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Suite Francaise: A Novelby Irene Nemirovsky
Winner of France's 2004 Prix Renaudot
Synopses & Reviews
By the early l940s, when Ukrainian-born Irène Némirovsky began working on what would become Suite Française — the first two parts of a planned five-part novel — she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz: a month later she was dead at the age of thirty-nine. Two years earlier, living in a small village in central France — where she, her husband, and their two small daughters had fled in a vain attempt to elude the Nazis — she'd begun her novel, a luminous portrayal of a human drama in which she herself would become a victim. When she was arrested, she had completed two parts of the epic, the handwritten manuscripts of which were hidden in a suitcase that her daughters would take with them into hiding and eventually into freedom. Sixty-four years later, at long last, we can read Némirovsky’s literary masterpiece
The first part, "A Storm in June," opens in the chaos of the massive 1940 exodus from Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion during which several families and individuals are thrown together under circumstances beyond their control. They share nothing but the harsh demands of survival — some trying to maintain lives of privilege, others struggling simply to preserve their lives — but soon, all together, they will be forced to face the awful exigencies of physical and emotional displacement, and the annihilation of the world they know. In the second part, "Dolce," we enter the increasingly complex life of a German-occupied provincial village. Coexisting uneasily with the soldiers billeted among them, the villagers — from aristocrats to shopkeepers to peasants — cope as best they can. Some choose resistance, others collaboration, and as their community is transformed by these acts, the lives of these these men and women reveal nothing less than the very essence of humanity.
Suite Française is a singularly piercing evocation — at once subtle and severe, deeply compassionate and fiercely ironic — of life and death in occupied France, and a brilliant, profoundly moving work of art.
"Celebrated in pre-WWII France for her bestselling fiction, the Jewish Russian-born Némirovsky was shipped to Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, months after this long-lost masterwork was composed. Némirovsky, a convert to Catholicism, began a planned five-novel cycle as Nazi forces overran northern France in 1940. This gripping 'suite,' collecting the first two unpolished but wondrously literary sections of a work cut short, have surfaced more than six decades after her death. The first, 'Storm in June,' chronicles the connecting lives of a disparate clutch of Parisians, among them a snobbish author, a venal banker, a noble priest shepherding churlish orphans, a foppish aesthete and a loving lower-class couple, all fleeing city comforts for the chaotic countryside, mere hours ahead of the advancing Germans. The second, 'Dolce,' set in 1941 in a farming village under German occupation, tells how peasant farmers, their pretty daughters and petit bourgeois collaborationists coexisted with their Nazi rulers. In a workbook entry penned just weeks before her arrest, Némirovsky noted that her goal was to describe 'daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides.' This heroic work does just that, by focusing — with compassion and clarity — on individual human dramas." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This extraordinary work of fiction about the German occupation of France is embedded in a real story as gripping and complex as the invented one. Composed in 1941-42 by an accomplished writer who had published several well-received novels, 'Suite Francaise,' her last work, was written under the tremendous pressure of a constant danger that was to catch up with her and kill her before she had finished.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Irene Nemirovsky was a Jewish, Russian immigrant from a wealthy family who had fled the Bolsheviks as a teenager. She spent her adult life in France, wrote in French but preserved the detachment and cool distance of the outsider. She and her husband were deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where he was gassed upon arrival and she died in the infirmary at the age of 39. Her manuscript, in minuscule and barely readable handwriting, was preserved by her daughters, who, ignorant of the fact that these notebooks contained a full-fledged masterpiece, left it unread until 60 years later. Once published, with an appendix that illuminates the circumstances of its origin and the author's plan for its completion, it quickly became a best-seller in France. It is hard to imagine a reader who will not be wholly engrossed and moved by this book. Nemirovsky's plan consisted of five parts. She completed only the first two before she was murdered. Yet they are not fragmentary; they read like polished novellas. The first, 'Storm in June,' gives us a cross section of the population during the initial exodus from the capital, when a battle for Paris was expected and people fled helter-skelter south, so that the roads were clogged with refugees of all classes. Nemirovsky shows how much caste and money continued to matter, how the nation was not united in the face of danger and a common enemy. In her account, the well-to-do continue to be especially egotistical and petty. And yet a deep, unsentimental sympathy pervades this panorama. Looking up to the sky at enemy planes overhead, the refugees who have to sleep on the street or in their cars 'lacked both courage and hope. This was how animals waited to die. It was the way fish caught in a net watch the shadow of the fisherman moving back and forth above them.' I can't think of a more chilling and concise image to convey the helplessness of civilians in an air raid. Not being French herself but steeped in French culture may have made it easier for Nemirovsky to achieve her penetrating insights with Flaubertian objectivity. She gives us