Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Suite Française by Irene Némirovsky

Irene Némirovsky's two-part story Suite Française, has received incredible attention and critical acclaim in the past two years. In part, the fame is due to Némirovsky's own history. While writing Suite Francaise in 1940s France, she was deported to Auschwitz where she died. Her daughter's discovered the manuscript and worked to translate her work and have it published.
As a piece of historical evidence, the book is absolutely fascinating and a very worthwhile read. As an enjoyable piece of fiction with an engaging plot, it is less so.
Némirovsky writes in great detail. Reading the first past of her planned five-part suite, Storm in June, the reader has a very clear picture of the characters and the life people are leading in France in the spring of 1940. However, the details can become extremely overwhelming at times, bordering on obsessive. The three-page description of a cat playing in the twilight, for example, becomes laborious. I found myself skimming and putting the book down rather than reading ahead to see what would happen.
However, the second suite, entitled Dolce is a much more readable story. Characters from the first suite reappear connecting the two parts. But each story is complete in itself. Part of what makes Dolce so fascinating is the very real emotions that Némirovsky unearths in a time of terrible trial. What happens when a woman, unhappy in marriage, finds herself forced to house a German officer in World War II occupied France? How can people feel hatred towards the enemy and yet compassion and love towards the individual man at the same time?
I would love to use Dolce in a World War II history class. Némirovsky writes about a subject that is rarely studied. She examines how civilians in occupied France had to deal with the German soldiers who had been stationed there. She does an incredible job of demonstrating that daily life must continue, including falling in love, even if it is with the enemy.
The appendix of Suite Française is an equally important section of the book, especially for a historian. Divided into two parts, the first is a diary of Némirovsky's that chronicles what direction she wants her story to go. She had hoped to write at least one more if not three more sections to her book to create a complete narrative. Characters from the first and second suites would merge in the third part to complete her story.
The final section is poignant, but also an extremely fascinating historical source. This section transcribes letters between Némirovsky, her husband, and family friends from 1939 to 1943. The reader learns of Némirovsky's arrest and eventual death through the letters that her husband repeatedly sends in hopes of discovering her whereabouts. For any historian of World War II, these letters give a very personal face to the turmoil in occupied France. It raises the questions of who the French arrested and why they were taken. It also shows the confusion and lack of information, on a very personal level, that people had to deal with while still attempting to make a salary, feed themselves and their children, and live life as close to normal as possible.
This book is clearly not for everyone. Even as a lover of French history, I had to force myself through the first one hundred pages. It can be slow and laborious. But, if you can stick with it, the outcome is definitely worth it.


Shannon said...

Hmmm....I've picked it up in the bookstore at least three times and have considered reading it. But even after you're review, I'm not sure I've got it in me. What do you think, Jehnie, think I would enjoy it?

AvidReader said...

Hard to say. If you have a long time sitting on an airplane to pick it up and keep going, read it. Otherwise, I think you might be inclined to put it down and not keep going. How's that for a less than straight-forward answer?