Why have I taken so long to discover Suite Francaise? Three reasons. 1) It’s unfinished. 2) I simply didn’t believe the hype it received on publication. 3) I have friends whose relatives died because of religious and racial persecution in Nazi Germany and there is only so much holocaust related literature I can take as a result. Even when my book group picked the book, I was not going to read it.
Inbetween reads, I begrudgingly took it to work to read during lunchtime one day. I’ll just see what the first two very short chapters are like. Good. Then I read chapter three, in which a fictional writer, Gabriel Corte, discusses the merits of War and Peace, calling it remarkable. Well, I’m not going to disagree with that because I think it’s the greatest novel ever written (and yes, I’m joining in the readalong chez dovegreyreader this autumn. Any excuse for a reread.) Corte’s praise for W&P sealed the deal. I determined to read Suite Francaise to the end.
What an experience! The power of Nemirovsky’s writing in places breathtaking. So visual, so emotive. Certainly in Storm in July which follows the exodus of civilians fleeing from the Germans as Paris is about to fall. Civilians of all classes, the rich and privileged and the working classes, reduced to packing their belongings into the car and heading south.
Taking their chances against the Luftwaffe:
Machine-guns fired on the convoy. Death was gliding across the sky and suddenly plunged down from the heavens, wings outstretched, steel beak firing on this long line of trembling black insects crawling along the road. Everyone threw themselves to the ground; women lay on top of their children to protect them. When the firing stopped, deep furrows were left in the crowd, like wheat after a storm when the fallen stems form close, deep trenches.
Taking their chances against their fellow refugees.
Just at that moment a shadowy figure passed between Gabriel and Florence and grabbed the basket they were holding, separating them with a blow. Florence, panic-stricken, grasped her neck with both hands, shouting, “My necklace, my necklace!” But her necklace was still there, as well as the jewellry box they were carrying. The thieves had only taken their food. She made her way back safe and sound to Gabriel, who was dabbing at his painful jaw and nose, and muttering over and over again, “It’s a jungle, we’re trapped in a jungle …”
From macrocosm to microcosm, it’s very – dare I say it – Tolstyan with deliberate echoes of War and Peace e.g Hubert wandering through the battlefield of Moulins bridge = Pierre at the battle of Borodino. Showing the grand scale of events but also the individual lives and loves too. Life goes on, people cope. Even in the midst of war, there is comedy. So involving, so readable.
Events settle somewhat in part two, Dolce. France is now occupied and conquerors and conquered must learn to co-exist. Nemirovsky writing this contemporaneously, painfully aware of the danger that her Jewish descent posed, yet rising above her personal bitterness to paint a humane picture of the German forces. Usually the devil is in the detail but the devil here is in the big event, the war itself. The German troops are portrayed as victims of their circumstances as much as the French civilians. Neither are they brutal. When one of their number is murdered, the official response shocks them as much as the French. If there is any criticism at all, Nemirovsky reserves it for her own, the privileged French classes, the aristocracy, the rich and successful (Corte, despite his admiration of Tolstoy and being a victim of a mugging, is an unsympathetic so-and-so). The working classes represented by the Michauds are honourable. There’s a dubiety about the farmers. I was unsure about Benoit, patriotic as he was, he remained alien to me.
Nemirovsky paints a complex picture, allegorised in the relationship between Lucille and Bruno, discussed with relish at the book group. Even the imperfections. Odd scenes which felt out of place: the chapter written from the cat’s point-of-view and the killing of the priest. Sections that were overwritten. Would a badly wounded and delirious soldier in a convoy being attacked by the Luftwaffe really think “This is how birds must feel when the hawks circle above them …”? But these are small niggles, after all it is an unfinished work. Generally hailed as a masterpiece. The book group agreed, at the same time as lamenting the sections that Nemirovsky’s fate ensured should never be written.