Classic read: Suite Francaise

Issue section: 
(372)

Irène Némirovsky
First published in 2006

The name Irène Némirovsky only sprang into public consciousness in Britain during the past decade. In France during the 1930s she was an established, critically acclaimed writer of 11 successful novels. Némirovsky was of bourgeois Russian Jewish background, her family having fled Kiev during the 1917 revolution to settle in Paris.

With the posthumous discovery and publication of Suite Française in French in 2004 and then in English in 2006, immediately hailed as a literary masterpiece, many have now heard of her. But many more should. Suite Française comprises the first two novels of an intended four or five novel cycle, a war saga, and is a compelling portrayal of France in defeat under brutal Nazi occupation.

Written with a sense of foreboding from 1941 to 1942, from acute observation and horrifying experience, it is undoubtedly a significant work of European literature. It is a beautifully written, moving, powerful account of life at its most extreme.

The two completed novels are impressive and engrossing. Storm in June opens with the fall of France in June 1940 and powerfully tells the story of invasion, bombs on Paris and military occupation amid all the chaos as lives fall apart.

The second novel, Dolce, follows the inhabitants of a small town coping and resisting in myriad ways as they hide goods and strip their rooms down to bare essentials. Alongside this are the self-serving adjustments and compromises of defeat. In the town, "the stomping of German boots reigned supreme... The local policeman was putting up posters...some depicted a smiling German soldier under the caption 'Abandoned citizens, trust in the soldiers of the Third Reich!' Posters used caricatures to illustrate world domination by the English and the detestable tyranny of the Jews. Most of them began with 'Verboten'....and beneath each the same warning in black lettering: On Pain of Death."

These stories of lives under great stress contain vivid portrayals of characters and the social landscape of class, but also the sense of isolation beneath the surface. Dolce ends with Hitler turning his attention to Russia and the Eastern Front.

Némirovsky's sequels were never written. Why? Because in 1942, aged 39, she was arrested by the Vichy police, deported to Auschwitz, and killed by the Nazis as a "stateless Jew".

The tragedy of a shocking death in Auschwitz does not necessarily mean great writing. But the quality of observation and the story she tells, expressed in memorable ways, helps in establishing the claim.

Amid hypocrisy and defeat there remains hope and early glimmerings of a fightback. Public memory now is of resistance and eventual liberation, of deportee victims of the barbarism, and of Jean Moulin, Communist leader of French resistance dying under torture. But for four years occupying troops were the vicious local power.

Read Suite Française for remarkable writing, standing on its own merits, written for deep meaning, not effect. But beyond that it is an intense portrayal of the messy realities of a period of defeat that some may not want to hear about, but actually, we all need to know.