|Inside Cover: Irene's Manuscript|
Suite Francaise - really a suite of two novels which might have grown been three - was famously written by Irene Nemirovsky during the German occupation of France before her removal in 1942 to Auschwitz and ultimate death. The rediscovery and publication of the work sixty five years later is a story in itself.
Irene - already a well known writer - embarked on the novel in the rural village of Issy-l'Eveque where she and her husband and two small daughters lived, having fled occupied Paris.
I have just finished writing my latest novel - to be called The Art of Retreating - partly set in Occupied France and partly in the present day, so had read dozens of scholarly histories, factual anecdotal memoirs and factual personal stories to get inside the particular experience of one of the six main characters - the aged writer Francine Costington.
I kept Suite Francaise - at the far side of my table - to read after I had finished writing my own novel. This was because, being fiction, this novel is essentially a secondary source; secondary sources are normally weak and can lead to thin storytelling and unconscious imitation..
|Major novel Written During WW11|
The prose here is vigorous, detailed and full of energy. By page seven she has established the setting and the tensions and the place of pre-war Paris. She has reflected on the subtleties of the life and lifestyle of the different characters.
Material objects are important here. This involves lists: of what the mistress of writer Garbriel Corte has to take ... First she hid her jewellery ... over that she put some underwear, some washing things, two spare blouses, a little evening dress so she'd have something to wear when she arrived - she knew there would be delays on the road - a dressing gown and slippers , her make-up case and of course Gabriel's manuscripts. She tried in vain to close the suitcase...
(NB Gabriel's manuscripts lose the battle...)
And do read the loading of Madame Pericand's car (Chapter 6 p 29 in my copy) This is a masterpiece of listing to render great layers of meaning for the novel.
This is followed by this list '... groups of people appeared outside their houses - woman, old people and children, gesticulating to each other, trying at first calmly, then with increasing agitation sand a mad, dizzy excitement to get family and all the baggage into a Renault, a saloon, a sportscar...
This is a powerfully French thick-textured novel teaming with the people of Parisian bourgeois society and their servants (often disrespectful) and their fellow travellers..
The languid, somewhat unpleasant character, writer Gabriel Corte, declares on page 16, 'A novel should be a street full of strangers, where no more than two or three people are known to us in depth.' But Irene Nemirovsky does not follow Gabriel's rubric; This novel sports a cast of dozens of people and by the time we have read the novel we feel we know many of these characters and share with them the annihilation of their bourgeois concerns. From the modern perspective it is poignant to overhear the discussion of the importance of keeping valuable carpet and furniture safe, of preserving the the inherited linen.
'Nanny, my dear Nanny,' Madame Pericand groaned in a barely audible voice, 'We forgot ...'
'What? What did we forget?'
'We forgot my father-in-law,' said Madame Pericand, dissolving into tears.
So in the first book of the Suite Francaise - Storm in June - we have people fleeing in refugee columns from the advancing Germans, stumbling along, attacked by low flying aeroplanes, meeting jobsworth guards at the crowded railway stations; people who get lost, fade away, lose their precious possessions. The we witness many of them returning to an occupied Paris,. taking up their homes and their work where they can before the darkest side of the occupation begins to bite.
The second book here Dolce is an account of life in an occupied rural village - I imagine not unlike the village that was Irene Nemirovsky's refuge and where she began what would have been a greater, even more sprawling novel of France in World War 2, had she not been taken to Auschwitz.
What I loved about this book was: the skillful, complex storytelling; the acute insight into the human motive which has relevance today; the wit and the lack of sentimentality; the energy and quirkiness of the characters and the fluency and energy of the prose rendered so well in this translation by Sandra Smith.
Highly recommended for readers and writers alike.