Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Suite Française": The Alpha & the Omega

I have seen Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky, referred to as "the first great novel of World War II," because Némirovsky wrote it just a year or two after the events it describes. Its two parts deal with the invasion of France in June 1940, and the occupation of a small French village in spring 1941, and Némirovsky had written it all by summer 1942, when she was taken to Auschwitz. I have also seen it referred to as "the last great novel of World War II," because the manuscript was not published until 2004. And really, after reading an such an authentic novel of World War II, what modern fiction writer (likely born long after World War II ended) would have the hubris to write a novel dealing with that war?

Though I am a Francophile, I resisted reading Suite Française because I was almost suspicious of its backstory, which tended to overshadow the writing -- the rediscovered manuscript, Némirovsky's tragic murder at the hands of the Nazis. In such circumstances, the novel itself wouldn't have to be any good in order to become a bestseller. But finally, I picked up a cheap used copy, and I'm so glad I did. Because Suite Française is indeed a good novel; it is valuable not only as a historical document, but as art.

Némirovsky displays a masterful command of the techniques of fiction writing -- controlling the narrative flow, writing in different voices and from different perspectives. For instance, there is a chapter told from the point of view of a Parisian housecat encountering the countryside for the first time as his owners flee the Nazis. A scene that could easily turn melodramatic (it involves a German officer telling a Frenchwoman that he loves her and will never forget her) is saved from melodrama by being told from the perspective of a little girl who observes the two adults, but is too young to understand what's going on.

One of the blurbs in the front matter of my copy compares Suite Française to Flaubert in its "indictment of French manners and morals," and I'd have to agree with that. Like Flaubert, Némirovsky is snarky and ruthless, though not without moments of beauty. The first part of Suite Française, "Storm in June," demonstrates how, in the face of the German invasion, the French people occasionally behave in noble and self-sacrificing ways, but more often are unscrupulous, selfish, and snobbish. The middle- and upper-class characters work all of their connections in order to stay well-fed and sheltered, and when they can't work their connections, they steal from those less fortunate. A young priest attempting to lead a group of orphaned juvenile delinquents to safety ends up murdered by his young charges. (Even the name of the orphanage, the Penitent Children of the 16th Arrondissement, is a snarky joke. The 16th is the wealthiest arrondissement in Paris; it is like saying "The Penitent Children of the Upper East Side" or "The Penitent Children of Pacific Heights.")

As suggested by its title, "Dolce," the second part of Suite Française, is gentler and more reflective. In its depiction of a German officer quartered in the house of a young French woman, it reminded me of another wartime classic, Le Silence de la mer by Vercors. Interestingly, both works use a trope that has now become a cliche -- that of the Nazi who is redeemed through his sensitivity to art and music.

Némirovsky planned a further three parts of Suite Française, which would have linked the Parisian characters of "Storm in June" to the provincial characters of "Dolce," and it is a pity that she was murdered before she had the chance to write them. Still -- believe the hype, and the too-good-to-be-true backstory of the manuscript of Suite Française. We are very lucky that this accomplished writer was able to transform her experiences of World War II into artful fiction, before she herself perished.

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