The International Fiction Book Club meeting of November 16th, 2011 delved into the novel, Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. First published in France in 2004, sixty-two years after the author was put to death in the gas chamber at Auschwitz, this book proves to be the first document in novel form about the German invasion and occupation of France since it was written while the events described were happening. According to an interview published in the book, Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française, Némirovsky’s daughter, Denise Epstein, received a valise from her father, as he was being taken away by the Nazis, and was told it contained her “mama’s notebook”. The dramatic tale of how the “notebook” survived is fascinating in itself as the author’s two daughters barely managed to avoid capture by French collaborationists and spent time in hiding and in an orphanage and then later in a boarding school. While in hiding, Denise kept the valise by her side but when sent off to school it was kept by a notary until she came of legal age. For many years she could not bear to open the notebook, thinking it was her mother’s personal diary and would be too painful to read. When she finally transcribed the minute handwriting (so to save the scarce paper supply) she realized she was dealing with the first two parts of a planned five part novel concerning the exodus from Northern France (“Storm in June”) and the occupation of a small French town by German soldiers (“Dolce”).
From her notes, we can better understand the grand plan that Némirovsky envisioned. The first part “Storm in June” acts as a prelude while “Dolce”, in Italian, is a musical term that means sweet and slow. Her intent was to show the “struggle between personal destiny and collective destiny”. As one participant in the discussion said, “this book provides an intimate look at the occupation of France…very personal and immediate…the prose is lyrical [yet] restrained”. By describing little vignettes of those fleeing the bombing, the author gives us a telescopic view of upper-class interiors instantly submerged through panic into the domain of the exterior populace that makes up the lower classes.
From the wealthy Pericand family, with the grandfather’s threats to leave his fortune to a home for wayward youth, to the bourgeois writer Gabriel Corte, Némirovsky nimbly uses descriptive detail but never overdoes the scene. She manages to parcel out satire with deft awareness as in her juxtaposition of the aristocratic art collector Charles Langelet stealing petrol in order to continue his escape with the Pericand’s cat sinking his teeth into a bleeding bird. Némirovsky deals out the mad reactions to the panic as Monsieur Corbin, the banker, chooses his mistress and her dog while leaving his middle class clerk and his wife, the Michauds, with an ultimatum to catch the train for the branch bank on threat of dismissal. Since the tracks were bombed the Michauds begin walking and as a result are both fired.
Another participant in the discussion remarked he was “amazed that this woman, who in occupied France had to wear the yellow star and suffer great humiliation because of it, was able to prevent bringing in that personal experience into her characters”. This led to a discussion of some Jewish criticism that refers to Némirovsky as an anti-Semite because she published some short stories in a journal that also published anti-Semetic propaganda. True, there are no Jewish characters in the novel, but the art collector, Charles Langelet, at one point bemoans the current conditions while being thankful he is not Jewish. He is by no means a sympathetic character and, upon his return to Paris, after the armistice is signed, he is run down by a car and killed in the darkened street just after the stingy hiring of a maid for his apartment. After his death in the street we are propelled back to the apartment where the maid tips over an expensive vase. The biographers of Irène Némirovsky revealed that the Langelet character was based on a well-known right-wing journalist of the time.
The proposed third section of the novel was to be called “Captivity” and, as the events were unfolding, she writes in capitals in her notes, “FOR CAPTIVITY FOR THE CONCENTRATION CAMP THE BLASPHEMY OF THE BAPTISED JEWS… MAY GOD FORGIVE US OUR TRESSPASSES AS WE FORGIVE YOURS”. Mainly, for her children sake it appears, Némirovsky converted to Catholicism in 1939. She never practiced the Jewish faith and hated her mother but hated hypocrisy even more. She reserved the cruelest fate of any character for Father Philippe, the oldest son of the Pericand family and a priest. He was given the duty of evacuating the group of wayward boys from the home that received the grant from the elder Pericand. Along the way through the countryside the priest stops at intervals to pray for the strength to manage this group of boys. He dislikes the troubled youth and they in turn take advantage to steal from a farmer’s cottage. When he tries to stop them, they stone him to death. He ends up stuck in the mud of a stream trying to escape their throws.
During the German occupation of a small town, similar to the one where Némirovsky lived at the time she was writing the novel, an uneasy romance of a sort is played out between a cultured German officer and one of the occupants of the house where he is billeted. Lucille, whose husband is a prisoner of war and who she was never in love with, strikes up an uneasy friendship with the officer. Her mother-in-law lives in the house and despises the German but has to put up with him. Although Lucille is friendly with the officer, she dramatically resists him when he makes advances. She also agrees to hide an escaped French soldier who killed another German officer who he suspected of making advances to his wife.
It is clear that Némirovsky wanted to write a book about how the German invasion and occupation of France exposed the differences in classes which led to such hypocrisy and even collaboration. Some of the cultured class in French society felt more of a bond with the German occupying force than with their own people who were beneath them on the class scale. Rather than feeling empathetic with the masses leaving Paris, Charles Langelet says, “All the men looked like bandits, the women like con artists”. Her plan for “Captivity” included the wealthy author Corte becoming a collaborator only to become disillusioned. It was obvious that everyone in attendance at our meeting agreed that Némirovsky’s novel speaks for itself. She only published in a right-wing journal when she, as a Jew, was turned down by her usual publishers. After publishing a short story in such a manner, she made note that she feels, “like someone who makes fine lace in the midst of savages”.
Though most of the plot focuses on small events, a panoramic view of the French capitulation, there are enough mentions of the conflict at large to put things in perspective. Every so often, between sketches of major character development, the author uses minor characters or un-named French voices to draw back from the personal and note the horrors of large scale war. One example we discussed was the fate of three sons of a local blacksmith. One was a prisoner of war, the other killed in battle and the third missing at Mers-el-Kébir. This was a reference to the Algerian port and the sinking of the French fleet by the British. According to her idea of the novel found in Némirovsky’s notes:
The most important and most interesting thing here is
the following: the historical, revolutionary facts etc.
must be only lightly touched upon, while the daily life,
the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides
must be described in detail.
This book relies on the intensive quality of each sentence as the author probes the soul of the French populace. It is the youngest Pericand son, Hubert age 17, who remarks, …“everywhere you look, chaos, cowardice, vanity and ignorance! What a wonderful race we are!”
If there are heroes to find, they are Hubert, who joins the French army though he is underage, and Jean Marie who escapes from a POW camp and is set to fall in love with Lucille in “Captivity” but when he finds out that she still has feelings for the German officer sets off once again to fight the Germans. Némirovsky had faith in the French youth and was looking forward to a fourth section entitled, “Battles” and alas, a fifth section, “Peace”. She would not live to see peace again but the document she left behind is an incredible testament to the search for truth in a time of crisis.
Our next selection for the International Fiction Book Club is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. We will be meeting the evening of December 21st at the historic Blum House next door to the Collinsville Memorial Public Library. Copies of the book may be checked out at the front desk.
Posted By: Jim Krapf