Suite française (Némirovsky)
|Cover artist||Roger Viollet|
|31 October 2004|
|Pages||434 pp (first edition, paperback)|
|ISBN||ISBN 978-2-207-25645-9 (first edition, paperback)|
|LC Class||PQ2627.E4 S85 2004|
Suite française (French; "The French Suite") is the title of a planned sequence of five novels by Irène Némirovsky, a French writer of Ukrainian-Jewish origin. In July 1942, having just completed the first two of the series, Némirovsky was arrested as a Jew and detained at Pithiviers and then Auschwitz, where she died. The notebook containing the two novels was preserved by her daughters but not examined until 1998. They were published in a single volume entitled Suite française in 2004.
The sequence was to portray life in France in the period following June 1940, the month in which the invading German army rapidly defeated the defending French; Paris and northern France immediately came under German occupation on June 14. The first novel, Tempête en juin ("Storm in June") depicts the flight of citizens from Paris in the hours preceding the German advance and in the days following it. The second, Dolce ("Sweet"), shows life in a small French country town, Bussy (in the suburbs just east of Paris), in the first, strangely peaceful, months of the German occupation. These first two novels seem able to exist independently from each other on first reading. The links between them are rather tenuous; as Némirovsky observes in her notebook, it is the history, and not the characters, that unite them.
The third novel, Captivité ("Captivity"), for which Némirovsky left a bare plot outline, would have shown the coalescing of a resistance, with some characters introduced in Tempête en juin and Dolce now under arrest and under threat of death, in Paris. The fourth and fifth novels would perhaps have been called Batailles ("Battles") and La Paix ("Peace"), but these exist only as titles in Némirovsky's notebook, against which she had placed question marks. Nothing can be said about the storylines of Batailles and La Paix. To quote Némirovsky's notes, they are "in limbo, and what limbo! It's really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens."
Tempête en juin
The narrative follows several groups of characters who encounter one another rarely if at all. All are impelled to flee from Paris in advance of the impending German entry into the city. As transport and distribution collapse under German bombardment, all have to change their plans and nearly all lose their veneer of civilization.
The Péricands are making for Nîmes, where they have property. They reach the city, but in the course of the journey Charlotte Péricand's senile father-in-law is left behind (forgotten!) while her second son, Hubert, runs away to join the army and shares in its collapse. Her elder son, Philippe, is a priest and is shepherding a party of orphans, who eventually kill him (in a death scene perhaps in need of revision, Némirovsky comments in her notebook, because it is melo [melodramatic]). Gabriel Corte, a well-known writer, flees with his current mistress and makes for Vichy where he may or may not find refuge and employment. Charles Langelet, an aesthete, flees alone in his car, filching petrol from too-trusting acquaintances in order to get as far as the Loire; he returns to Paris and is killed, accidentally and memorably.
Maurice and Jeanne Michaud, minor employees at a bank, are instructed to go to Tours though deprived at the last minute of the transport promised by their employer. Their son, Jean-Marie, is with the army, and they have no word of his fate. They cannot get to Tours and eventually return to Paris, jobless and almost resourceless, but destined to survive. Jean-Marie is in fact wounded; he is being tended by the Sabarie family at their small farm near Bussy, where he is nursed back to health by Madeleine, the Sabaries' foster daughter. At the end of the novel, as postal services are restored, Jean-Marie is able to contact his family and return to Paris. The Michauds, alone among major characters, grow in moral stature as chaos spreads.
The small town of Bussy and its neighbouring farms are the scene throughout. The German occupation seems sweetly peaceful, but there is no doubt over the balance of power: the Germans get whatever they ask for, official notices promise the death penalty for those who disobey their regulations, and French collaborators, including the Péricands, make their own settlement with their German overlords.
The major storyline concerns Lucile Angellier, whose unfaithful husband is a prisoner of war. She lives, uneasily, with her mother-in-law. Theirs being the best house in the village, it is where the German commander, Bruno von Falk, an accomplished musician, is billeted. Unwillingly Lucile finds herself falling in love with him. In this and several parallel strands, the novel explores the deep, perhaps unbridgeable, differences, and the perhaps superficial sympathies, between military Germans and rural French.
