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Irène Némirovsky – Suite Française

June 17, 2008

78. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (originally written ~1941-2; published 2004)

Read By: Daniel Oreskes & Barbara Rosenblat
Length: 13h 13m (448 pages)

Genre: Not really historical fiction, since it was contemporary when it was written… I’d say somewhere between literary and historical fiction.

Started: 13 June 2008
Finished: 17 June 2008

Summary: Suite Française is the first two novellas from an unfinished five-novella work – unfinished because Irène Némirovsky, a French Jew, was captured by the Germans in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, where she died a month later. The first novella, Storm in June, follows the fates of the refugees who are forced to flee from the German advance on Paris in June 1940. The story follows several groups – an upper-middle class family, a priest sheparding a group of orphans and delinquents, a writer and his mistress, and a couple of working-class bank employees – as they are forced to abandon their lives and possessions, and make their way towards the illusion of safety while basic transportation and infrastructure is being bombed by the Germans. The second novella, Dolce, centers around the small town of Bussy during the period of German occupation. German officers are being quartered in French homes, what scarce supplies there are have been requisitioned, and although the occupation may seem benign and even peaceful on a personal level, there are bitter tensions roiling under the surface.

Review: Most, if not all, of the books I’ve read about war, focus around a hero, or at least a protagonist who does something heroic. On the battlefield, in the resistance, fighting the Nazis, saving the Jews; most books are about ordinary people rising above themselves in times of crisis to do something extraordinary. Suite Française is not that book at all. It’s about ordinary people, behaving as ordinary people do – mean, selfish, petty, obsessed with class and status, confusing personal and nationalistic feelings, spiteful, resigned – people going about the business of surviving and living. And, while we all might want to think that we’d be one of the heroes in a time of crisis, the characters of Suite Française are too starkly, nakedly human for us not to have an immediate (and frequently unpleasant) sense of recognition and identification with them. This is also an atypical World War II book in that it is strangely apolitical, and does not mention Jews or the Holocaust at all (especially strange given that the author was Jewish). The Germans are depicted as mostly young, polite, and sensitive men, missing their homes and families, and doing their best behave well, even while being part of an occupying army. The focus is not on the war itself – no mention of motives, political or tactical manuevers, or strategy is made – but rather on the effect of the war on civilians and ordinary French people.

The writing is also dissimilar to many books I’ve read; it’s narrated from a third-person omniscient that frequently jumps points of view, and will occasionally tell a scene from the perspective of the cat, or a nameless eavesdropping girl, or a stranger on the street. Némirovsky handles this shifting perspective better than most authors; however, if I let my attention wander at all, I would frequently lose the thread of the story for a minute or two before I could figure out how and why the scene had shifted. Other than that, the writing was smooth and rich, filled with descriptive metaphors and details that gave an instant feel for both setting and tone. Both narrators did a fine job with their piece, although neither was particularly stand-out, and I’m unclear as to why two narrators were needed for the two different sections. Also, the audiobook does not include the outline for subsequent sections and Némirovsky’s correspondence that is included in most print versions. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Not a particularly pleasant or uplifting read, but it paints a vivid picture of France under German occupation, and gives a perspective on World War II that I hadn’t encountered before; for that, as well as for the richly textured writing, this book deserves the attention that’s been paid to it, and is worth the read.

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First Line: Hot, thought the Parisians.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2008 9:40 am

    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 http://www.mjhnyc.org.
    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 http://www.mjhnyc.org 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.

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