“Daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides must be described in detail,” were the last lines the Russian-born French writer Irène Némirovsky wrote in one of her notebooks a mere two days before her arrest. It took more than half a century before her last work, Suite Française, was finally published. The manuscripts were found along with other papers in a suitcase kept unexamined by Némirovsky’s daughters until recently. Her eventual death in a Nazi death camp in 1942 rendered her final masterpiece incomplete.
I find it remarkable how close Némirovsky came to attaining her ideal in the first two books – Storm in June and Dolce – of the planned five-book novel in spite of her difficult circumstances. She sets out to show the deplorable things during the German invasion of France in the Second World War that “no one would even know in the future” and give us a glimpse “of those things posterity would never find out, or would refuse to see out of a sense of shame.”
Reading Suite Française is perhaps the best way to cap a year of spirited “engagement” with literature.
In Storm in June, panic-stricken Parisians flee the French capital to escape the invaders. We are not taken into the battlefields. Instead, we see the families and individuals who are thrown together by the resulting chaos, doing everything to survive. And here it doesn’t matter much whether one was good or bad. In the end one’s fate, the narrative shows, was left to chance. Although in this, Némirovsky sharply portrays the difference between the attempts of the privileged to maintain their affluent lifestyles and the ordinary people’s struggle to live.
Near the beginning of the book, an upper middle class family takes longer to pack their things to their cars, having so many fine things to cart off: “Faster, faster,” said Monsieur Péricand. But then they would realise they’d forgotten the box of lace, or the ironing board.’ Reminds me of that part in Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus, War and Peace, where the Rostovs’ face the same problem packing all their things to flee Moscow from Napoleon’s approaching army.
In another scene, an aristocratic writer lamented not only the war’s threat to “his lifestyle or peace of mind” but more so it’s destruction of “the world of imagination, the only world where he felt happy.” He worries about “the house, the furniture, the silver… He would have had everything wrapped up long ago, hidden away in packing cases…” while his mistress, deciding what to put in a full suitcase, chooses her make-up case over the writer’s manuscripts.
Then there’s this banker who brings his mistress and her dog with him in his car instead of the two bank employees, a couple, who he promised to help evacuate. He then orders them to follow him by train “the day after tomorrow at the latest. I must have all my staff.” But that being impossible due to the horrific conditions, the banker chastises the couple for having “a nice holiday” for staying in Paris and fires them.
Némirovsky’s depiction of the upper classes’ desperate acts to cling to their privileges strikes one as both despicable and humorous.
Things settle down a bit in Dolce where we are taken to an occupied provincial village. Everywhere here, we see Némirovsky’s subtle and moving depiction of the complex realities of life in a crisis situation. I am reminded of one of my favorite spy thrillers, Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers, the fourth part of which is also set in German-controlled France. But where Furst focused on the French resistance, Némirovsky chose to examine the frictions beneath the superficial tranquility imposed by the invaders – often to comical effect:
During these encounters, various expressions would cross Madame Angellier’s face: false respect (“You’re in charge here!”), disapproval (“Everyone knows who you are, you heathen!”), submission (“Let us offer up our hatred to the Lord”), and finally a flash of fierce joy (“Just you wait, my friend, you’ll be burning in hell while I’m finding peace in Jesus”), although this final thought was replaced in Madame Angellier’s mind by the desire she felt every time she saw a member of the occupying forces: “I hope he’ll soon be at the bottom of the English Channel,” for everyone was expecting an attempt to invade England… (p. 279)
Not everyone were as patriotic. The aristocratic wife of a collaborating Viscount, whose been hoarding all the food and supplies for themselves, thanks God for the occupation as it keeps her property safe from the lower classes and their increasing affinity for “Bolshevism” (“the deplorable new way of thinking that was sweeping through France”). Class resentment simmers despite the nobles’ hypocritical calls to “Think of France, elevate your hearts.”
Meanwhile, ordinary German soldiers and officers billeted in the villager’s homes were depicted as human beings with their own frailties and virtues in the same manner in which the occupied citizen’s failings and merits were also presented:
He wasn’t just a soldier of the Reich; he wasn’t motivated uniquely by what was best for his regiment or his country. He was a sensitive human being. He, like everyone else, was looking for happiness, the unhampered development of his abilities. Yet (like everyone else, sadly, during these times) his justifiable desires were constantly being thwarted by certain national interests called war, public security, the necessity of maintaining the prestige of the victorious army… (p. 317)
But the potential for violence, for atrocities from the occupiers is never hidden from view throughout the book. Mentions of “Heil Hitler!” and the occasional appearance of the red swastika flag immediately calls to mind the harrowing images of the Holocaust. A German officer quotes Nietzsche: “Man is made to be a warrior, just as woman is made to please the warrior.” Still, it’s really surprising how tame Némirovsky depicted the German soldiers.
In music, Dolce is a direction for the performer to play softly and sweetly. In a particularly touching scene, the wife of a French prisoner-of-war listens to a German officer play the piano. “Music alone can abolish the differences of language or culture between two people and evoke something indestructible within them,” one of Némirovsky’s characters muses in another page.
The second part ends with the occupying forces suddenly called off to the new battle front in Russia. Their regiment marches away in formation, reminiscent of the artillery battalion parade in Chekhov’s “The Kiss.”
Suite Française has often been compared with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In contrast to Tolstoy, however, who wrote his sprawling epic of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia decades after the event, Némirovsky wrote Suite Française immediately after the events described in it happened. She did not have the benefit of documentary references and the hindsight that was allowed Tolstoy.
Unlike in War and Peace where we follow the lives of the main characters from before the Napoleonic invasion, Suite Française begins immediately between the war with the bombing of Paris. One of the wonders in War and Peace is the way Tolstoy lets his characters grow. Like say, Natasha Rostov who is introduced as a thirteen year old early in the book but then we see her grow into a lady and eventually a mother but the development is so real that one believes that this mother Tolstoy depicts at the end is actually the same girl we see in the beginning.
Then there’s Tolstoy’s famous war scenes: the Russian’s disastrous Prussian campaign, its messy battlefields and equally messy retreat; then the subsequent French invasion, culminating in Tolstoy’s superb rendition of the Battle of Borodino.
While Némirovsky admonished herself to have “the historical, revolutionary facts etc… lightly touched upon,” Tolstoy tackled these matters head on and even ended War and Peace with a long theoretical treatise on history. The conclusion was the part I took longest to finish last July, but I like Tolstoy’s occasional theorizing in the earlier parts of the novel.
The following commentary by Némirovsky is particularly insightful. It mirrors a view of the economic crisis as the “moment of truth” which allows us to grasp the truly destructive nature of the capitalist system:
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. It is the most fascinating and the most dreadful of spectacles, she continued thinking, the most dreadful because it’s so real; you can never pride yourself on truly knowing the sea unless you’ve seen it both calm and in a storm. (p. 335)
I wonder how Suite Française‘s finished form would have looked like if Némirovsky wasn’t shipped by the Nazis to Auschwitz? Could it have been another War and Peace? Sadly, one can only guess. ■