Suite Française

Irene Nemirovsky Vintage Books 2007

Imagine a book that was written 64 years before it was published? Suite Française (SF) is such a book; it is a story about the WWII occupation, covering the years 1939-1941, which provides an up close look at the sporadically brutal to hostile to even sometimes affectionate relationships among the French and their conquerors, the German troops, clad in their forest green. The author’s daughters couldn’t bear to even read the manuscript until 2005, after which they painstakingly deciphered and copied it and had it published. SF’s emphasis is not brutality, imprisonment, gas chambers or the like, but the often unwarlike day-to-day life of the French and their masters in green. It reveals how France’s upper class never really relinquished their predilection for class distinctions and how they still expected to have the “suite” in whatever hotel they were visiting, while relocating to minimize their contact with the invaders. The most memorable thing about it isn’t the story, the characters or any moral, it is rather the intuitive sensitivity of a courageous and heroic author, and the fact that -- as she wrote every page (in microscopic longhand to save paper and ink) -- she was under constant threat of being imprisoned.

SF was intended to be a five part book, modeled after Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but she completed only the first two parts, before she was arrested (in July 1942) and sent to Auschwitz, where she died in November of that year. (She completed “Storm” (France’s fall) and “Dolce” (the occupation) but never even began “Captivity”, “Battles” and “Peace”). One of her final pleas from prison, as written to a friend, was, “If you can send me anything, please send my second pair of glasses and BOOKS, and a bit of salted butter. May God help us all.” That the manuscript for SF survived such incarceration defies credulity, but it did.

The book demonstrates what can be accomplished under the most trying circumstances imaginable. To appreciate the magnitude of this, we must consider the author’s life. Born in Russia to parents whose families were immensely wealthy bankers, the Nemirovsky’s fell prey to an anti-Jewish pogrom in 1914, and their vast family wealth was confiscated by the Bolsheviks in 1917. After several years of “hiding out” in friends’ homes, the family sought refuge in France in 1919. Such irony to flee the bosom of their Mother Russia into the arms of a France that was later to turn on them just as brutally. Irene was then sixteen. Her father rebuilt some of his fortune by expanding a branch bank that he had in France, and Irene flourished in French schools, including the Sorbonne. She married Michel Epstein in 1926 and had her first daughter in 1929, at which time her first novel (David Golder) became an instant best seller. By 1939, when WWII broke in France, she was an internationally celebrated author of several novels, essays and poetry, the mother of two girls and a very attractive, vivacious and entertaining young woman who led the glamorous life of the wealthy upper class.

When WWII crashed down upon her in 1939, her world spun into a steep tailspin. In October 1940, a law was passed giving Jews inferior social standing. Irene, her husband and two daughters openly wore the Jewish star, even though they were devout Catholics. Her income was cut off, as her royalty payments, by law, were directed to “blocked accounts”, which applied to all Jewish authors. After her arrest, her husband sent endless entreaties to the German authorities begging to take her place in prison, as she had suffered from asthma from childhood. His request was answered by his own arrest, when he was dispatched directly to the gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1942. Their two daughters (Denise and Elisabeth) were refused lodging by their estranged grandmother (Irene’s mother), a once-beauty who inexplicably managed to live in luxury all her days but who disliked Irene and resented the latter’s fame. The daughters were orphaned and taken-in by friends and raised. After WWII ended, the royalties from Irene’s books again supported her daughters. Elisabeth became an editor in a publishing house, and, with the help of a magnifying glass, converted her mother’s miniscule writing (mainly in French, but with lapses into Russian and English) into SF, which was published in 2007.

Haunting lines proliferate: “Evil is visible; it burns; it smugly displays itself for all to see…Why is this happening to us, ordinary people, sheep to the slaughter…There’s nothing to understand…when a storm strikes, you don’t blame anyone; the storm doesn’t know who you are…A strong gust of wind blows off the leaves and reveals the true shape of the tree…He wasn’t made for a world that would be born of this rotting cadaver, like a worm emerging from a rotting grave, a brutal ferocious dog-eat-dog world…What would he, with all his sophistication, do among this demented mob? He would be robbed, skinned, murdered, like a pitiable dog…They left the city on foot, dragging their suitcases behind them. There wasn’t a single unoccupied hotel room; people were sleeping on the floors in cafes, in the railway station, in the streets, jammed together like fish crushed in a net…There was nothing human left in the miserable mob; they were like a herd of frightened animals – their crumpled clothes, crazed faces, horse voices, everything about them made them look peculiarly alike…The Germans more or less inherited the social status of their landlords…Empires are dying; nothing matters…I’d like to create one volume of 1,000 pages…a story that will interest readers in 1952 or 2052…Reread Tolstoy…The rest of the story is in limbo, in the lap of the gods…”

So, do we enjoy SF? Yes. Is it a “great book”? Critics call it a “tour de force…a violent masterpiece…a fresco of extraordinary lucidity…a vivid snapshot of France and the French – spineless, defeated and occupied…a work of Proustian scope and delicacy, by turns funny and moving…gripping…brilliant…transcendent, astonishing…the last great fiction of the war…” Yet, it is a manifestly unfair question. The author only finished 40% of it, and she was not able to edit what she finished. It offers us an incomplete fresco, a haunting shadow, but, as far as it goes, it merits our attention.

The “masterpiece” here is the author and her personal story. The bottom line is that Irene Nemirovsky was an amazing woman, who persevered at her art to her dying breath, in the face of herculean odds, writing fiction that miraculously survived her, and, even at this so late date, a story that provides a lovingly compassionate appreciation of humanity under duress – and, in sum, tenders a final epitaph on “the last Great War” -- WWII.