Some novels leave me almost mute with admiration. This is one such book; I feel I can’t possibly do justice to the extraordinary power of this narrative. Written in 1941, not long before Nѐmirovsky was arrested and murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz, Suite Francaise depicts the realities for people living in France under occupation. Of course, one of the things which make it so extraordinary is that it was written while these events were taking place. It is for me, every bit a chronicle of those desperate, frightening times, as it is a brilliant novel.
Suite Francaise is made up of two novellas – linked very slightly – the only two completed parts of a projected four part sequence that Nѐmirovsky had planned to write. The first – Storm in June – is the brilliant depiction of the flight of a disparate group of Parisians on the eve of the German invasion. The second part – Dolce is set in a small French provincial town, occupied by German soldiers who take up residence in the homes of the people they are now the conquerors of.
“Paris had its sweetest smell, the smell of chestnut trees in bloom and of petrol with a few grains of dust that crack under your teeth like pepper. In the darkness the danger seemed to grow. You could smell the suffering in the air, in the silence. Everyone looked at their house and thought, “Tomorrow it will be in ruins, tomorrow I’ll have nothing left.”
In the opening section of Suite Francaise, the citizens of Paris are under threat, the Germans are advancing and the air is thick with rumour and pessimism. The Pѐricands are an old, traditional family, cultivated Catholics, the eldest of their five children is a priest. They are a family used to a certain way of life, and Madame Pѐricand is quite proud of their position, though suspicious of France’s government. While their son Father Phillippe Pѐricand accompanies a group of troubled, teenage, orphan boys out of the city, the rest of the Pѐricand family leave by car. Gabriel Corte is a writer, a cruel, selfish womaniser, determined to preserve his manuscripts, and get out of the city with his mistress Florence.
The Michauds are a middle aged couple both employed by the same bank, they live in a small apartment, although they aren’t wealthy, they are loyal employees, devoted to each other, their only son Jean-Marie is away at the front. When their employer promises to take them with him, by car, to Tours to new bank premises, they are relieved. However their employer’s mistress demands a seat in the car, and the Michauds are left to take their chance on alternative arrangements. With the Paris streets emptying fast, obtaining a seat on a train is no easy task, and so the Michauds join the scores of people leaving on foot. Charles Langelet is a wealthy man with a heart condition, an art collector he is surrounded by beautiful things, things he is loath to leave behind. Langelet also takes to the road out of Paris, joining the hoards already crowding the roads out of Paris. Each of these people face changing fortunes and through their exodus we see the selfishness’, fears and compromises that are brought about by extreme and unusual circumstances. Everyone is revealed in their very humanness, for good or ill.
“He hated the war; it threatened much more than his lifestyle or peace of mind. It continually destroyed the world of the imagination, the only world where he felt happy.”
In the second section – Dolce, the small town of Bussy await the arrival of their conquerors. There is grief and humiliation at France’s defeat, everything is changing and yet so much remains the same. Life must go on, food must be bought and cooked, babies fed, and farms continue to be managed as of old. In the Angellier household Lucile Angellier – wife of a prisoner of war and her bitter, grieving mother-in-law await the officer who will be staying in their home – they have no say in the matter. Theirs is the best house in Bussy and so they will be playing host to the commander. Lucile has not been happy with her unfaithful husband, and her mother-in-law – certain her daughter-in-law in unworthy of her beloved son – resents any pleasure Lucile might find in anything, wanting her to grieve and suffer as she does. When he arrives, Bruno von Falk is young, handsome, an accomplished musician, Lucile recognises that he is a man – like any other, he misses his home and his wife, longs for his overdue leave like any other soldier. Lucile is drawn to von Falk – trying to shield her blooming friendship from the stern and disapproving gaze of her mother-in-law.
Nearby lives Madeleine Sabarie – a young married woman with a young baby, her husband Benoît an escaped prisoner of war, is back working on their farm. Madeleine can’t forget Jean-Marie Michaud the handsome, cultured young man that had hid out at the farm for several weeks before her marriage. She still smooths out the sheets on the bed where he had slept; her husband is nothing like him. The Sabaries too, are to play host to a German officer, and when Bonnet arrives Madeleine is not averse to playing up a bit to the attention he pays her. Benoît is a jealous, unsophisticated man, trouble is sure to follow.
In the midst of war and under occupation, love and friendship can be found in surprising places, and when Benoît Sabarie acts recklessly and murderously, it is to Lucile Angellier that his wife turns to for help. This Dolce section ends in 1941 with the German invasion of The Soviet Union, the German soldiers who have lived among the town’s inhabitants for three months move out, and there is a brief lull as the town await new men who will take their place.
For several days they had been waiting for the Germans to leave. The soldiers themselves had announced it: they were being sent to Russia. When the French heard the news, they looked at them with curiosity (‘Are they happy? Worried? Will they win or lose?’). As for the Germans, they tried to work out what the French were thinking: Were they happy to see them go? Did they secretly wish they’d all get killed? Did anyone feel sorry for them? Would they miss them? Of course they wouldn’t be missed as Germans, as conquerors (they weren’t naïve enough to think that), but would the French miss these Pauls, Siegfreds, Oswalds who had lived under their roofs for three months, showed them pictures of their wives and mothers, shared more than one bottle of wine with them? But both the French and the Germans remained inscrutable; they were polite, careful of what they said – ‘Well, that’s war… We can’t do anything about it…right?”
One of the most astonishing things for me is that despite what was happening around her, and presumably knowing that she was under threat herself, Nemirovsky was capable of seeing the German soldier as a human being, a man, not just the enemy. She understood the strains put upon people under unparalleled circumstances, and the differences and sympathies that inevitably exist between two groups of people, even when one group is the conquered and one the conqueror.
It is one of the miracles of publishing that this novel came to be published at all – apparently lost – lying unread in a notebook belonging to Irene Nѐmirovsky in her eldest daughter’s possession. This edition contains in Appendixes – Nѐmirovsky’s notes for the remainder of the sequence that she tragically didn’t live to write.