“Suite Française” by Irène Némirovsky

Born in Russia at the turn of the century, Irene Nemirovsky’s wealthy Jewish family fled from Kiev in 1918, eventually ending up in France in 1919. Her critically acclaimed novels David Golder and Le Bal were published in the 1929 and 1930 respectively, but she and her husband were denied French citizenship in 1938 and her husband and two daughters had to evacuate to a small Burgundy village in 1941. According to notes left, she started writing a five volume suite of novels based around the events of the second world war, but arrested in 1942, only days after completing the second volume, she was transported to Auschwitz where she died a month later of typhus. Her daughters escaped, and one of them took with her the things her mother had always treasured most, a small suitcase containing photographs and diaries, and a leather binder which had hardly ever left her mothers side. Unaware of what it contained, it was only in the 1970’s that her daughter, Denise, opened the binder and the case, and planning to donate them to the publishing industry’s archives but wanting to make a copy first, she started to read the diaries and notes, and transcribe the contents. It was only then she realised that two of the five novels had been completed. These were published in 2004 as Suite Francaise.

The first novel Storm In June is a chaotic, panicked tale of the exodus of Paris in June 1940. Echoing the state of mind of those people involved, the story frenetically switches between the various families, couples and individuals, focusing mainly on the wealthy and middle classes who too are concerned with saving their precious possessions at the same time as maintaining their position within their class, and paints a harsh, cruel light on their selfish journeys. She is more gentle when dealing with the middle aged couple who work for a bank, and are told to travel to Tours where the bank is being temporarily relocated, but are abandoned by their selfish employer and told to make the journey themselves, with the threat of being fired if they do not make their destination. Although I can understand the style used is meant to echo the chaos and uncertainty of the situation the characters find themselves in, it makes a difficult story to follow, flitting between the various protagonists of each journey with a swift rapidity. Each character is vividly drawn though, although not all their stories are concluded, as some of them are present in the second novel, and it may be that the other individual stories would have been continued in the unwritten three novels of the suite.

Dolce is a calmer, more contemplative piece about a rural village under German occupation. It follows the inhabitants and the different attitudes that the various generations and classes have to their occupiers, as well as giving an insight into the individual German soldiers and their experiences and thoughts about their role in this community. The locals are forced to come to terms with the invaders, some barely out of boyhood, and a uneasy compromise is reached between the two groups. Events unfold slowly and by the end of the novel, a violent action breaches the trust that has grown in the village, forcing all parties to re-evaluate their relationships. Lyrical and poetic at times, honest and brutal at others, Dolce feels the more accomplished of the two novels. Beautiful to read, engrossing and engaging, I loved every page.

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