The lesser storyline concerns the family of Benoît Sabarie, a prisoner of war who escapes from German captivity, returns home to the family farm near Bussy, marries his fiancée Madeleine, and believes (with some justification) that she still pines for Jean-Marie Michaud, whom she nursed during his recovery. Jealous by nature, Benoît also believes that Madeleine risks being seduced by the German interpreter, Bonnet, who is billeted in their house. Caught poaching, arrested for possessing a gun, Benoît struggles free and shoots Bonnet dead. (In her notebook, Némirovsky mentions a possible revision where Bonnet is wounded, not killed.)
The novel's two storylines come together when, at Madeleine's request, Lucile conceals Benoît in her house: it is widely assumed that Bruno's presence in the house, and his liking for Lucile personally, will protect her against searches. The need to conceal Benoît brings Lucile and her mother-in-law closer; it drives her apart from Bruno, though he never knows why.
After an astonishing and powerful scene in which German troops celebrate the first anniversary of their entry into Paris, Dolce ends in July 1941, when, far across Europe, Germany begins its invasion of the Soviet Union. The troops occupying Bussy are posted to the Eastern Front. Both Lucile and Bruno fear that he will not survive. She has no difficulty in persuading him to give her a travel document and petrol coupon which (unknown to him) will enable her to drive Benoît to a new refuge.
The title of Dolce, like that of the whole sequence, intentionally recalls musical terminology: dolce means "sweet" or "soft" in musicians' Italian. This title is truthful but also ironic. Bitter emotions exist under the surface, and a far less peaceful sequel was to follow.
The plot of Némirovsky's third novel exists as a plot outline, with some contradictions, in her notebook. Benoît has "friends" (the nascent Communist resistance) in Paris. Lucile drives him to the city, where he is concealed by the Michauds, whom the Angelliers met briefly in Tempête en juin.
In Paris, both Benoît and Jean-Marie Michaud are eventually denounced and arrested and, in prison, meet Hubert. Jean-Marie is pardoned by the Germans when Lucile contacts Bruno von Falk on his behalf. Benoît and his friends organize an escape and release Jean-Marie and Hubert. Jean-Marie and Lucile meet and fall in love. But after learning that she is still in love with Bruno, he leaves to fight against the Germans and dies heroically. On the Eastern Front, Bruno is also killed. Lucile loses both her French and German beloveds.
In a second storyline, the writer Gabriel Corte, a relatively minor and unsympathetic character in Tempête en juin, emerges as a propagandist and politician, initially collaborating with the Germans, later, perhaps, disaffected. Benoît dies brutally and full of hope.
The manuscript and its rediscovery
Suite française, so far as it was completed, was written in microscopic handwriting in a single notebook; Tempête and Dolce together filled 140 pages, corresponding to 516 published pages. It was possibly the earliest work of literary fiction about World War II, and is remarkable as a historical novel sequence written during the very period that it depicts, transformed far beyond the level of a journal of events such as might be expected to emerge from the personal turmoil and tragedy Némirovsky experienced.
Ironically, her elder daughter, Denise, kept the notebook containing the manuscript of Suite française for fifty years without reading it, believing that it would indeed be a journal or diary too painful to read. In the late 1990s, however, having made arrangements to donate her mother's papers to a French archive, Denise decided to examine the notebook first. At last discovering what it contained, she instead had it published in France, where it became a bestseller in 2004.
Suite française was published by Denoël, Paris, in 2004. ISBN 2-207-25645-6; pocket edition (Folio) ISBN 2-07-033676-X. The edition includes a preface by Myriam Anissimov, notes by Némirovsky about the revision and planned continuation of the sequence, and correspondence between Némirovsky herself, her husband Michel Epstein, her publisher Albin Michel and others in the period before and after her deportation.
Suite française won the Prix Renaudot for 2004. This is the first time that the prize has been awarded posthumously.
