for me that her book tells within its pages. I found that very powerful.

Suite Française has an interesting story to tell, both between its covers and without. It is beautifully written, humbling, stark and poignant. The same Wikipedia page (above) calls it “possibly the earliest work of literary fiction about World War II.” It’s really something, and you should check it out. But beware unintended cliffhangers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: