Suite Francaise

As promised in a post last week, ThisWine’s first book review is on Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.  As opposed to my earlier post, I have actually read the book at this point, and I managed to come up with a few feeble insights.

But first, a quick summary.  The book is actually made up of two “movements”.  The first, entitled “Storm in June”, tells the story of the evacuation of Paris on the eve of the Nazis’ arrival in June 1940.  The second, “Dolce”, takes place in 1941 in a small village during the Nazis’ occupation of France.  There were a few more movements planned for the novel, but the work was never completed (see below).  Each movement follows the experiences of several sets of characters – soldiers and former soldiers, women and children, farmers, bankers, writers, aristocrats, and even a priest are all introduced and observed as they struggle to endure the war.

Now for my commentary…

1)  This book is extremely well-written.  While I would not call it an easy read, given the subject matter, I will say that it was still easy to get caught up in the pages for hours.  Nemirovsky sets the scene clearly, yet takes care not to let setting or actions overtake the real focus of the novel, which is the people.  If you allow me to sound a little crazy for a moment, it is like she sets her sights on one of her many characters and picks that character up like a suitcase, then proceeds to dump all of the contents of that suitcase on a table.  She picks up each item and analyzes it, turning it over, examining it with a magnifying lens, hitting it against the table to test its strength.  Then she methodically packs everything up back into the suitcase and throws the suitcase into the overhead compartment so that she and the reader can continue the journey.  Nemirovsky is a master at the art of characterization.

2)  This book is infinitely sad.  I’m not pulling a spoiler when I say that there isn’t much happy news for any of the characters.  Reading this book forced me to take a hard look at what life must have been like, and must be like, for inhabitants of countries at war.  You read of the mother whose son is lost in action, the wife whose husband is a prisoner, the married couple who lose their spots in a car leaving Paris, forcing them to walk.  You read of the man who steals petrol from a fellow traveler, the farmers who lose their ability to harvest when the Nazis requisition their horses, the woman who rushes her family out of their house during a bombing, only to realize she forgot her invalid father-in-law.  You read these lines, which of course break your heart, but they also inevitably lead you to wonder, “What would I do?”.  The sadness of this book is that people actually went through it – it’s all real, and there is no way to take the edge off it.  The story is harrowing.

Despite all that, I can’t help wanting more.

3)  It is unfortunate that this book is unfinished.  Irene Nemirovsky was arrested and taken to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died.  She had completed first drafts of “Storm in June” and “Dolce,” and she kept a journal that laid out plans for the remaining sections of the novel.  Her daughter, who was only a child at the time that her mother was arrested (and who escaped imprisonment by going into hiding), kept the manuscripts with her throughout her life.  The book was finally published in 2006.  In its entirety, I am convinced that Suite Francaise would have been one of the great works of literature in the 20th century.  I wish it had been completed, if nothing else, because I closed the book wishing for some redemption.  The story is more terrifying because it has no ending.

… So there you have it.  A serious attempt at a very serious book.  I may need something a bit more light-hearted after all that.  Stay tuned for Peter Mayle up next.

– Bridget

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