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Irène Némirovsky: Suite française (Suite française)

On 10 May 1940, German troops invaded Belgium and the Netherlands and soon swept into France, arriving in Paris on 14 June. An armistice was signed between France and Germany on 22 June, dividing the country into the Northern, German-controlled area and the Vichy government in the Southern area, apart from a small area controlled by Italy. The first part of this novel is called Tempête en juin (Storm in June) and recounts the events of the period when the Germans swept towards Paris and soon occupied many parts of Northern France. It is told from the perspective of a few people, all of whom flee Paris. At the beginning of World War II, Irène Némirovsky was married with two children. She and her husband, Michel Epstein, had stayed in Paris but sent their children to Issy-l’Evêque, a small town in the centre of France, not all that far from the Swiss border. Anti-Jew laws passed by the new government mean that he can no longer work at his bank and she cannot publish her writings, at least under her own name. (Some were published under a pseudonym.) The couple rejoined their daughters in Issy-l’Evêque, where Irène spends her time writing what will become this novel. She did not live to see it published. She was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where she was later murdered. Her daughters escaped with their teacher and with the manuscript of this book.

The first family that we follow are the Péricands. They are a prosperous family. He is a museum director, while she, Charlotte, brought up their five children, albeit with the help of maids and nannies. Their oldest son, Philippe, is now a priest elsewhere, though he comes up to Paris to help evacuate the orphans from an orphanage the family sponsors. They have cars that can transport them down South. The second oldest boy, Hubert, who is seventeen, is eager to join the French forces and fight the Germans, something his parents totally oppose. Gabriel Corte also has a car. He is a successful and very snobbish writer who also has staff and who lives with his mistress, Florence. Unlike the Péricands, who more or less accept the situation though, naturally, are very concerned about it, Corte feels that the war is a personal inconvenience to him. The Michauds are the only ones we meet who are not well off. Both work for a bank. He has been working there for sometime but she had been a singing teacher but all her students had moved away so she has been given a temporary job as secretary to the managing director, Mr Corbin. Mr Corbin is married but has had a succession of mistresses who are all dancers. We meet the current one, who is in his office, saying that he must take her away. His plans including driving to Tours, where the bank has a branch, with the car carrying the Michauds and various key documents. Charles Langelet is another rich man, he has been abandoned by his staff and, despite his heart condition, is engaged in packing his valuables before leaving. He would rather die than abandon his Sèvres vases.

We follow these groups and their problems in fleeing Paris. The roads are jammed and, of course, some of them are attacked by the Germans. The stations and trains are packed. There is a huge shortage of petrol, food and lodging en route. Némirovsky gives us a superb portrait of the various problems they all encounter. Corbin’s mistress prevails and the Michauds turn up at the appointed time, only to be turned away. The trains are full and they have little money and the trains do not seem to be operating, so the only option is to walk. Corte and Florence make Tours, only to find it has almost been abandoned, with the Germans about to attack. When Corte does get some food, it is stolen from him. The Péricands have all sorts of problems – traffic, Germans, finding lodging – and then Hubert runs away to join the army. He does get involved but has no weapon so is in the way. When he does find somewhere to stay, he wakes up to find the place occupied by the Germans.

The joy of this novel is Némirovsky’s wonderfully described set pieces. There is Corte’s definition of the novel. Un roman doit ressembler à une rue pleine d’inconnus où passent deux ou trois êtres, pas davantage, que l’on connaît à fond. Regarde d’autres comme Proust, il ont su utiliser les comparses. Ils s’en servent pour humilier, pour rapétisser leurs principaux personnages. [A novel must be like a street full of unknown people where two or three pass by, no more, that you know in depth. Look how other authors, like Proust, have managed their minor characters. They use them to humiliate, to put down their main characters.] (Note that the translation is mine, not the one used in the official translation.) There is the portrait of a deserted Tours. There is a wonderful description of Hugo’s blundering into the French army’s defence of a bridge which the Germans are attacking. There are the Michauds walking to Tours, with every mother looking at passing lorries to see if her son is one of the soldiers rushing to defend France. There is Corte’s realisation that moving his money from London back to Paris, because he thought England was more likely to be invaded by the Germans than France, was not a good idea. There is the family who have stolen Corte’s food justifying it to one another. There is the takeover of the small town, where Hubert is, by just one German. And there is Jean-Marie, son of the Michauds, who is injured but then cared for on a farm, where he falls in love with one of the young women on the farm, Madeleine, a woman who is torn between becoming a nun or marrying Benoit, a local boy.

After while, some of them creep back to Paris to resume their lives there, though Paris under German occupation is obviously not what it used to be. Charles Langelet is one of those who returns. We have seen his snobbish attitude on his journey South. He admitted (to himself) that he was far more concerned about the fate of the Louvre or Rouen Cathedral than of any of the people, given that, in his view, the Louvre and the Cathedral were worth far more. Once back in Paris, he is most concerned about having his flat properly cleaned. The Péricands stay with family in Nîmes but lose some family members en route, with the grandfather hastily making his final will as he dies and Hubert seemingly dead.

The second part is called Dolce and focusses on France under German occupation. We follow the fate of the small town of Bussy, where German troops are billeted on the locals, with the commanding officer staying in the nicest house, belonging to Mme Angellier and her daughter-in-law, Lucille (Gaston, father and husband, respectively, of the two is a prisoner-of-war). The farm where Madeleine is, also in Bussy also has a German soldier billeted on them (Jean-Marie has now returned to Paris), but one who speaks good French and claims French ancestry. As this section is entirely devoted to a few inhabitants of Bussy and their relationship with the occupying German army, it is lower key but still interesting. We follow issues such as food hoarding, black marketing and theft of food, the women coping without their men and, naturally, the relationship between the various inhabitants and the Germans. The Germans generally come across quite favourably, particularly von Falk, who is lodging with the Angelliers, and Bonnet, lodging in the farm where Madeleine is. Reactions are different. Lucille becomes quite fond of von Falk, not least as she had discovered, after her husband had been taken prisoner, that he had been unfaithful to her. However, her mother-in-law refuses to speak to a German, as long as her son remains a prisoner-of-war. Some women have romantic relationships with German soldiers, while, in a couple of cases, Germans are killed. The Germans requisition food but the locals manage to find ways around this. Then, suddenly, the Germans leave in June 1941, presumably for the invasion of Russia. This is where the book abruptly breaks off, unfinished.

This book has garnered considerable praise and rightly so. Considering it was written by a woman who very much feared for her own safety and the safety of her family, quite justifiably as it turned out, it is a first-class novel. Némirovsky’s great skill is the descriptions of how various people react to what is a highly traumatic event, and what happens when they do react and how they adjust to the difficult situation after the event. Her descriptions are so vivid, it is almost as though she were there with the people. This book has now become a classic of twentieth century French literature and deservedly so.

Publishing history

First published in French in 2004 by Denoël
First published in English in 2006 by Chatto & Windus