I bought Suite Française without a second thought when I saw it in paperback the other week, mainly because ever since its hardback publication a year ago, we’ve been assured by the books of the year summaries that it’s not only the finest work of fiction published in the past year, but one of the greatest human endeavours in history. Oddly, the second might be truer than the first.
The main problem with Suite Française is that it is almost impossible to separate the novel – or the 40% of it which Irène Némirovsky completed in 1942 before she was arrested as a ‘stateless person of Jewish descent’ in France, taken to Auschwitz, and died – from the circumstances of its writing, and from the bottomless empathy and admiration which its author evokes in us. A girl escapes the revolutionary eastern bloc in the early 20th century, where her family’s fortune is seized and they travel west, where she grows up to become a famous French novelist, only to have her works banned because of her Jewish ancestry, and she ends up being taken back east on a final, grim train journey. It’s an extraordinary story: and we haven’t even got past the About the Author page yet.
But we are expected, aren’t we, to separate our knowledge of the author from our appreciation of the work. A purely hypothetical poet might be a racist and a generally miserable sod, but that doesn’t stop us enjoying his poems about weddings at Whitsun. And although Némirovsky wrote the first two parts of her projected five-part novel cycle under the sort of desperate conditions which none of us can ever really expect to encounter, that doesn’t make it a masterpiece: unless it is anyway.
What Suite Française is, is beautifully written, with a richness of detail that can only have come from a highly tuned novelist’s eye and a genuine interest in the people and country it depicts. That is, the French in Paris and the countryside as the German army invades and occupies the country in the early 1940s. The first book, Storm in June, shows a handful of families and individuals in the panic fleeing of the capital, and what makes it particularly admirable is Némirovsky’s wicked way of showing the people at their best as well as their worst, from the ridiculous and amusing behaviour of the self-obsessed writer Gabriel Comte, to the brutal deaths which take place when society is on the brink of slipping into anarchy.
The second section, Dolce, details life in an occupied village in rural France as the German occupation takes hold. Again Némirovsky is merciless in allowing her characters to turn on one another as much as, and often more than, they oppose the occupying forces. Her decision to humanise the German soldier characters gives an insight into the times without the hindsight which we all enjoy every time we read a piece of fiction based in the Second World War. At the end of the second section, did Némirovsky believe, as the villagers do, that Germans being sent off to Russia would mean the worst was over for her? And why did she shirk the issue of restrictions of movements and appointments to Jews, concentrating instead on the lives of those who would never be more than inconvenienced by the invasion, but not destroyed? Or is such a question itself an intolerable use of hindsight?
As a work of fiction, Suite Française is enjoyable but limited: it is detailed and teeming with life, but there is no overarching storyline and it is obviously incomplete. On the other hand the appendices and background tell a more exceptional and moving story than most novels themselves manage. The discovery and publication itself is the great achievement here.