Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

43944Fiction — print. Translated from the French. Vintage, 2006. 431 pgs. Purchased.

Némirovsky’s novel has been on my shelf since it was first published. While I try to avoid picking books based on their authors unless I’ve read a work by them previously, Némirovsky wrote this novel while in hiding from the Nazis and I was intrigued on what this newly discovered novel contained.

“The sun came up, fiery red, in a cloudless sky. A shell was fired, no so close to Paris that from the top of every monument birds rose into the sky. Great black birds, rarely seen at other times, stretched out their pink-tinged wings. Beautiful fat pigeons cooed; swallows wheeled; sparrows hopped peacefully in their deserted streets. Along the Seine each popular tree held a cluster of little brown birds who sang as loudly as they could. From deep beneath the ground came the muffled noise everything had been waiting for, a sort of three-tone fanfare. The air raid was over.” (pg. 5)

I wrote yesterday about how the novel has made me excited for a class I’m taking next semester as the novel portrays resistance during the occupation of France, but this occurs more in the second part of the novel entitled “Dolce”. I struggled with the first part of the novel, “Storm in June”, because every time I would pick the novel back up it felt like I had never even started it. That may be because the first part deals with the evacuation from Paris, the frantic actions of people who feel like they are in the path of the butcher.

“Silently, with no lights on, cars kept coming, one after the other, full to bursting with baggage and furniture, prams and birdcages, packing cases and baskets of clothes, each with a mattress tied firmly to the roof. They looked like mountains of fragile scaffolding and they seemed to move without the aid of a motor, propelled by their own weight down the sloping streets to the town square. Cars filled all the roads into the square. People were jammed together like fish caught in a net, and one good tug on that net would have picked them all up and thrown them down on to some terrifying river bank. There was no crying or shouting; even the children were quiet. Everything seemed calm. From time to time a face would appear over a lowered window and stare up at the sky for a while, wondering. A low, muffled murmur rose up from the crowd, the sound of painful breathing sigs and conversations held in hushed voices, as if people were afraid of being overheard by an enemy lying in wait. Some tried to sleep, heads leaning on the corner of a suitcase, legs aching on a narrow beach or a warm cheek pressed against a window. Young men and women called to one another from the cars and sometimes laughed. Then a dark shape would glide across the star-covered sky, everyone would look up and the laughter would stop. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call fear, rather a strange sadness – a sadness that had nothing human about it any more, for it lacked both courage and hope. This was how animals waited to die. It was the way fish caught in a net watch the shadow of the fisherman moving back and forth above them.” (pg. 45-46)

The descriptions are beautifully written, are they not? According to the preface in my edition, Némirovsky planned for this to be a novel in five parts but only two were written before she was deported to Auschwitz. Oddly enough, the novel did not feel unfinished to me, and even so I’m not sure if I could have read three more sections.

Don’t get me wrong. It is beautifully written and I think it’s portrayal of war, evacuation, and occupation is something to be cherished. I certainly plan to bring the book to my professor’s attention. With “Storm in June” there is no climax and too many characters — some I liked more than others — muddling the story for me. It is simply a collection of descriptions of several families and individuals as they flee Paris on the eve of its fall into German hands. Because it did not go through revision due to the author’s deportation and death, it comes across as disorganized and had it not been the only book I had with me, I probably would not have continued on to the next section of the novel (or finished the first, for that matter).

The second section was much more riveting, even if it did move slowly, it part because it played more into my own interests of resistance against and life under occupation. She shows the humanity and hypocrisies of her cast of characters wonderfully in this section because the tale slows down and focuses on one story for an extended period of time.

Do I plan to read more by Némirovksy? Probably because there are snippets and sections of beauty in this novel and I’m intrigued to read more, even if she has been accused of being anti-Semitic herself with regards to her previous works (although this does not come into play with this particular novel).

Others’ Thoughts:


  1. The writing is quite beautiful! I’ve had this one on the shelf for years and am not quite sure why I’ve never actually picked it up. Though I’ll admit part of the reason why I picked up this book in the first place was because of Némirovsky’s story.

    Your school course looks facsinating!


  2. Pingback: Sunday Salon: The Holocaust and Fiction | Ardent Reader

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