Category Irene Nemirovsky

Guest blogger: Richard Pike, Rights Manager

Suite Francaise Irene NemirovskySuite Française is a book that had been on my reading list for several years.  I’d heard it being talked about so often, that I suppose I understood its importance without ever really knowing what it’s about.  When I saw it would be the subject of discussion at the seventh Two Roads Book Club, I thought it time to discover what makes this novel such an enduring topic of conversation.

Irène Némirovsky was already a successful author when, in 1941, she started to plan an ambitious new project – a 1,000 page novel in five parts, a symphonic story of the lives of the French under occupation.  Tragically the novel would remain unfinished.  Némirovsky, of Russian and Jewish descent, was taken under arrest to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942.  She died, at the age of 39, in August that same year.

The manuscript for the first movements of Suite Française, as well as notes for the final three parts (including, poignantly, ‘Peace’) were undiscovered until the late nineties, when Némirovsky’s daughter began typing up her mother’s writing in order to preserve it.  You can guess what happened next.  An incredible story appeared once more on the page, and in 2004 Suite Française was published for the first time. As Will had mentioned in his letter, the book’s very existence was a remarkable story in its own right.

The uncompleted novel is divided in to two parts.  The first, ‘Storm in June’, set in 1940, follows several characters as they flee Paris and make their way in the chaos that ensues. The second, ‘Dolce’, tells the story of the residents of Bussy, a small town coming to terms with life under German occupation for the third time.

As Will had guessed, we found it impossible to discuss Suite Française without referring to the context in which it was written.  Némirovsky describes events so recent in her memory, that it’s hard not to see the novel as a semi-historical document of France at that time.  For many of us it invited us to reconsider what we thought we knew about the Second World War, and we found a greater appreciation of how different people’s experiences of war could be.

Despite their terrible situation, we collectively felt little sympathy for many of the characters in the book, especially those from the higher levels of society, whose true nature is exposed when their behaviour is contrasted with the simply described suffering of the lower classes. It’s an interesting study of human character under duress, with events such as the Péricands forgetting to bring an elderly family member with them as they flee, or the wealthy Charles Langelet stealing fuel from unsuspecting refugees, helping to create a quite damning conclusion.

We also questioned how we ourselves would react under occupation. It may seem easy to pass judgment on the villagers of Bussy and others for their acceptance of the occupation, but when we were each put on the spot, several of us admitted that we would have acted similarly.  When so much of our identity is defined by our relationships, our homes, our career, is it really so simple to give up everything for something as uncertain as resistance?

We also touched upon how different life would have been in a world without twenty-four hour news and Twitter.  The fear and uncertainty that those fleeing Paris would have been multiplied by their not knowing what was really happening in the rest of France.

This is a book of many themes, too many for us to discuss in the space of one hour, but the beauty of Némirovsky’s writing is that the author’s own opinions or agenda are never overbearing or explicit.  Her narrative, in the style of the very best documentaries, prompts and provokes, but leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

And so this meeting of the Two Roads Book Club drew to a close.  As with all unfinished works of art, it’s easy to wonder ‘what might have been’. We were certainly left with the feeling that there was more to come after the slower pace of ‘Dolce’.  However, I think we did all appreciate the merits of what does exist.

The group was split when considering whether we would read more of the author’s work, but we all agreed that Suite Française challenged us to think again about a period that we had thought we understood well, and that the book’s very existence was a quite remarkable and important story in itself.

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