This is a magnificent book, and I am not alone in thinking so. The New York Times Book Review calls it a “tour de force,” others compare it to Madame Bovary and War and Peace.
Suite Française was written by Irène Némirovsky, a Russian refugee who sheltered in France where she became a lauded author, only to be stamped as Jewish, arrested, and killed in Auschwitz. What a tragic loss.
Suite Française begins with the flight of the whole of Paris when the Germans appear somehow unexpectedly on their doorstep. Tens of thousands of Parisians take to the roads, and we follow a kaleidoscope of people; rich, poor, educated, illiterate, farm people, city folk.
The book distinguishes itself by showing war from the point of view of civilians. Soldiers appear, disappear, as they are part of the landscape, but it is the ordinariness of continuing civilian life, the grinding anxiety about missing men, the confusion, helplessness, and the disciplined hewing to all that is familiar that rules. The fecund, moist soil and air of France, the dripping lime blossoms and fresh strawberries, the hams and bread are described a hundred times, always redolent, sensual, as real as breath. (If no place names were mentioned, the well-traveled reader would still know it was France.)
Her most brilliantly rendered character appears on page 105. It is a cat who escapes from its cage and goes hunting in the night. “Eyes half closed, he could feel waves of powerful, sweet perfume running through him, the pungent smell of the last lilacs, the sap running through the trees, the cool, dark earth, the animals, birds, moles, mice, all the prey, the musky scent of fur, of skin, the smell of blood…” For a few pages, I was that cat who had “plunged his claws into the bird’s heart and clenched and unclenched his talons, digging deeper and deeper into the tender flesh that covered its delicate bones…until its heart stopped beating.”
Némirovsky’s omniscient author sees the acts of kindness, the selfish entitlement, the relationships breaking apart then glued back together again in the desperate heat of war, the attempts of less-than-perfect humans to define and live out their principles, their religion, their patriotism, and their selfish greed. She observes that “[i]mportant events…do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves.” What a metaphor! Of one man, she writes, “Only a truly deceptive man can affect the habits and thoughts of an adult while the warm, rich blood of youth still runs in his veins.” These incisive comments are universal and eternal. They flow right along with the story, and if you aren’t paying attention, you could miss them.
Later in the book, we find ourselves in a rural French village where most houses host a member of a German cavalry regiment posted there. The Germans are not so bad – they kiss the girls, share their perquisites, act polite to their host families, and go about the business of war. It’s hard to hate the rosy-cheeked boys who click their heels and hold the door for you. Their sleek horses and jingling spurs become part of the rhythm of the town. We get to know them only away from their military duties.
Throughout the book, there is the looming grief over missing men — hundreds of thousands of French soldiers were taken prisoner when Germany invaded. In the village, the women feel natural human attraction to the men at hand, but they are the wrong men — they are wearing green uniforms and are blond and long-fingered, not the farmers they are used to. This disparity deepens the grief over the missing men, while the attraction to the men at hand grows.
Mesmerized by the gentle swings in focus from one person to another, this reader wondered how the author would bring the book to an end – so many great stories founder at the end. Would it end with an anemic sigh, or a manufactured conflict? No. With exquisite skill, Némirovsky introduces a naturally occurring drama which speeds us to the ending.
The soft part of the war is over; the resentful but friendly sharing of a village turns to edgy mistrust, and this reader had the sense that now the real war would begin.
This was meant to be the first book of a trilogy. It makes me weep to think how the following two books would have softened our hearts and hardened our brains.
Némirovsky died in 1942 and this the book was published in 2004. Némirovsky’s daughter secreted the manuscript in her suitcase as she and her sister fled from place to place in France to avoid arrest as Jews. She then carried it with her as a reminder of her mother, but found it too painful to read. When she reached out, Deroel Publishing House grabbed it, and it was then sensitively translated into English for publication here in 2006.
An Austrian friend gave this to me for Christmas, and I bequeath it to you all with this review. It will stun you with its beauty.