Monday, June 23, 2008

Suite Francaise

I just finished Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian-born Jewish woman whose family fled the Bolshevik Revolution to settle in France. She already had established a reputation as an important French writer by the time World War II broke out. Both she and her husband were arrested in 1942 and were killed at Auschwitz. Their two young daughters were hidden from the French police throughout the war and managed to survive. The eldest daughter, Denise, had saved her mother's notebook, in which she had begun her last work, about the fall of France.

Obviously, the dramatic background of Nemirovsky's life added to the power of the novel, but the novel itself is beautifully, searingly written. She had such a wonderful, clear-eyed view of the extraordinary events going on around her as she began this work, which was practically a real-time setting for the action. The "suite" has two completed parts, "The Storm" and "Dolce," of a planned five parts.

Nemirovsky's focus was on the reaction of various classes of French people to the country's defeat -- not fully recovered from the previous war -- and then to the occupation. Although collaboration with the Germans is a subject, she never mentions the plight of Jews anywhere in the book -- never mentions the existence of the concentration camps. Mostly for practical reasons, she and her family had converted to Catholicism in the years before the war, and she claimed no interest in the Jewish "cause." Some of the correspondence of her husband and friends is included in the Appendix as they tried to find out her whereabouts after her arrest. The horror of what happened is compounded by the fact that nothing they had done allowed them to escape the Nazi racial program, and even though they were aware of the camps, no one seemed to actually realize that being sent to them was almost certain death. The correspondence continued unknowingly even after she had died, and right up until the time her husband Michel was also arrested and sent to the gas chambers. The fact that the French police in Vichy France continued actively to pursue the little girls is a mind-boggling bit of inhumanity. I suppose it's only by examining the individual stories, that it's possible to start understanding the utter depravity of the Holocaust.

One of the striking things about the novel is Nemirovsky's observation of the basest of human instincts coming to the fore during the turmoil she witnessed. From every class of French life -- it became "every man for himself." In a particularly disturbing episode during the first panicked exodus from Paris, she describes some of the refugee women tossing their children aside and running from the German strafing attacks. By contrast, there are some, but not many instances of sacrifice and kindness, but very few characters who manage to retain any sort of moral integrity.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Sinnreich said...

I recently read your post about Irène Némirovsky and wanted to let you know about an exciting new exhibition about her life, work, and legacy that will open on September 2, 2008 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage —A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française, which will run through the middle of March, will include powerful rare artifacts — the actual handwritten manuscript for Suite Française, the valise in which it was found, and many personal papers and family photos. The majority of these documents and artifacts have never been outside of France. For fans of her work, this exhibition is an opportunity to really “get to know” Irene. And for those who can’t visit, there will be a special website that will live on the Museum’s site
The Museum will host several public programs over the course of the exhibition’s run that will put Némirovsky’s work and life into historical and literary context. Book clubs and groups are invited to the Museum for tours and discussions in the exhibition’s adjacent Salon (by appointment). It is the Museum’s hope that the exhibit will engage visitors and promote dialogue about this extraordinary writer and the complex time in which she lived and died. Please visit our website at for up-to-date information about upcoming public programs or to join our e-bulletin list.

Thanks for sharing this info with your readers. Let me know if you need any more.

Liz Sinnreich