Saturday, May 8, 2010

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

Suite Française is a posthumously novel published by Irène Némirovsky, a Russian Jew who lived in Paris during the German occupation. It had originally been intended to be a five-part work, modeled after a Beethoven symphony. However, Némirovsky was arrested and deported in 1942 and eventually died at Auschwitz before the work was completed. The work that exists today was found in a suitcase by her daughters Denise and Elizabeth who could not bear to read their mother's words. The novel was eventually published in 2005.

The first part of the novel is "Storm in June" and recounts the massive exodus of Parisians at the time of the German occupation through the eyes and actions people of people trying to flee the city. The Péricands are a wealthy family who have their servants pack all their belongings for them. They will be traveling to Nimes. Gabriel Corté, a writer, is fleeing with his mistress. The Michauds are a couple that work for a Parisian banker. They originally believed that they would be evacuated with the rest of the bank workers, but were left behind when there was no room for them. They were given orders to meet the bankers by a given time. Charles Langelet goes it alone by trying to steal gasoline from unsuspecting motorists. At times comical, poignant and very satiric, this movement of the symphony is allegro.

The second part of the novel is "Dolce" and is told through the eyes of Lucille Angellier whose husband is a prisoner of war. Her disdain for him because of his unfaithfulness leads her down the path of guilt as she must come to grips with her romantic feelings for Bruno, a German soldier who is billeted in the house that she shares with her mother-in-law. Their platonic relationship grows into what will more than likely become a romantic one. Or will it? To complicate matters, a German officer is shot by a local hunter and Lucille is drawn into the situation when asked to harbor the criminal. The novella is the adagio movement, told slowly and serenely. The descriptions are incredibly beautiful with the reader dwelling on each phrase as to breathe in the scene that is being created.

Némirovsky was a devout fan of Tolstoy's War and Peace and also Turgenev and Chekhov. As we think what would have been if she had finished this literary symphony, we can only surmise that it would have been on equal standing with Tolstoy's masterpiece. She was an accomplished writer at the time of her death and we can be thankful that at least we have a portion of her masterly crafted opus magnus.

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