I had previously thought that John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces had the saddest publication history of any novel I’d ever read. Irène Némirovsky’s incomplete Suite Française (translated by Sandra Smith), however, has an even more heartbreaking history. Némirovsky planned a five part novel about the French experience of World War II. The first two parts of Suite Française are based directly on the months after France was invaded by Germany; it felt as if the novel was written in real time. The novel was never finished because Némirovsky was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942. Her daughter, Denise, found, edited, and published the fragments of Suite Française more than 60 years after Némirovsky’s murder.
Because Suite Française was incomplete and unfinished, I was expecting something much more fragmentary. I was surprised to find that the characters and setting and impact of the book were anything but rough. According to one of the appendices in my edition of the book, Némirovsky wrote copious notes about every aspect of the planned novel before committing anything to her draft. The other appendix in my edition also included at least some of Némirovsky’s notes. Seeing what she intended the write helped fill in the gaps for me. Némirovsky was stunningly prescient about what would happen to France and its people during the war. Her notes also helped clarify the tone of Suite Française. Unlike many other World War II novels that focus on the occupied people of Europe, there is a sharp, acid bite to Suite Française because, as Némirovsky explains:
My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honour and its life. And the other countries? What are they to me? Empires are dying. Nothing matters. Whether you look at it from a mystical or a personal point of view, it’s just the same. Let us keep a cool head. Let us harden our heart. Let us wait. (373*)
Suite Française, rather than showing us resilience and goodness, shows us all the pettiness of selfish people caught in a devastating, evil war they don’t understand.
The first part of Suite Française, “Storm in June,” begins in June 1940, just after German forces have invaded France. Everyone is fleeing Paris, or trying to flee, or at least making plans to flee. We are introduced to a whole host of characters, most of whom are more concerned with their standard of living and possessions than they are about other people. One such character, a pretentious writer, complains to his mistress while packing:
“Wait, I’ll read you that passage, it’s remarkable. Put the light on,” he said, for night had fallen.
“Planes,” Florence replied, looking up at the sky.
“Won’t they leave me the hell alone?” he thundered.
He hated the war; it threatened much more than his lifestyle or peace of mind. It continually destroyed the world of the imagination. (18)
Apart from a few genuinely good people, most of the characters consider the war a huge inconvenience. The evacuation from Paris is shown to be chaotic, bringing out the worse in pretty much everyone, except for those few good people who do their best to adapt.
The second part of Suite Française, “Dolce,” is more tightly constructed than “Storm in June.” It focuses on Lucile Angellier, who lives in the village that many characters from the first part passed through during the evacuation—complaining all the while about poor accommodations, lack of food, and the surprising cost of everything. It is now a few months after the invasion. Northern France is occupied. German soldiers are now billeted in the village, one in the Angellier home. A strange normalcy has descended. The French might dislike the occupiers and complain about how the Nazis will steal everything that’s not nailed down, most people are just carrying on the best they can. Some, like Lucile and the German in her house, begin to learn that they like each other more than they like their own compatriots.
It was disquieting to read “Dolce” when I knew at least some of Némirovsky’s story. One of the appendices in this edition includes the frantic letters Némirovsky’s husband Michel Epstein wrote to his wife’s publishers and their political connections to find out what happened to her and to try and secure her release. The tone and events of “Dolce” are sympathetic to Lucile, even though she is starting to fall in love with a German soldier—a member of the forces that lead directly to Némirovsky’s death.
According to the notes in the appendices, Némirovsky planned to send her characters to prison and to concentration camps, to turn up the heat on most of them in the third part of the novel. The last two parts are barely mentioned in Némirovsky’s notes, but they anticipate the end of the war. (All wars have to come to an end eventually, right?) Some readers of Suite Française are doomed to eternally unsatisfied curiosity; we will never know what will become of the characters Némirovsky created while she herself was trying to keep herself and her family out of Nazi hands.
What astonished me most about Suite Française was how very real and timely it seemed. I could easily imagine that the characters were real people and that the events were absolutely real. Némirovsky was a sharp observer of human failing and this novel is the perfect antidote to novels about the plucky Allies and stereotypical Nazis that one usually sees in World War II literature.
* Quotes are from the 2006 Vintage International paperback edition.