An English translation by Sandra Smith was published by Chatto & Windus, London, 2004, and by Knopf, New York, in 2006. ISBN 1-4000-4473-1. An Indonesian translation by Mimi Benetto and Lenah Susianty was published by Qanita, Jakarta, in 2011. ISBN 978-602-8579-80-3.
The film rights to Suite française were purchased by Universal in 2006. Production began to move forward in 2012, with Saul Dibb (The Duchess) writing and directing, Matt Charman co-writing and Michelle Williams starring as Lucille Angellier alongside Kristin Scott Thomas as her mother-in-law, and Matthias Schoenaerts as Bruno. Filming began in Belgium and Paris in June 2013. 
Suite francaise was published to high acclaim from critics. The book received a 95/100 weighted average on the old Metacritic site, based on the reviews of 19 critics. In The New York Times, Paul Gray called the book "stunning" and argued that it ranks with "the greatest, most humane and incisive fiction that conflict has produced. Janice Kulyk Keefer of The Globe and Mail wrote the book was " miraculous for the power, brilliance and beauty of the writing, and for the very wholeness".
Similarities with other novels
Some readers have noticed similarities between Bruce Marshall's 1943 novel Yellow Tapers for Paris and Irène Némirovsky's Suite française which was written at about the same time, but not discovered until 1998. There is no suggestion of plagiarism—Némirovsky was dead before Marshall's novel was published and no one saw Némirovsky's work before its 1998 discovery. Both works have major characters who work in finance: Marshall's protagonist is an accountant while Némirovsky's work has several characters who work for a bank. Both books were written during and/or immediately after the events in question, but show significant reflection; they are not autobiographical works, but fiction featuring invented characters. The stories cover the leadup to the Nazi invasion and its immediate aftermath, but the events of the respective stories are much different. Marshall's ends before the occupation, while Némirovsky's has significant portions devoted to it.
"Dolce," the second part of Suite française, is also similar to Le Silence de la Mer, a novella by the French author Vercors (pseudonym of Jean Bruller). Both stories deal with a German officer, who in civilian life was a composer, who is quartered in the house of a young French woman. Both Suite française and Le Silence de la Mer were finished in early 1942.
Several reviewers and commentators have raised questions regarding Némirovsky's attitude toward Jews, her generally negative depiction of Jews in her writing and her use of anti-semitic publications in advancing her career. A review of her work published in The New Republic states:
Némirovsky was the very definition of a self-hating Jew. Does that sound too strong? Well, here is a Jewish writer who owed her success in France entre deux guerres in no small measure to her ability to pander to the forces of reaction, to the fascist right. Némirovsky's stories of corrupt Jews-- some of them even have hooked noses, no less!--appeared in right-wing periodicals and won her the friendship of her editors, many of whom held positions of power in extreme-right political circles. When the racial laws in 1940 and 1941 cut off her ability to publish, she turned to those connections to seek special favors for herself, and even went so far as to write a personal plea to Marshal Pétain.
- "Michelle Williams in talks for ‘Suite Francaise’". Variety.
- "Suite française (2014)". IMDb. 1 March 2015. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
- "Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky: Reviews". Archived from the original on 1 February 2008. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
- Gray, Paul (April 6, 2006). "Review: Suite Francaise". The New York Times. Retrieved August 27, 2014.
- Kulyk Keefer, Janice (April 15, 2006). "Suite Francaise". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved August 27, 2014.
- "100 novels everyone should read". Telegraph.co.uk. 4 September 2014. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
- "Yellow Tapers for Paris & Suite Française". http://hankarcher.blogspot.com.
- Nextbook: Behind the Legend
- Jeffries, Stuart (22 February 2007). "Truth, lies and anti-semitism". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 24 May 2010.
- Scandale Française
- Irène Némirovsky website informally linked with the French publishers of Suite française
- "As France Burned": review of the English translation of Suite Française by Paul Gray, New York Times Book Review, 9 April 2006
- Excerpt from Suite française