Review: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

IMG_20140802_164751I found Suite Française a struggle. Not because it’s difficult to understand or hard to read, but it becomes an emotional wrench to pick up a book on a sunny day and contemplate the realities of the experience of war. This of course makes it all the more important to carry on picking it up each day, sunny or not, and plough through. 

Suite Française is a fictionalisation of the early days of occupied France during WWII, seen through the eyes of several individuals, strangely and obliviously connected to one another. It is broken into two parts (although the intentions were for it to eventually be five, the author’s life was tragically cut short before she finished by the very war she wrote about), the first covering the defeat of France and the mass exodus from Paris, and the second covering the beginnings of life under German rule in rural France. Némirovsky describes her multiple subjects’ moods and decisions in fine detail with such unassuming grace that they feel truly present, like people you might have met before. They feel tangible and familiar, especially those characters that are immediately repugnant – you don’t want to believe that this is how someone could react in these circumstances, but at the same time it seems all too depressingly possible.

Irène Némirovsky illustrates this incredibly well, making me genuinely terrified of myself. I want to know what principles I would cling to once my freedom has been taken and my life is in danger, whether my hopes that I would be brave and idealistic are in fact foolhardy and smug, and that realistically I would still get stroppy in shop queues or moan about not having jam for my toast. Némirovsky’s narration of people’s torturous and recalcitrant snobbery in the direst of circumstances is when she is at her most interesting. I find it interesting that given Némirovsky’s own thoroughly middle class (if not upper middle class) roots, spanning from her childhood in Kiev to her adulthood in Paris, she is so scathing of the selfish and callous nature of the Péricand family in the first part, ‘A Storm in June’, and even more so of the Viscountess de Montmort in the second part, ‘Dolce’. Their unwillingness to share what they have with those less fortunate around them is implied as abhorrent.

Because of these characters and others, I find it hard to reconcile the criticisms laid out against Irene Némirovsky. She is regularly painted as an unrelenting anti-semite, and was plagued by self-loathing because of her own Jewish background. There appears to be plenty of evidence to confirm this, such as her association with French politicians on the far-right and pleading letters sent to Marshall Pétain (Prime Minister of Vichy France) in which she affirms her ‘dislike’ of Jews. However, during this period she was in great danger under the vicious anti-semitic laws sweeping across France and was evidently doing anything she could to protect herself  and her family, whether her pleading statements were genuine or not. It is even more tragic then that these desperate and potentially shaming tactics did not work, and in July 1942 she was taken to Auschwitz where she died a short time later.

Although discussion of her dislike of the Jewish people may seem irrelevant when talking about Suite Française as there are no Jewish characters in the novel, it does still hold some weight. The very absence of Jewish characters is conspicuous, given Némirovsky’s experiences as a Jew in Vichy France, and her known allegiances with collaborators casts an interesting light on the characters Lucile and Bruno in ‘Dolce’. Lucile lives with her mother-in-law in the small town of Bussy, awaiting news of her husband who is currently being held as a prisoner of war. Bruno is a German Officer who has been allocated a room in their house to stay in during the German presence in Bussy. Bruno is a very sympathetic character, although we rarely get a true glimpse at his political beliefs. He is all honour and chivalry and charm, with a dash of exciting musical proficiency, which of course draw in lonely Lucile who constantly second guesses her affection for him, while they involuntarily become closer and closer.

I am always fascinated by any story that remarks on the shades of grey in any situation, and perhaps naively I believe that no one is ever entirely bad or entirely good. This is probably why I enjoyed ‘Dolce’ so much, as this is expertly handled (however you might feel about Némirovsky’s intentions); the perception that many German soldiers had been swept up into a war they may not necessarily agree with or want to fight in, just as the French soldiers had. She gives Bruno a humanity not often afforded in depictions of German soldiers during this period, making the blossoming romance between him and Lucile even more fraught and morally confusing.

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Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenaerts as Lucile and Bruno

It’s interesting that the film adaptation of this book will be released imminently, as while I was reading it the thought that this book would be unfilmable had crossed my mind, due to the amount of characters and individual histories told. It’s understandable that writers and director Matt Charman and Saul Dibb have chosen to draw their focus on ‘Dolce’, as it contains the most developed and engaging characters, and the fascinating relationship that builds between the occupiers and the occupied. The casting looks like it will do the characters justice (Michelle Williams as Lucile, Matthias Shoenaerts as Bruno, Kristen Scott-Thomas as Lucile’s mother-in-law), and I definitely look forward to seeing the book realised on screen, but I can’t help but feel it will be hard to eke out the same emotional experience I had with the book. It really is a masterpiece, and I would recommend reading it even when it makes you despair, and make sure you question everything, from Madame Péricand’s snobbery and Bruno’s ambiguous moral compass, to Irene Némirovsky’s own desperate and tenebrous pleas for her life.

 Suite Française is published by Vintage, and available in all good bookshops for £8.99.

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