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February 23, 2007

A brave and bitter book in which the exacting demands of art are not driven out by the cruel and unusual circumstances of its composition: Suite Française - Irène Némirovsky

Posted by David Womersley

Suite Française
by Irène Némirovsky
Pp. 406. London: Chatto and Windus, 2006
Hardback, £16.99; Paperback, £7.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française, and finds it to be a magnificently unsparing account of French collaboration.

Suite Française is one of that small number of works of literature that it is impossible to separate from the circumstances of their composition. Irène Némirovsky was the daughter of a rich Russian banker, who had been forced to flee to France in the wake of the Russian Revolution and there attempt to rebuild his fortune. He did so, and his daughter, as well as acquiring a reputation for being flirtatious, became a successful novelist.

When the Germans invaded France in 1940, she, her husband and their two daughters, withdrew from Paris to Issy l'Evêque, just fatally short of what would become the demarcation line of the occupied territory with Vichy France. While in this rural seclusion, she began to write Suite Française. In her notebooks she recorded the impulse to composition, and the bitter, cold mood in which it was undertaken:

My God! what is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honour and its life.
Suite Française is the product of this freezingly-enraged analysis.

The whole family was Jewish, although the parents had converted to Catholicism, and the daughters had been raised in that faith. This, of course, was as nothing in the face of the racial policies of the Third Reich.

No attempt was made to escape to Switzerland, despite its proximity and its willingness to accept refugees. The inevitable happened. On 13th July 1942 Irène Némirovsky was arrested. By 16th July she was in the concentration camp at Pithiviers, a holding facility for those in transit towards the East. On 17th July she was transported to Auschwitz, where she died on 17th August. It would be difficult to imagine a life which had been more scarred by the poisonous conflicts of the twentieth century - "a century full of storms", as one of her characters puts it.

While reading Suite Française one cannot forget that the manuscript of the novel miraculously survived (snatched by one of her daughters as a memento as they fled from persecution), while its author, for whom no exemption from the ordinary fate of things was available, did not.

Suite Française was originally planned as a long novel in five or four parts (Némirovsky's ideas on this point seem to have changed), of which only the first two were written: "Storm in June" and "Dolce". So this is a literary work truncated by the events it fictionalises, and written of course in ignorance of the eventual outcome of the war.

"Storm in June" describes the flight of Parisians into the countryside ahead of the advancing Germans, and introduces us to a wide range of characters drawn from higher and lower fractions of French society. Here, the literary model is perhaps Maupassant, whose "Boule de Suif" had dissected French hypocrisy and snobbery under very similar circumstances in 1870, when the Parisians again took to the countryside in the face of the victorious Prussians. But the presiding genius of this opening section is Proust, who is surely Némirovsky's tutor in the display of the hidden hypocrisies, selfishness and vulgarity which emerge when people are put under unusual pressure.

"Dolce" is a study of a village under occupation which is organised and paced differently. It describes the growth of affection between a French woman whose neglectful husband has been captured by the Germans, and the young German officer who is billeted in her house. Here we find elements of rural idyll, although Némirovsky's tutor in the powerful ironies which organise this section is surely the Flaubert of "Un Coeur Simple".

Suite Française is magnificently unsparing of the French, although this is no reason of English self-congratulation: given our record of tentative collaboration before 1939, had we suffered invasion there is no reason to think that we would not have produced our share of Quislings, or that we would have been more resistant than were the French to the incremental accommodations with the enemy that follow naturally from the longing for a resumption of normality in a subjugated people. But Némirovsky is also alive to the clarifying and simplifying power of war when it touches the lives of ordinary people:

Important events - whether serious, happy or unfortunate - do not change a man's soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves.
Some struggle against these revelations - the vain and selfish novelist Gabriel Corte, appalled by the social miscegenation of the retreat from Paris, petulantly exclaims:
If events as painful as defeat and mass exodus cannot be dignified with some sort of nobility, some grandeur, then they shouldn't happen at all! I will not accept that these shopkeepers, these caretakers, these filthy people with their whining, their malicious gossip, their vulgarity, should be allowed to debase this atmosphere of tragedy
- but in the end, all have to accept them. The arrival of war liberates terrible energies in France. But it also permits a long-overdue cleansing.

Hubert Péricand, a youth who was initially fired with idealistic ardour to defend France against the Germans, and whose first experience of actual combat disabused him of such callowness, reflects on how the alchemy of history would transmute the leaden actuality of 1940 into a golden memory:

And to think 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 knock 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!
Suite Française is written in defiance and rebuke of the mendacity of national remembrance. In her notebook, Némirovsky wrote:
Have no illusions: this is not for now. So I mustn't hold back, must strike with a vengeance wherever I want.
The result of that uncowed determination was this brave and bitter book in which, amazingly, the exacting demands of art were not driven out by the cruel and unusual circumstances of its composition.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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