Book Reviews

Suite Francaise
Irene Nemirovsky

From the July/August 2006 issue of Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine, Vancouver, BC.
Translated from the French by Sandra Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, Toronto, 2006.  

Reviewed by Gallia Chud


How amazing it is that an incomplete novel, written 64 years ago and beautifully translated, has achieved number-one rating on the Vancouver Sun’s best-seller list. How interesting also that pages from the original French manuscript of this masterpiece--written on preciously scarce bits of paper--with its many revisions is reproduced on the endpapers of the book.   

Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker. Her family led a privileged life, traveling extensively and socializing with the affluent bourgeois class, until the Russian Revolution ended this “idyllic” existence. Disguised as peasants, they left and eventually settled in Paris, where Irene became a highly respected and admired author of many books, notably the novel David Golder.  

Fearing for the life of her family just before World War Two, Irene, as well as her husband and two daughters, converted to Catholicism. This was of no help when, during the German occupation, on July 13, 1942, the French police arrested Irene—who had never become a French citizen—in Issy-l’Eveque, the village near Paris where the family was living. She was interned in a concentration camp and then deported to Auschwitz. Her husband, Michel Epstein, despite his many valuable connections with publishers, politicians, and minor officials, was unable to get any information about her whereabouts. A month after her arrest, Irene died in Auschwitz at the age of 39. (Michel too was eventually deported and sent to his death in Auschwitz.) 

Fortunately, thanks to a loving and loyal Governess, Irene’s two young daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, survived, constantly on the run, shunted between various orphanages, convents and friends’ homes just hours ahead of the Nazis. Through it all, they managed to keep a brown suitcase that they assumed was their mother’s diary. Imagine their surprise when they discovered, many years later, that it was one of the most stirring and compelling literary accounts of life in France during the Occupation--“Suite Francaise”.  

Part One, entitled “Storm in June,” chronicles the interconnected lives of a group of affluent Parisians fleeing their homes in hope of refuge in the countryside. Nemirovsky’s prose is sparse but extremely succinct. Her description of the turmoil, the constant danger, and the lack of food and amenities is powerful. Taxis are offered thousands of francs to take passengers, but there is no petrol. Hotels are overbooked--there is not an empty bed to be found. Cars are packed with those lucky enough to find a seat. Cafes are out of food and the roads are clogged. Everyone is overwhelmed by anxiety and fear. 

But it is Nemirovsky’s insight into character that is phenomenal. The avarice, selfishness and cruelty of some stands in stark contrast to the humanity of those long accustomed to privation but nevertheless prepared to share.   

The matriarch, Madame Pericand, presides over a large semi-aristocratic family with a strong sense of entitlement. But she is more concerned with packing jewelry, silver, and embroidered sheets than with the fate of her large staff.

Gabriel Corte, a pompous and pampered writer, fumes at the bother of having to pack, while his mistress quickly chooses her make-up over his manuscripts in an already overstuffed suitcase. 

Charles Langelet is in love with his luxurious rugs, Wedgewood China and Sevres vases. The fate of France means very little compared to his precious possessions.  

On the other hand, the Michauds, loyal and trusted bank employees, are the most sympathetic and humane characters in the book. Exploited and cruelly discharged for no reason, they worry about their son who has been taken prisoner. When the bank plans to relocate to another branch in the countryside, the Michauds, who made the arrangements and did all the packing for the bankers, are callously left stranded and penniless.  

Part Two, “Dolce”, finds the reader in a 1941 French farming village occupied by the German army, where farmers, their families--especially their daughters--and the petit bourgeoisie collaborate, coexist and fraternize with the Germans. Since many French men were imprisoned, the handsome Germans attracted the younger women despite the fact that the village felt resentment and humiliation at its subjugation by the occupiers.  

The villagers had locked away their precious possessions. Lucile Angellier and her mother-in-law maintain a quiet truce while awaiting the return of their husband and son. The women resent the fact that the commandant of the German army is billeted in their house, one of the more spacious and fashionable in the village. Strange as it may seem, Lucile and the commandant share similar views on art, music and literature. Love gradually develops but, of course, cannot flourish. Risking their lives, the women hide and save a villager who has killed one of the occupiers. Shortly thereafter, the Germans leave for the Russian front.  

These two novellas, powerful as they are, are only a prelude to what would have been had Nemirovsky been able to finish her book. She planned three additional novellas. The third, to be entitled “Captivity,” would have dealt with the experience of Jews in the concentration camps. The final two installments were to be called “Battles” and “Peace.” One can only imagine what the world lost when this and other great talents’ lives were abruptly ended.  

Suite Francaise is one of the most engrossing, compelling, gripping and beautifully crafted books I have ever read. I highly recommend it.   

About the reviewer: Gallia Chud is a member of the Vancouver Outlook Collective. She is an avid reader, and belongs to several book clubs. Published here with the permission of the Editor of Outlook.



Copyright © 2006 Judy Cohen, all rights reserved.