I’ve seen Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française popping up on my Twitter feed for a long time. The colorized cover photo, which originally I thought was a little sentimental, turns out to be precise & appropriate. Though it’s got a cast of dozens, the heart of the novel is the drama of a man & a woman in a time we think we know well (WWII). The photo shows a man & woman of a certain age … no longer young, but still full of vigor & life & possibility, and in this case, full of uncertainty. They’re united but looking in different directions; I’d say that they’re in an embrace, except for the fact that each of them has a hand free.
It’s that kind of novel. One of uncertainties during a time of turmoil in Europe, here, in occupied France in 1940 & 1941. Nemirovsky, a Jewish novelist living in Paris, begins Suite Française with a kaleidoscopic energy. The Germans have moved from air bombing France and are marching on it, swiftly and successfully.
The opening part of the two-part novel focuses on several different families & citizens fleeing Paris with what little they have, with what little they can not bear to leave behind. Their fates are as varied and as shocking as … well, the fates of refugees in a time of war. Nemirovsky makes these continental events domestic & interpersonal — the wounds & kindnesses, the good luck & the bad fortune. The struggle for shelter & bread, for petrol & a shave.
The second part of the two-part novel focuses on a single occupied village, tracking the uneasy routines that emerge over months. Soldiers billeted in private homes; French officials compelled to (& enjoying the safety) of collaborating with the occupying German forces; children & survivors of the Great War dazzled openly & quietly (respectively) by the precision & strength of the Germans. And finally the women, performing obedience and politeness, while meditating in interior monologues about the beauty and natural novelty of young men in the village — their village’s men having left for war months and months earlier. Nemirovsky centers the drama of part two on the newlywed Bruno (a German officer skilled at music and eager to make the occupation civilized) and the newlywed Lucile (a girl from the forests waiting for a husband that doesn’t love her to return, enamored with the walks & talks, the talent & promise of Bruno).
Nemirovsky meant for this to be a five-part series. She was arrested in 1942 “and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.” As a result, the novel ends with an unintended verisimilitude — none of the characters know and the author cannot hint at what is in store for these characters, for their way of life on part two’s last pages, set in July 1942 as the Germans leave the village for the Russian front.