Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française

May 28, 2015

I’ve been meaning to come back to this novel, which made a great impression on me when it was first published about ten years ago; its being released as a film finally convinced me.

Nemirovsky describes the fall of France in 1940 in the first half of a long novel; the powerful opening chapter depicts Paris on the verge of being overrun by the Germans: no-one knows what’s going on and all are afraid in different ways. Masterfully, she zooms in and narrows the focus in the ensuing chapters and we focus on a range of families and individuals as they try to flee to safety further south. I found flashes of a Jane Austen-like sharpness in character portrayal, through indirect authorial comment. We see how people react to their approaching fate: numerous tiny details accentuate the growing fear and panic, and selfishness too. She is masterly in picturing the populace totally unable to comprehend what is happening to them and their country.

She achieves subtle yet powerful effects because all the individuals, couples and families she portrays are isolated from their surroundings and from other people, which enhances their meanness, their selfishness, their egotism. The situation descnds into farce when a rich bourgeoise, finally having succeeded in boarding a train to escape, suddenly remembers that she has left her invalid father-in-law behind in their abandoned car… and grim horror ensues when a group of wild orphans kill the priest who is meant to be leading them to safety.

What is perhaps most chilling is that when some of the characters arrive in the relative security of the Midi, they resume their extravagance and posing as if nothing untoward was happening.

Nemirovsky shifts her focus in the second half of the book, setting it well after the defeat and during the occupation, concentrating on the billeting of German troops in a sleepy town near the demarcation line between occupied and Vichy France. The French are confused: how to face and behave towards their conquerors and masters? At first there are echoes of VercorsLe Silence de la Mer, but Nemirovsky recognises the impossibility of sending every German to Coventry: townspeople and troops have to co-exist. The differences between rich and poor, town and country are all laid bare, the rivalries, feuds and point-scoring: nothing and no-one is spared, and the French do not come out very well. Fraternisation with the enemy is complex, and the heroine Lucile, whose oaf of an unfaithful husband is a prisoner of the Germans, gradually becomes fond of, falls in love with, a lonely, thoughtful and considerate German officer billeted in her home, though she is ultimately unable to give herself to him.

It’s clear many of the local bourgeoisie quite like the Germans, who protect them from the peasants and communists they fear, and they are capable of betraying their own people. Things move fast when Lucile first has to conceal a wanted Frenchman and then help get him to safety in Paris.

The novel closes with the departure of the Germans to the Eastern Front; their party celebrating a year since they took Paris closes with the news of the invasion of the Soviet Union. Nemirovsky is very sensitive to nuances of feeling, to the complexities of the emotional lives of those caught up in war, and their conflicts between love, duty and loyalty. And what is possibly, now, most astonishing of all in her achievement, is that this novel was written before the end of the war, which Nemirovsky never saw: as a French Jew, she was deported to Auschwitz and killed there.

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