"For me, the greatest joy is knowing that the book is being read. It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life. It shows that the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her. It is not vengeance, but it is a victory." -- daughter Denise
In 1941, Irène Némirovsky sat down to write a novel that would help to convey the feelings of war-time France.
The daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker, Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev. In 1918, she was living with her family outside St Petersburg, the family then fled from the Russian Revolution to France. In France she was a successful writer, until the Germans stopped her under German occupation. In 1941, the family left Paris and resided in a little village. July 1942, she was arrested and interned in the Pithiviers concentration camp, from where she was immediately deported to Auschwitz where she died August 1942.
Suite française is set during the year that France fell to the Germans. Set in two parts, the first part fleeing Paris, the second living under German occupation.
The book was thought lost. Denise, daughter of Irène Némirovsky, had put it together with other notes of her mother's in a suitcase as she and her sister fled. She then thought nothing of it, thinking all that the suitcase contained was her mother's notes. After the war, neither she nor her sister Elisabeth could bear to open the suitcase and read what was contained therein, the memory of what had happened to their mother was too painful.
Many, many years later, the sisters decided to donate the contents of the suitcase to a museum dedicated to wartime memories. But first, they decided to take a look at the contents.
It was only then that they learnt that not only did the suitcase contain notes and a private diary, but it also contained the manuscript of a book.
Sixty-four years after the death of their mother, Suite française was finally published, though not without controversy as it depicted the spineless French, defeated and humiliated, fleeing the Germans, exhausted and hungry women and children begging for someplace to stay, cars piled high with belongs abandoned when they ran out of fuel, the rich doing what they could to save their own precious skins.
Sadness for Denise, was that her sister Elisabeth who died in 1996, did not live to see the publication of Suite française.
The English edition only contains an edited version of the preface to the French edition.
Suite française was not all the suitcase contained. It also contained a few typewritten pages of Fire in the Blood, but not the entire novel. Luckily, the original hand-written manuscript for Fire in the Blood was discovered at a later date with papers entrusted to a friend. [see BCID 5836268]
A criticism of Suite française is the very tiny print which is a strain to read. Suite française is actually two novels, the first two of an intended five novels. July 1942, she was arrested and interned in the Pithiviers concentration camp, from where she was immediately deported to Auschwitz where she died August 1942. The publishers should have published as two novels.
The first novel, Tempête en juin ("Storm in June") depicts the flight of citizens from Paris in the hours preceding the German advance and in the days following it. The second, Dolce ("Sweet"), shows life in a small French country town, Bussy (in the suburbs just east of Paris), in the first, strangely peaceful, months of the German occupation. These first two novels, taken individually, seem almost perfect on first reading. The links between them are rather tenuous; as Némirovsky observes in her notebook, it is the history, and not the characters, that unite them.
The third novel, Captivité ("Captivity"), for which Némirovsky left a bare plot outline, would have shown the coalescing of a resistance, with some characters introduced in Tempête en juin and Dolce now under arrest and under threat of death, in Paris. The fourth and fifth novels would perhaps have been called Batailles ("Battles") and La Paix ("Peace"), but these exist only as titles in Némirovsky's notebook, against which she had placed question marks. Nothing can be said of Batailles and La Paix. To quote Némirovsky's notes, they are "in limbo, and what limbo! It's really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens."
Suite française, so far as it was complete, was written in microscopic handwriting in a single notebook - Tempête and Dolce together filled 140 pages, corresponding to 344 published pages (516 pages in the French edition). The writing was so tiny that Denise had to use a powerful magnifying glass to read it. We can only assume written in such tiny hand, due to war time rationing of paper.
The power of Suite française lies not only as a work of literary fiction, but also as contemporary account of France during World War II.
Suite française was a bestseller in France in 2004.
Suite française won the Prix Renaudot 2004. The first time that the prize has been awarded posthumously.
The English edition of Suite française, contains detailed notes and letters, and an edited version of the French preface.
Suite française conjures up wartime film footage of French refugees streaming along the road, their little carts piled high with all their worldly possessions. A picture we are never allowed to forget, cut to Kenya today and the atrocities on both sides following a fraudulent election.
Comparisons are inevitable with the French trilogy by Sebastian Faulks.
The difference between Suite française and the French trilogy, is that Faulks was writing from afar (both in time and space), whereas Irène Némirovsky was there, feeling it, experiencing it, as it happened. That, and the intensity of the writing.
Suite française is the book choice for the Guildford Institute Book Club at their next meeting in Guildford on 28 February 2008.
Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky [see BCID 5836268]
The Visible World by Mark Slouka [see BCID 5898073]