A book written during the events it tells of.
Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
First Published: 2004
Date Reviewed: 16th January 2014
Original language: French
Original title: [As above] (French Suite)
Translated by: Sandra Smith
As the Germans invade France, numerous people head to the regions still free. The refugees are composed of all the social classes, including the middle class Pericands, regular bank workers the Michaunds, and an uppity novelist. As the invasion becomes occupation, a German moves into the Angellier house, where an unhappy Lucile awaits the someday arrival of her unfaithful husband. No one, neither French nor German, knows what will happen in the days ahead.
Suite Française is a theme and character driven book that defies tradition and looks at war with a unique, humorous, and tragic lens. Published posthumously, decades after the author was killed at Auschwitz, the book as it stands is composed of two of a planned five novellas, still in the drafting stage.
What a draft this is. Némirovsky’s book, translated into English by Sandra Smith, reads as though it were almost ready for publication. Beyond a few errors, some of which the translator has edited, there is little to suggest that the work, beyond the obvious lack of a conclusion, had not been through several rewrites already.
The writing is exceptional. Némirovsky speaks of the horrors of her time yet includes a constant thread of humour. It is not laugh-out-loud humour and mostly pertains to social class differences, but for its use it shows that in times of plight some light-heartedness goes a long way – the characters don’t find much funny; the humour is from the author. The book is very literary and may prove easy to loose yourself in. This is particularly interesting when you consider that the book, beyond the basic thread of the war, lacks a plot.
There are ‘mini’ plots here and there, for example the story of one character’s love for another, but by and large the book simply discusses the day to day life, if it can be called such, of the characters. Indeed the major aspect of this book isn’t the characters per se, it is society. In looking at the war, Némirovsky isn’t describing the acts of the enemy and saying how awful they are. She does include horrors, of course, but the awfulness focused on in Suite Française is the lack of compassion and community of the refugees. The middle classes thank God the lower classes were bombed instead of them, the lower classes don’t understand the middle classes, an egotistical man thinks his celebrity will continue to get him whatever he wants, and everywhere people are stealing everything from everybody else. For the most part no one helps anyone else, and that is the point Némirovsky makes in the first novella, Storm In June. Not that being out for oneself leads to long-lasting complications – though, again, this is another point that is made; maybe being out for themselves should affect the characters.
Class divides remain in times of strife. A prime example of the irony of a Christian woman of the middle class is shown here:
“Do you see how good our Lord Jesus is? Just think, we could be those unfortunate wretches!”
In the above case, the author is blunt – the sentence is a flashback a young man has of his mother after he has returned from running off to join the army, and, as he says, “Hypocrites, frauds!”
What is particularly interesting about the book, yes, beyond the theme work and different approach, is Némirovsky’s writing of the Germans in the second novella, Dolce. Whilst the Germans were written as one mass in the first novella, in Dolce there are various individuals assigned to live in certain French homes, and these men are written in a way that borders on compassion. This may not sound so strange as a whole, as war is known to be more important at the top than the bottom, and the German soldiers want to fit in despite being the conquerors, but it is somewhat strange when you consider that Némirovsky was writing of the enemy sitting outside her window, so to speak. In Dolce, the author gives personality and voice to the people despised as she wrote her book, to an enemy that wanted those of her background dead – an enemy that would later arrest and kill her. For this personification, Dolce makes for uncomfortable reading, most especially now in our present day (who knows how it might have been received if the work had been published just after the war?), where we know what happened and we know a lot more than Némirovsky would have at the time. How should the reader respond to the feelings of compassion the author invites – should we just read the book as a work of fiction or is it Némirovsky’s hope that we look inside ourselves and question those feelings? Should we be chastising ourselves for even considering these invaders’ thoughts? Should we be viewing them as people that are as human as the French? Should we be thinking about how easy it is to be led by someone to believe they are a good person?
Finally, another factor that is interesting due to the time and situation in which the book was written, there is a somewhat ironic (sadly ironic) comparison to be made between the French soldier, Jean-Marie Michaund, and the author herself. Jean-Marie wants to be a writer, and during his stay at a farm, Némirovsky writes:
He wrote with a chewed-up pencil stub, in a little notebook which he hid against his heart. He felt he had to hurry: something inside him was making him anxious, was knocking on an invisible door.
