Irène Némirovsky - photo source: obit-mag.com
I recently finished reading Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. The novel offers a glimpse of what it was like to live through the arrival of the Nazis and the early days of the occupation. However, its true beauty lies in its stark and brutally honest look into the psyche of the French during the early years of Nazi occupation.
No one knew better than Irène Némirovsky the dangers of living in Nazi occupied France. Némirovsky was born in Russia in 1903 to a wealthy Jewish banker. She learned French at an early age, which came in handy in 1919 when she and her family settled in Paris, France after they were forced to flee Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. She studied at the Sorbonne and in 1924 met a dashing fellow Russian-Jew, Michel Epstein. They fell in love and were married two years later.
Their first daughter was born in 1929 and that same year, Némirovsky’s first book, David Golder, was published and made into a movie. She quickly became a literary elite of the lost generation and even signed a 20-year exclusive contract with publisher Albin Michel. Shortly thereafter, a second daughter was born and Némirovsky seemed to have it all – that is until June 14, 1940 when the French surrendered to Nazi Germany.
Irène Némirovsky, Michel Epstein & children - photo source: womenineuropeanhistory.org
Despite the fact that Némirovsky had converted to Catholicism, under the Anti-Jewish Laws, she was still considered a Jew. And although by 1940, she had lived over half of her life in France, when she applied for French citizenship, she was denied. Both of these facts would contribute to her arrest and deportation in 1942.
When WWII began in 1939, she and Michel sent their daughters to live with a close family friend in Issy l’Evèque. Némirovsky and her husband did move to Issy to be closer to their girls, but sensing imminent danger, they created wills signing over guardianship to their friend. In addition, Némirovsky willed that “if worst comes to worst” the friend would publish “a novel I may not have the time to finish called Storm in June” – the book we now know as Némirovsky’s critically acclaimed masterpiece, Suite Française.
On July 13, 1942, Némirovsky was arrested, and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Within a month to the day of her arrival on July 19, 1942 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 39-year old literary genius, beloved wife and mother of two little girls was dead of typhus. With her life snuffed out in her prime, so too was a world of endless possibilities. Her contribution to the literary world, though, would continue with the posthumous publication of Suite Française, of which the manuscript went into hiding with Némirovsky’s daughters and remained locked in a suitcase until its publication 2004.
Set up like a symphonic suite, Suite Française was to be written in five movements. The first two movements “Storm in June” and “Dolce” were the only completed ones, and the published book’s appendix includes her thoughts, opinions, and notes for the third movement, “Captivity.”
“Storm in June” begins as the Nazis are bearing down upon the doorstep of Paris. It deals with the chaos and turmoil of the mass exodus out of Paris through the eyes of several Parisians. Némirovsky does an exceptional job highlighting the striking differences in the actions and reactions of the Parisian socioeconomic classes. Némirovsky’s cynical portrayal of the bourgeoisie arouses within the reader a sense of disgust and pity, especially so when contrasted with her keen ability to champion the proletariat.
Exodus from Paris - photo source: gettyimages.com
Némirovsky’s extraordinary capacity to humble humanity to its knees whilst it spins and sputters its excuses and justifications for appalling behavior in the name of survival exhibits her acumen regarding human nature. Her insight into history is equally remarkable as is evidenced in her words through the character Humbert Péricand:
The people around him, his family, his friends, aroused a feeling of shame and rage within him. He had seen them on the road, them and people like them: he recalled the cars full of officers running away with their beautiful yellow trunks and their painted women, civil servants abandoning their posts, panic-stricken politicians dropping files of secret papers along the road, young girls, who diligently wept the day the armistice was signed, being comforted in the arms of the Germans. “And to think that no one will know, that there will be such a conspiracy of lies that all this will be transformed into yet another glorious page in the history of France. We’ll do everything we can to find acts of devotion and heroism for the official records. Good God! To see what I’ve seen! Closed doors where you know in vain to get a glass of water and refugees who pillaged houses; everywhere, everywhere you look, chaos, cowardice, vanity, and ignorance! What a wonderful race we are!”
This passage is particularly exceptional when one considers that it was written well before war’s end, nor did she ever have the chance to alter it afterward.
Elderly Couple Flees Paris, 2 June 1940 - photo source: corbisimages.com
The second movement, “Dolce,” gleans a view into small town life under Nazi occupation. It explores and contrasts the complacency of some toward the Nazis and the call to resist of others. She explains:
War…yes, everyone knows what war is like. But occupation is more terrible in a way, because people get used to one another. We tell ourselves, ‘They’re just like us, after all,’ but they’re not at all the same. We’re two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever.
“Dolce” examines the array of feelings that the French had toward their occupiers. Collaborator or not, Némirovsky makes it abundantly clear that no French citizen likes being occupied. Most intriguing, though, is how deeply she delves into the subconscious of the French to offer some explanation as to why anyone would collaborate. I often wonder what I would have done in this situation. It is very easy to sit in the comfort of my home and say that I would never collaborate, but the truth is, no one really knows until they are in such a precarious place.
Nazis March into Paris, 14 June 1940 - photo source: dailymail.co.uk
Némirovsky poignantly continues to emphasize the French social class structure and its impact on the choices people made during the Occupation. She is able to not only offer reasons that genuinely make sense as to why poor and wealthy alike would choose to either collaborate or to resist, but also features the decision-making process. In one case, she illustrates that since the wealthy have the most to lose, it makes sense to collaborate. One character, an aristocrat, who chose the path of collaboration offers justification for her actions:
And besides, these German officers were cultured men, after all! What separates or unites people is not their language, their laws, their customs, their principles, but the way they hold their knife and fork.
While it may sound like a weak argument at best, it hits home the lengths to which people will go to right a wrong in their own minds. Perhaps more importantly, it gives some semblance of honesty and understanding to life in occupied France.
Nazis in France - photo source: newsweek.com
The book unexpectedly ends with the German invasion of Russia in 1942. The fate of the characters is completely unknown and the reader is left to scratch her head and wonder for all eternity, what happened to them?
My initial reaction to the book ending so abruptly was, “That's it?! Why on earth would some one publish an unfinished novel?!” I am one of those people who prefers closure - I do not like to be left hanging. But the more I reflected upon the novel, the more I realized that it all makes perfect sense.
Suite Française mirrors the life of Irène Némirovsky. Like her book, Némirovsky’s life was indeed, an unfinished work. The struggles of France put to pen and paper in the closing chapter of her life were her unintended final gift. Despite the dark shadow cast over her own life, she managed to find the courage to pass on to France – and the world – both the naked truth about Nazi Occupied France and a message of hope expressed through her character Maurice Michaud:
“My certainty that deep down I’m a free man…It’s a constant, precious possession, and whether I keep it or lose it is up to me and no one else. I desperately want the insanity we’re living through to end. I desperately want what has begun to finish. In a word, I desperately want this tragedy to be over and for us to try to survive it, that’s all. What’s important is to live: Primum vivere. One day at a time. To survive, to wait, to hope.”
Irène Némirovsky's husband Michel Epstein was arrested in October 1942 and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in November where he was gassed upon arrival.
All biographical information obtained from the website: A Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française
All quotes taken directly from Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française (2004) translated by Sandra Smith