Saturday, May 05, 2007
Book review: Suite Francaise
No matter how many history books you read, it's impossible to know what it was like for the people who were part of that history. Impossible, that is, without the first-hand accounts that somehow manage to be written and survive the tumult that surrounds human catastrophe. Irene Nemirovsky's unfinished novel Suite Francaise, which tells the story of the German occupation of France during World War II, is one of those eyewitness accounts made extraordinary because it was rendered by the hand of one of France's finest novelists.
Originally Nemirovsky conceived Suite Francaise as a five-part novel which would cover the duration of the war. The Jewish author (who had converted to Catholicism) was only able to complete two sections before the Vichy government arrested her in 1942 and deported her to a Nazi workcamp. Weak and sick, Nemirovsky was quickly sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered upon arrival, leaving behind two young daughters who protected the Suite Francaise manuscript as they ran and hid from the Nazis for the rest of the war.
Suite Francaise is an incredibly rich, unflinching study of a defeated French population learning to live side by side with their conquerers. Although Nemirovsky's voice is her own, you can trace the novel's roots back to Hugo, Tolstoy and Flaubert. The war is depicted through individual stories, finding tragic grandiosity in the stories of parents in search of their wounded sons, of an elderly man in his wheelchair, of a young woman whose husband is a prisoner of war, of a self-involved artist and dozens more. There are violent passages and passages of great tenderness, juxtaposed in a way that evokes the emotional confusion of people simply trying to survive. Knowing what happened to Nemirovsky, her sympathy for the young German soldiers who occupy the French village of Bussy in the second part of the novel, is astonishing and painful. You want to say, how can you find decency in these people who are going to kill you? And it's a question that will haunt you until the novel's last, abrupt page -- a horrible reminder of Nemirovsky's life cut short, of a story that ended before its time.