startling, steely etched sketches of both collaboration and resistance among people motivated by personal loyalties and grievances that date from before the war. The second part, 'Dolce' (the title — Italian for 'sweet' — derives from Nemirovsky's plan to give the work a musical structure), covers the occupation by the Germans of a small village, from the so-called armistice in June 1940 to the Soviet Union's entry into the war a year later. One can forget that there was a period after the defeat of France when World War II could be seen simply as a war between Germany and Britain. The villagers yearn for peace, and many are indifferent as to who wins, England or Germany, as long as their own men come home. Nemirovsky is superb in describing how fraternization comes about, including French girls and women giving in to the attractions of the handsome German occupants — there are no other men around, most of the French men having been taken prisoner. But the unnatural situation also breeds fierce feelings of resentment and humiliation. Nemirovsky embodies this conflict in the story of a woman who falls in love with a German officer and at the same time hides a villager wanted for the murder of another German — a murder motivated partly by patriotic hatred and partly by marital jealousy. One puzzling omission from the spectrum of conquered and cowering French society is the Jews — the one group that was more endangered than any other, as Nemirovsky knew only too well. Perhaps she wanted to save the fate of the Jews for the next part, which was to be entitled 'Captivity.' Even so, when one thinks of the threat the Jewish population endured even at this early stage of persecution, one feels the significant gap here. Still, this is an incomparable book, in some ways sui generis. While diaries give us a day-to-day record, their very inclusiveness can lead to tedium; memoirs, on the other hand, written at a later date, search for highlights and illuminate the past from the vantage point of the present. In Nemirovsky's 'Suite Francaise' we have the perfect mixture: a gifted novelist's account of a foreign occupation, written while it was taking place, with history and imagination jointly evoking a bitter time, correcting and enriching our memory. Ruth Kluger is the author of the memoir 'Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered.'", Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[S]tunning....The author of Suite Française is one of the most fascinating literary figures you've never heard of — and her own tragic story only deepens the impact of her book." Newsweek
"Transcendent, astonishing....Suite Française, which might be the last great fiction of the war, provides us with an intimate recounting of occupation, exodus and loss." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"The story behind Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française is painful and extraordinary, a story yearning to be told....It would be a remarkable novel had it been written only recently, in comfortable circumstances; given its provenance, and its history, it is a book that demands to be read." Claire Messud, Bookforum
"[Suite Française is] clearly the work of a novelist with an alert eye for self-deceit, a tender regard for the natural world, and a forlorn gift for describing the crumbling, sliding descent of an entire society into catastrophic disorder." London Review of Books
"[S]tunning....[Némirovsky] wrote what may be the first work of fiction about what we now call World War II. She also wrote, for all to read at last, some of the greatest, most humane and incisive fiction that conflict has produced." Paul Gray, The New York Times Book Review
"Némirovsky's scope is like that of Tolstoy: She sees the fullness of humanity and its tenuous arrangements and manages to put them together with a tone that is affectionate, patient, and relentlessly honest....What leaves you breathless is the sense that you have in your hands something important, something precious and rare: a lost masterpiece. It is a privilege to read this book." O: The Oprah Magazine
"[G]randly symphonic, courageous, and scathing....[A] magnificent novel of the insidious devastation of occupation, and Némirovsky is brilliant and heroic....Everything about this transcendent novel is miraculous." Booklist (Starred Review)
"[A] hugely ambitious novel....A valuable window into the past, and the human psyche. This is important work." Kirkus Reviews
"It's evident from the novel's bravura beginning that we're in the presence of something exceptional. In two panoramic pages Némirovsky evokes not just a few Parisians' response to the latest air raid, but the entire city's." Newsday
"[Némirovsky's] talent was quite considerable and her personal story rather moving and awful....These are two beautifully restrained novels about the chaos and suffering immediately following the fall of Paris..." Chicago Tribune
An extraordinary novel of life under Nazi occupation — discovered and published 62 years after the author's tragic death at Auschwitz. Subtle, often fiercely ironic, and deeply compassionate, it is both a piercing record of its time and a brilliant, profoundly moving work of art.
Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy — in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.When Irène Némirovsky began working on Suite Française, she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.
About the Author
Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 into a successful banking family and fled to France during the Russian Revolution. After attending the Sorbonne, she began to write and swiftly achieved success with her first novel, David Golder, which was followed by The Ball, The Flies of Autumn, Dogs and Wolves, and The Courilof Affair. When the Germans occupied France in 1940, she moved with her husband and two small daughters, age 5 and 13, from Paris to the comparative safety of Issy-L’Evêque. It was here that she secretly began writing Suite Française. She was killed in Auschwitz in 1942.
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