For the longest time, I put off reading Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Franςaise. I don’t find the cover particularly appealing; I don’t feel any great desire to find out about the depicted couple when I look at it. Honestly, I only participated in this month’s Literature and War Readalong (hosted by Caroline) because I could get the book on CD at the library. Thank Goodness and hooray for the library, because I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. At this point, I’ve read my fair share of war literature, and for a book to stand out, it has to be really good. This one easily moved into my top five. I liked it so much, I bought a brand-new paperback and started reading it as soon as I was done with the audio version.
Suite Franςaise is made up of two parts: “Storm in June” and “Dolce.” There are some connections between the two parts—some of the characters appear in both—but they could be read separately. Originally, there were supposed to be five parts, but Némirovsky was deported to Auschwitz before she could complete her work. She never returned.
“Storm in June” takes place in 1941, in Paris, when the Germans’ arrival in the capital is imminent. People flee in panic, and Némirovsky focuses on several different families to show the chaos. We see the desperation, the indignation, and also the ridiculousness of the situation. You can tell a lot about people by finding out what they decide to take and how they treat others. Quite a few of the characters who are featured are more concerned about their precious linens and expensive porcelain than their neighbors or employees. None of them are particularly prepared for what awaits them, and it isn’t until they cannot find food or shelter because of all the refugees who arrived before them that they realize how potentially serious their situation is. For many, it is the first time that their money cannot buy them what they want. The futility of their actions becomes clear when a good number of the characters featured in this part return to Paris because they have nowhere else to go.
Madame Péricand shrugged her shoulders. She could see Jacqueline and Bernard on the doorstep of the café. Their hands were full of chocolate and sweets that they were giving out to everyone around them. Madame Péricand leapt towards them.
“Get back inside! What are you doing here? I forbid you to touch the food. Jacqueline, you will be punished. Bernard, your father will hear about this.” Grabbing the two stunned culprits firmly by the hand, she dragged them away. Christian charity, the compassion of centuries of civilization, fell from her like useless ornaments, revealing her bare, arid soul. She needed to feed and protect her own children. Nothing else mattered any more.
In “Dolce,” the focus is on one small town that is occupied by the Germans. There is little action, and I read it as a character study. The simmering resentment among the residents—among farmers and townspeople, among unhappy couples, among jealous house wives, among mother-in-law and daughter-in-law—is only increased by the presence of the German soldiers. The fact that most of them are being polite and really not that different doesn’t make dealing with the occupation any easier, especially if being nice means extra food or a travel pass.
After all, people judge one another according to their own feelings. It is only the miser who sees others enticed by money, the lustful who see others obsessed by desire. To Madame Angellier, a German was not a man, he was the personification of cruelty, perversity, and hatred. For anyone else to feel differently was preposterous, incredible. She couldn’t imagine Lucile in love with a German any more than she could imagine a woman mating with some mythical creature, a unicorn, a dragon or the monster Sainte Marthe had killed to free Tarascon. Nor did it seem possible that the German could be in love with Lucile. Madame Angellier refused to accord him any human feelings.
Both parts are different in many ways, but they did not feel like separate parts. I almost felt like reading a documentary, moving among the people in real time. I was amazed by how close I felt to what I was reading about. What struck me most—and what I don’t remember really reading about a lot so far—was how many characters in this book I saw at their worst. So many stories tell of people who grow, who sacrifice for others; they are people we can look up to and admire. Here, there are few selfless characters. In “Dolce,” there is one act that could be called heroic, but it requires so little effort that it takes away from the courage the action demands. Overall, I found the observations to be an extremely realistic portrayal of human behavior, sad as that is.
As I was contemplating this aspect of the novel, I realized what it was I truly admire about it: There is very little bitterness. Némirovsky emigrated to France during the Russian Revolution. In the appendixes that are included in my edition of the book, it is clear that she is very disappointed by the behavior of her adopted country and its people in the face of adversary and danger. She had every reason to show the people at their worst, because she had no reason to have faith in them. And yet her portrayal of them often seems almost tender, even if, and often especially when, their actions are objectionable. To me, that is what makes this novel so special.