My holiday reading so far has included Irène Némirovsky’s book Suite Française, which I’ve been meaning to read for ages. Némirovsky, a French writer of Russian Jewish origin, whose many novels were popular in France in the early part of the twentieth century, died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942, leaving behind her two drafts of novels plus some notes indicating a further three, telling the story of individuals in France under German occupation. The two published here as Suite Française, ‘Storm in June’ and ‘Dolce’, are remarkable, not least for the fact that the author did not have the benefit of hindsight which so often accompanies books of this kind. ‘Storm in June’ tells the story of the exodus of Paris prior to the occupation, and the fact that this could be a permanent exile for many, that the war might, in a real sense, never end for those who were forced to escape, or indeed for those who chose to stay, appears all the more true for the fact that we know that Némirovsky did not live to see VE Day.
Both parts of the book are told with a haunting immediacy; it is as though she looked out of her window, into the homes and hearts of the frightened people around her, and wrote their lives. Aware that suffering does not make heroes of everyone, and that a great tragedy does not always contain epic events and valiant emotion, Némirovsky’s writing is sometimes uncomfortable in its honesty about the facts faced by the French in 1940. Her characters are in some cases morally bankrupt, obsessed with the possessions they fear losing (although in many ways one could read their possessions as symbolic of the life they see falling apart). The second part, ‘Dolce’, is bitter-sweet in some ways: the complicated relationship of the ‘conquered’ with the ‘conqueror’ is explored in a way which demonstrates how humanity and emotion blurs the boundaries even in the presence of fear and evil. Némirovsky is uncompromising in her writing, I think; she deliberately makes the reader feel uncomfortable because empathy, insofar as it’s possible, is necessary. I became quickly involved with the characters and feel it’s a genuine loss for the literature of the period that she could not complete her five-novel series. Whether I endorse the glowing-ness of some of the early reviews when the book was published in 2004 is another matter; it could have been that great, perhaps, but in this draft and incomplete form it is difficult to tell, and pragmatically one cannot judge works on their potential, no matter how sad the circumstances. But it is well worth reading, as moving and, yes, possibly great book.
Re. … it could have been that great …
I admired the way she was working the idea of musical motifs into prose — mentioning a thing in one section of the story, then echoing and enlarging on it in the next (the most obvious instance of this being the villagers who appear briefly in Part One and blossom into important characters in Part Two) — and it would have been wonderful to see her expand that across the full series of books.
Thanks for your comment – you’re right, the musical motifs is an important part of the way the works are structured, which I didn’t mention.