Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

(This book has been reviewed by Dan in January 2010, but I'd like to add my impression of the work.)
Ms. Némirovsky, of Russian Jewish descent, grew up in Russia, but her family fled Russia during the Revolution and finally settled in France when she was 16 years old. She became a successful writer, but met an untimely end when the French government under the Nazis deported her to Auschwitz, where she died at age thirty-nine. This book has two parts, which Ms. Némirovsky wrote in the last two years of her life, chronicling the German occupation of France during World War II. From her notes, it appears that this was to be a 5 part work. Her two daughters held the manuscript for 64 years, believing it to be a sort of diary. The story was only found when one of the sisters made arrangements to donate the pages to an organization collecting writings of holocaust victims.

The first part deals with the initial days of France’s defeat at the hands of Germany, and the rush of citizens out of Paris to escape the approaching army. The writer follows more than one family’s saga, ranging from a simple middle class couple to a wealthy writer with his mistress. Some behave badly, even brutally, while others are more magnanimous. The second part of the book takes place in an occupied French village. The upper middle classes, the gentry, the farmers and the middle class are portrayed in riveting detail. Ms. Némirovsky shows our weakness for self-aggrandizement, and what our instincts for survival could translate into when occupied by a foreign army. This book is celebrated for its incisive exploration into Vichy France, a part of French history that for years was kept under wraps because of its unsavory aspects.

However, it’s interesting that Ms. Némirovsky is such an enlightened narrator of class and custom, when she herself was a Jew of a particular stamp, asking the Vichy government to be exempt from Jewish restrictions. After her arrest, her husband notes particularly to the authorities how his wife never defended the Jewish race. Critics have noted anti-Semitic elements in her previous writing, and in Suite Française’s village, there are no Jews at all. Suite Française shows us a German army of blonde, ruddy youths, respectful to the village inhabitants, singing stirring anthems while drilling. The reason they are there, as conquerors, is not altogether clear. From this grounds-eye view, there are only the victors and the vanquished, and the side that you happen to be on seems to be grounded in circumstance, not by any choice of your own. One wonders if the writer would have retained this vision if she had come back alive from Auschwitz.

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