Suite Française is a masterpiece; it makes no difference that it is unfinished. (Though it must be said that, at least in the English translation, Némirovsky’s notes and a rough plan for the rest of the book have been included.) It may be low on plot, but it is high in social studies, in character development, and in beautiful language. Sporting vast appeal for those interested in social history as well as those who simply enjoy reading, Suite Française is one you shouldn’t pass up.
January 20, 2014, 4:56 am
I bought this back when everyone was reading it, and probably didn’t read it for that reason (!), but I really must now, Charlie. I like your point about class – it is sometimes said that war abolishes (many) class distinctions, but I have never thought that to be so clear cut. I’ll be interested to read more about this here.
January 20, 2014, 8:09 am
Loved this post. Sounds like a great, if disturbing read.
January 20, 2014, 12:54 pm
I cried buckets of tears over this book. It’s just all kinds of brilliant and wonderful. She was a great writer and social commentator who had a very interesting, but ultimately tragic, life. I hope you read her other novels sometime.
January 20, 2014, 6:33 pm
I read this in the past few months and reading your review made me think about the wonder that is this book again. You did a wonderful job of explaining what makes it such a powerful book. Thank you.
January 20, 2014, 7:19 pm
I have owned this forever and still haven’t read it. I really need to this year!
January 20, 2014, 11:33 pm
I’ve been trying to get my book club to read this for ages – I can now read them parts of your post to convince them to choose it (I hope)!
Last year I read the book Nemirovsky’s daughter wrote in her mother’s voice. It is very good if you are interested in her story. It’s called The Mirador by Elisabeth Gille.
January 21, 2014, 1:08 am
This does sounds a lot like The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and also like a very good book. I’d be very nervous to start an unfinished book though. It seems like that could really leave you unsatisfied when you’re done.
January 21, 2014, 6:25 pm
I have heard such wonderful things about this book. I have a copy that’s been sitting on my shelf for what seems like forever. As much as I like character driven novels, I do also like a good plot, and I think that’s what has made me hesitate to read this.
January 24, 2014, 1:38 am
With all that I’ve heard about this book, I never realized that it was written so close in time to the events or that it was only a draft! You have really made me want to read it now.
January 25, 2014, 5:32 pm
I read parts of your review, Charlie, but skipped the crucial paragraph where you have commented on the story. Because I am hoping to read this book sometime soon and so I didn’t want to know anything about the story. So glad to know that you loved the book. Love your 5 stars. I will come back and read your review again after I finish reading the book. Thanks for the glowing review.
February 28, 2014, 2:54 pm
Vicki: Oh I know that situation well, too many expectations! I think you would enjoy it. Yes, I have to say I thought, even knowing the book was about social issues, there would be a loss of class divides but if anything it’s the opposite. However, what’s interesting is that the lack of any blending of classes means the focus is on the individuals all the more. If you want a study on the class division issue, this book is excellent.
Chris: It is, and it really makes you think about selfishness and fending for oneself – you can understand them being worried about themselves but there is of course plenty of space to care for others. Quite literally in the case of hotel rooms taken by rich couples!
Violet: I really want to. I’m thinking of trying David Golder… I think that’s the title. It was advertised on the back cover (I hadn’t known she had written more than Suite at that time). Her commentary is absolutely brilliant, and given how her situation matched the story I think it surpasses many others, just for that.
Iris: Thank you :) There’s always the thought in your mind that you might have got it wrong, so I’m glad for the feedback! I read and loved your review, too.
Kailana: That was exactly where I was until a few weeks ago. Make time for it, it’s worth it :)
Anbolyn: Go for it :) It’s perfect for a book club, so much to discuss. Oo, I’ll have a look for Gille’s work. Fascinating concept!
Katie: That’s a little of why I took a while – the wonder about how satisfying the ending-that’s-not-an-ending might be. In this case, as long as you’ve an edition with her notes, you can get a fair idea of how it continued – enough notes that you would effectively be spoiling the story for yourself. Heavenly Punishment rings a bell, I’ll have to check it out.
Literary Feline: I hear you. There’s enough commentary in it to lessen the issue of there being no real plot – it’s hard to describe exactly, but there is just so much in it that the relative lack of a plot doesn’t matter. Basically it’s character and commentary driven, and I suppose you could say that the commentary adds a little to the concept of a plot, too.
Laurie: You wouldn’t believe it was a draft if not told – it’s better than many completed and edited books nowadays. Do read it :)
Vishy: Glad to hear you’ll be reading it, Vishy! (In part because I look forward to your review!)