SUMMARY: Suite Française actually consists of two novels. The first novel, Storm in June, describes the intertwined lives of a diverse group of Parisians, from a snobbish author, a banker and a priest to orphans, an aesthete and a loving lower-class couple, in a chaotic exodus from the comfort of the city to the safety of the countryside, only hours ahead of the advancing Germans. The second novel, Dolce, focuses on the life in a farming village under German occupation in 1941, describing peasant farmers, their pretty daughters and small town collaborationists and their coexistence with the Nazis.
A NOTE: Before my review of Suite Française I must make a note on its background and its author. After all, I mostly read this book because of this. Irène Némirovsky was a French writer of Ukrainian Jewish origin who converted to Catholicism. She planned Suite Française as a series of five novels, which she began writing in 1940. She was arrested by the Nazis in the summer of 1942 and transported to Auschwitz, where she was killed in a gas chamber. Five decades later, her daughter discovered the manuscript which she had up to then been mistaking for her mother’s diary too painful too read, and published it titled Suite Française together with Némirovsky’s outline for the series and the correspondence between Némirovsky, her husband, her publisher and other people immediately before and after her arrest.
Suite Française took me a lot of time to read, mostly because of the great number of characters Némirovsky tackles. Rather than focusing on military or political aspects of war, Némirovsky focuses on social matters, most of all on personal experience of the war. She describes in detail the turmoil of fleeing from the Nazis, from logistic confusion on the roads to emotional chaos within people. The fear and haste are presented as well as hesitation and indifference, different people react differently: some are very organised and rational, others irrationally cling to objects which are precious to them or mourn the homes they left behind. Some people are constantly accompanied by worries for their absent beloved or are helping their companions in need, others are selfishly looking only after themselves and complaining over the circumstances.
On top of everything Némirovsky adds precise portrayals of the setting in French landscape outside Paris. The descriptions of the countryside are noticeable in the second part, Dolce, where the chaos recedes under the orderly occupation. Again, Némirovsky concentrates on relationships between people, their living conditions, their work, food, their personal predicaments, losses and victories. These presentations are completed by careful depictions of the surrounding environment: a village, fields and forests.
The novels are loosely connected at first, but later in Dolce the continuation becomes evident by the re-introduction of some of the characters from the Storm in June. However, at the end the feeling of incompletion returns, naturally, since it was supposed to be continued by another three novels. Instead, the publisher included Némirovsky’s outline for the rest of the series, which partially satisfies the thirst for the information about what happens next, but also leaves the reader feeling sorry that Némirovsky was unable to finish what she had planned. I think it would make all together a great work if I judge by the opening masterpiece.
Finally, the reader can witness the uncertainty and growing sadness reading the included correspondence. At first, the letters are hopeful; their writers believing in justice and that everything will work out. Then, we see the slowly growing fear and desperation and, eventually, the heartbreaking acceptance of an inevitable tragic end for Némirovsky.
Therefore, Suite Française can be divided in two parts: the fictional first part with Némirovsky’s novels and the non-fictional second part with all the documentary material. Both together make a great book testifying about one of the darkest eras in history. The value of the book is great also because it was started simultaneously with the unravelling of the Second World War without the possibility of its author knowing its outcome. Yet, I think Némirovsky was prophetic with the outlined titles for the rest of the series: Captivity, Battle, Peace.
RECOMMENDATION: Suite Française is an invaluable book both for the complex and well developed Némirovsky’s novels and its historic documentation. It is not an easy reading but I would recommend it to anyone who would like to read about a personal experience of the Second World War.