Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (Vintage $14.95) was published in France in 2004 and here in the States in 2006 with a translation by Sandra Smith. The author died in 1942. That such a brilliant work took so long to come to light is, in itself, a remarkable story.
Suite Francaise contains two connected novels, “Storm in June” and “Dolce”. The former follows a large cast of characters, each carefully etched, through the chaos that ensued with the collapse of the French army in 1940. In panic, many leave Paris for the countryside. Nemirovsky describes in detail the chaos the refugees encounter. Most of our images of those days are framed by the flashback scenes of Paris in “Casablanca”, with Rick Blaine crumpling the letter from Ilsa and tossing it to the ground at the train station. If Rick Blaine could catch a train out of Paris that day, he was lucky. The Parisians in this story either drive or are forced to walk to the countryside. And once there, they find it hard to find food and shelter, with the resources over strapped by their sheer number; not to mention the occasional strafing from German aircraft, and last minute resistance from the French Army remnants. Nemirovsky limns their stories with a telling and unjaundiced eye.
The second novella, “Dolce” centers on the German occupation of a countryside village. Soldiers are quartered with the townspeople and the interaction between the French and Germans are explored. Most of the men are away, Prisoners of War, and the attitude of the French women varies from household to household. Some are collaborationists, others suffering as “victims”, yet others just wanting the War to end. The plot revolves around a young French woman whose husband is a POW and a young German officer, who slowly fall in love. Ultimately, the woman is forced to make a choice, and the affair is doomed. Again, Nemirovsky describes the lives and loves of these people in unsentimental fashion.
These two novels were intended to be a part of a five-novel saga that the author wanted to model around Beethoven’s Fifth symphony (I know there are only four movements; one story was going to be a coda). That she was able to write these two is testimony to her resolve. Nemirovsky was a Russian émigré; she had published, previous to the war, other well-regarded novels during her time in France. After the fall of Paris, she and her husband moved to the countryside with their two daughters. The Petain government in collaboration with the Germans began rounding up the Jews. She was arrested in July of 1942 as a “stateless Jew” and died in Auschwitz in August of that year. Her husband was similarly arrested later in the year and also died at that death camp. Their daughters were hidden in various locales around France during the war and didn’t learn of their parent’s fate until after the war. With them were these manuscripts.
Knopf has also just released her novella, Fire in the Blood ($22.00), a story of a French Village just before the war.
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These books are available at Jackson Street Books and fine Independent Bookstores everywhere!