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.)
"[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.
Reading Group Guide
1. The Péricands were mistrustful of the government, yet “Monsieur Péricands position as curator of the countrys national museums bound them to an administration that showered its faithful with honours and financial rewards” [p. 6]. Given their wealth and social position, is it unsurprising that people like the Péricands would
collaborate with the Vichy government? Does the novel present moral failure as understandable or repellent?
2. In the exodus from Paris, Gabriel Corte is looking at the people around him: “‘Such ugliness…such hideous faces! Overcome, he turned round to face inside the car and closed his eyes. . . . ‘Did you see that horrible old woman beside us with her birdcage and bloodstained bandages?” [pp. 47-48]. Corte is a successful novelist. What kind of sensibility does he have? How does he differ, as an observer of life, from Némirovsky?
3. Madame Michaud longs for news of her son Jean-Marie, who is a soldier. In chapter 12, she and Maurice are present when German bombs strike a train carrying wounded French soldiers. Jean-Marie is on this train, though his parents dont know it, and they eventually return home still longing for news of him. Later, having stolen gasoline from a young couple on the road and finally arrived at home, the aesthete Charles Langelet is killed by a car driven by Arlette, Corbins ex-mistress. Discuss the effects of this approach to plot construction, in which Némirovsky directs the movements of characters whose paths converge and diverge in unexpected ways.
4. “In spite of the exhaustion, the hunger, the fear, Maurice Michaud was not really unhappy. He had a unique way of thinking: he didnt consider himself that important; in his own eyes he was not that rare and irreplaceable creature most people imagine when they think about themselves” [pp. 54-55]. Why is Maurice “unique” in this? Given the novels broad array of selfish and narcissistic characters, do the Michauds seem to stand as models of moral decency?
5. Consider the following two passages:
“The glass roof shattered and exploded outwards, wounding and killing the people in the square. Panic-stricken, some of the women threw down their babies as if they were cumbersome packages and ran. Others grabbed their children and held them so tightly they seemed to want to force them back into the womb, as if that were the only truly safe place” [p. 60].
“Machine-guns fired on the convoy. Death was gliding across the sky and suddenly plunged down from the heavens, wings outstretched, steel beak firing on this long line of trembling black insects crawling along the road. Everyone threw themselves to the ground; women lay of top of their children to protect them. When the firing stopped, deep furrows were left in the crowd, like wheat after a storm when the fallen stems form close, deep trenches” [p. 82].
What characteristics of style, vision, or sensibility make Némirovskys descriptive writing so powerful?
6. Arlette, the dancer who is one of the banker Corbins mistresses, has ensconced herself in Tours where she provides Hubert Péricand with his first sexual experience. What motivates Arlette, and how does she manage to survive so well in the world [pp. 94-103]?
7. Chapter 20 of “Storm in June” is told from the perspective of the Péricands cat Albert [pp. 104-107]. What details does the cat perceive? What does Némirovskys desire to include this playful chapter in the story tell us about her vision as a novelist?
8. Carmen Callil, author of Bad Faith, a widely hailed biography of a Vichy collaborator, observes, “Némirovsky has a particular talent, a nearness to her readers, so that you almost feel the flesh of the characters she creates, however vile, rapacious and idiotic they may be. This is where she is irresistible—addictive—so that once you pick up one of her novels, you cannot put it down” [The Guardian, February 3, 2007]. Which characters, either good or bad, come most powerfully to life, and what particular details about them are most striking?
9. Is it surprising that Father Philippes instincts about the nature of the orphan boys was correct [p. 24]? What do the scenes in chapter 25 suggest about Némirovskys perspective on human evil? What is the effect of reading the scenes that describe his fate [pp. 135-144]?
10. Némirovsky brilliantly delineates class tensions and resentments throughout Suite Française. The man in the battered Citroën, first commented upon with disgust by Gabriel Corte [p. 48], has stolen Cortes picnic basket and his family enjoys a bottle of champagne and an elegant lunch. The woman with the bandaged head, wounded and possibly widowed, thinks, “Privileges, exemptions, connections, all that was for the middle classes. Deep in her heart were layer upon layer of hatred, overlapping yet distinct: the countrywomans hatred, who instinctively detests city people, the servants hatred, weary and bitter at having lived in other peoples houses, the workers hatred” [pp. 71-72]. Does Némirovsky suggest that these hatreds among the French are partially to blame for their defeat by the Germans? Or do you see them simply as indicating Némirovskys gifts as a social realist?
11. In the village of Bussy, the women think of the occupying Germans as “our masters,” and look at them “with a mixture of desire and hatred. (The enemy? Of course. But they were also men, and young . . .)” [p. 213]. How is this ambivalent mix of desire and hatred expressed in relations between the French women and the Germans in “Dolce”?
12. In sentences like the following, Némirovsky demonstrates how attached the French are to their material possessions: “Life in the provinces of central France is affluent and primitive; everyone keeps to himself, rules over his own domain, reaps his own wheat and counts his own money” [p. 217]. Which scenes and characters demonstrate this material attachment most clearly? Does Némirovsky seem to be critical of this aspect of bourgeois life? What are its implications for the ways people behave toward each other?
13. Thinking of her arranged marriage to Gaston Angellier, Lucile “realised how very empty was her heart; it had always been empty—empty of love, empty of jealous hatred” [p. 218]. But in her attraction to Bruno, “she was almost afraid of the feelings growing within her. It was like stroking a wild animal—an exquisitely intense sensation, a mixture of tenderness and terror” [p. 295]. Bruno later says, “Waiting is erotic” [p. 324]. How effectively does the tension generated by this attraction between Lucile and Bruno drive the narrative in “Dolce”?
14. How is Lucile changed by her decision to help Benoît Sabarie? What does she mean when she says to herself, “Ive already chosen . . . in spite of myself. And I thought I was free” [p. 338]. Why does she reject Bruno, and is it admirable of her to do so?
15. At the beginning of her personal notebook Némirovsky wrote, “My God! what is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honour and its life. And the other countries? What are they to me? Empires are dying. Nothing matters. . . . Let us keep a cool head. Let us harden our heart. Let us wait” [p. 373]. In what ways do you see this cool, observant perspective realized in the novel?
16. Némirovsky wrote in her notebook, “Never forget that the war will be over and that the entire historical side will fade away. Try to create as much as possible: things, debates . . . that will interest people in 1952 or 2052. Reread Tolstoy. Inimitable descriptions but not historical” [p. 383]. What does this entry emphasize about Némirovskys interest in observation and description? What do the notebook entries convey about her writing process, the overall arc of the intended work, and her frame of mind as she wrote?
17. Much has been made in the literary press of the fact that Némirovsky did not include any Jewish characters in the novel. Why might she have made such a choice?
“Extraordinary. . . . A work of Proustian scope and delicacy, by turns funny and deeply moving.”
The questions, suggested reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your groups discussion of Suite Française, a novel which created a literary sensation when it was published in France in 2004. When it first appeared in English translation in 2006, many critics and writers chose it as the book of the year. Suite Française is in itself an extraordinary literary achievement, and the circumstances of its writing and publication add to its interest and pathos.