Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

It’s a truism that people are complicated, multifaceted, contradictory, surprising, but it takes the advent of war or other momentous events to be able to see it.

Suite Francaise, perhaps one of the first fiction novels ever to be written about the Second World War, is a very different war novel. Rather than detailing “historical, revolutionary facts”, Suite Francaise concerns itself with ordinary life during wartime. Wars often stretch on for years – WWII lasted six years, and the Iraq War, so far, has been fought for eight. People grow old while wars go on around them; they fall in love, get married, have children. Irene Nemirovsky captures (with the insight and honesty of someone who experienced occupation firsthand) the experiences of ordinary citizens – both French and German – whose lives were disrupted by war. The result is a novel that examines the best and worst of human nature; the contradictions and surprising aspects of character that extreme situations bring into relief.

Irene Nemirovsky was a Russian born Jew who fled Russia for France in 1918. She wrote Suite Francaise while France was occupied by Germany during WWII (Nemirovsky’s notes, published in the Vintage edition of Suite Francaise, describe her own life in France under German occupation). Suite Francaise is divided into two parts: the first, titled “A Storm in June”, follows the lives of a number of different characters as they flee Paris for the countryside after the German invasion in 1940. The second part, “Dolce”, follows a different set of characters (although with some links to those in part one) living under German occupation in a small village in the French countryside. Nemirovsky’s notes indicate that she was planning to write five parts, the final three tentatively titled “Captivity”, “Battles” and “Peace”. However, Nemirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942 before the novel could be completed, and Suite Francaise wasn’t published until 64 years later. Although Suite Francaise is incomplete, it does not feel as though anything is missing. In fact, the lack of closure seems in keeping with the novel’s themes – a war that, for the people living through it, has no foreseeable end; and life, in spite of that war, going on.

The unifying narrative in Nemirovsky’s novel is the invasion and occupation of France by the Nazis during WWII. This is the foreboding backdrop against which the many individual stories Nemirovsky dips into are played out. Through the lives of ordinary people – mostly French, but some German – Nemirovsky captures the complicated situations and emotions of wartime. As the smoke of invasion clears and the armistice between France and Germany is signed, life in France continues. Nemirovsky’s style is slightly detached, and jumps across the perspectives of countless characters, including a young French woman whose unfaithful husband is a prisoner of war, a German officer, a Viscountess, a little girl, and even a cat. The many different and often shifting perspectives paint a full and rich picture of wartime in France. ReadingSuite Francaise is like standing in front of a large painting, full of colour and countless individual scenes, a seemingly endless array of stories. Nemirovsky was conscious of creating an almost musical rhythm throughout the novel – in her notes she talks about rediscovering musical terms and constructing rhythm out of “the movements of the masses”. In the preface to the French edition of Suite Francaise, Myriam Anissimov notes that Nemirovsky imagined her novel as being “constructed like a symphony,” and that she used Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as an example. As a narrator, Nemirovsky maintains a detached tone, allowing the actions of her characters to speak for themselves. In her notes she reminds herself to “keep it simple” and decides that in order to make a point she will not show what is lacking, but rather “the prosperity that contrasts with it”.

Suite Francaise is a novel about individuals – an examination of the way individual lives carry on within what has since become a hugely important historical event. In the small idyllic French village depicted in “Dolce” life goes on much as it always has, in spite of the presence of German soldiers and the violence raging across Europe. Nemirovsky describes a weekend in the German occupied village as follows: “It felt like a normal, peaceful Sunday. The Germans added a strange note to the scene, but the essential remained unchanged … just like every Sunday, the young women gathered in the village square to chat”. After a while the German soldiers seem to become part of the village themselves, filling the spaces left by the young French men, now held captive in prisoner of war camps. “[E]ven these soldiers,” Nemirovsky writes, “the invaders, seemed in their rightful place”. And while many of the older women remain hostile, some of the young women cannot help falling for the Germans – they are caught up in romantic moments, love is uninhibited by reports of war and violence. At its core, Suite Francaise really seems to be about these moments, and their power to overcome everything else. This theme is distilled in a scene where Lucile, a young French woman, sits down with a German officer who has been billeted to her home. They are enjoying a quiet afternoon together, playing the piano, drinking wine and eating. The moment is so lovely, and Lucile marvels at its power to render everything outside of it obsolete: “[It was] impossible to hear those mournful, invisible, cursed voices telling of ships being sunk, planes crashing, cities destroyed, reading out the number of dead, predicting future massacres … just blessed forgetfulness, nothing else … until nightfall, time passing slowly, someone beside her, a glass of light, fragrant wine, music, long silences. Happiness …”.

In Suite Francaise, Nemirovsky has created an impression of life that is complex and detailed. Truth, Suite Francaise seems to suggest, lies in the moments – the details that make up our everyday lives, the smells, tastes and emotions that take hold of us, and that we remember for a lifetime.

Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise, Vintage, 2007.

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