This is a difficult review to write. Diving into Suite Francaise with tremendous anticipation last week, mostly due to my love of fiction set during the events of the First and Second World Wars, I did not give much thought to the resulting review. Ordinarily, I will find myself jotting down the odd note as I read – a habit borne prior to this blog, when I would write short reviews in an old notebook (mainly so that I didn’t find myself getting halfway through a ‘new’ book and finding that I had already read it). But I failed to follow suit with Suite Francaise. And it was not until I sat down at my laptop to collect my thoughts and write the review, that I realised how difficult a task it would be.
This difficulty does not spring from a dislike for the book. My opinion is, in fact, quite the opposite. Rather, the subject matter combined with the almost unbelievable story behind the novel’s discovery, make me enormously aware of how difficult it will be to do Suite Francaise justice. I say this not only as a disclaimer for what is to come but also in the hope that it might provoke you to reflect a little on the truly remarkable nature of this book and its place in history.
Suite Francaise is a story of the German occupation of France during the Second World War. Split into two parts, it gives personal perspective to this incomparably turbulent era of French history. ‘Storm in June’, the novel’s first part, describes the displacement of citizens fleeing Paris to escape the Nazi forces. With each chapter detailing the experience of a different character, Nemirovsky offers an historical narrative of truly astonishing scope. The reader follows the honourable Michauds as they are forced to abandon their possessions and escape the city on foot, yet able to think of nothing other than the fate of their enlisted son; the decadent Charles Langelet who cares only for his extensive collection of expensive porcelain; and the author Gabriel Corte who cannot overcome his self-conceit and disgust for the lower classes, even in the most desperate of circumstances. ‘Storm in June’ is baffling in its honesty. Too often do fictional accounts of the World Wars steep themselves in unrealistic tales of personal redemption, where superficial difference and prejudice are automatically overcome by the extremity of war. Nemirovsky takes an approach that is unsettling but, I believe, truly revealing in its perspective. Yes, there is integrity and sacrifice present, brought on by desperation and despair. But there are also those who cling to prejudice and condescension, despicable in their display of this uncomfortable aspect of humanity. To truly understand the nature of occupation and its consequences, I think that both of these dimensions have to be reflected. ‘Storm in June’ is astonishing and horrifying. It provokes an emotional response at every turn. Nemirovsky’s talent at balancing personal narrative with some of the most beautiful and evocative description I have had the pleasure to read, makes for a sensational first section to the book.
“A low muffled murmur rose up from the crowd, the sound of painful breathing, sighs and conversations held in hushed voices, as if people were afraid of being overheard by an enemy lying in wait. Some tried to sleep, heads leaning on the corner of a suitcase, legs aching on a narrow bench or a warm cheek pressed against a window. Young men and women called to each other from the cars and sometimes laughed. Then a dark shape would glide across the star-covered sky, everyone would look up and the laughter would stop. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call fear, rather a strange sadness – a sadness that had nothing human about it any more, for it lacked both courage and hope. This was how animals waited to die. It was the way fish caught in a net watch the shadow of the fisherman moving back and forth above them,” (p.43).
The novel’s second part, ‘Dolce’, details the occupation of a French village by Nazi soldiers. Again dividing the narrative by alternating between the stories of several characters, this section poses some fundamental questions about the relationship between occupier and occupied. Nemirovsky considers the humanity of the German soldiers and the conflict that such humanity raises when forced upon the enemy. Nemirovsky’s depiction of these soldiers as fundamentally human is astonishing when the context of her novel is considered. Writing Suite Francaise during the occupation, the author had no distance from events. This is not a novel written with the benefit of hindsight. It is written in a Europe steeped in blood, conflict, and the dehumanisation of the enemy.
Considered a threat by Nazi authorities due to her Jewish origins and status as a celebrated author, Nemirovsky was sent to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942, aged 39. This is a woman for whom prejudice and demonisation of Nazi forces would be almost understandable. Yet she paints a picture in which German soldiers are remarkable in their ordinariness, their familiarity, their similarity to everyone else.
“During the three months they had known each other, Lucile and the German had taken many walks together, but never in such splendid weather, so conducive to love. By tacit agreement they tried to forget everything except each other. ‘It’s nothing to do with us, it’s not our fault. In the heart of every man and woman a kind of Garden of Eden endures, where there is no war, no death, where wild animals and deer live together in peace. All we have to do is to reclaim that paradise, just close out eyes to everything else. We are a man and a woman. We love each other.’ Reason and emotion, they both believed, could make them enemies, but between them was a harmony of the senses that nothing could destroy; the silent understanding that binds a man in love and a willing woman in mutual desire,” (p.327).
The notebooks containing Suite Francaise were discovered in 2007, allowing the novel to finally find the critical acclaim that it deserves. Although unfinished (Nemirovsky had planned three further parts for the novel), this book is astonishing in every regard. The atrocities of the Second World War drive a certain desperation in us all – a desperation to explain. Nemirovsky makes no such attempt. She simply writes to reflect what she is seeing around her, without a desire to redeem or justify. This is a novel that I believe everyone everywhere should be required to read, but if this review provokes even one of you to pick up Suite Francaise, I will consider this blog worth creating. It is beautifully written and terrifyingly honest. And, I do not say this lightly, a novel that I believe no one could emerge from reading as quite the same person.
I said at the outset of this review that I did not believe that I could do this book justice. But, if the story behind Suite Francaise and the tragic death of its author should leave you with anything, it is that we cannot hide our faces from history. The Second World War was an event of brutality and humanity. No where have I seen this tension better depicted than in Suite Francaise.