Saturday, 9 June 2012

Sweet Suite Francaise Posthumous Triumph

Inside Cover: Irene's Manuscript
I would point out that in the Iconic reading group teased me that I read these books as a writer, not purely as a reader.  This is evident here, I think... I did protest to them that this was what I was: a writer!

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
It turns out though that t Suite Francaise relates intensely to Irene's personal experience and could be seen to have memoir-ish insight, although -  as  I had to keep reminding myself as I read this triumph of a novel -  it was written living on top of the events it pictures. Also - very important for a modern reader - written with no fore-knowledge that the vicious tide of occupation of her country would recede and France would regain its sovereignty. She had no idea then that the Germans would not win the war.

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.

 By page 11 we are acquainted with all the characters, including Albert the ever reappearing cat and the aged grandfather of a family group M Pericand.who gets left behind and is later retrieved.
            '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.


  1. Unfortunately I didn't have time to read this before the group met. I knew I would regret that, so thank you for reminding me to put it on my to- read pile and also for your wonderfully detailed review which gives a real flavour of what one can expect without giving away anything of the story.

    Looking forward very much to seeing The Art of Retreating on the shelves!

  2. I know you will enjoy it Avril and come out enriched, both as a writer and a reader.x.

  3. This is also one of my favourite books. It unfolds the story the way French films do and I love it!

  4. I can see the film analogy. The visual images act metaphorically laying out important elements of the narrative. Was there ever a film?? wx



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