Review: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.

Suite Francaise is an astonishing masterpiece, its rich and exquisite prose is perfect in its unfinished beauty. The circumstances of its creation and publication are truly remarkable, this is no overstatement. Written under the Nazi occupation by a Jewish-Ukrainian author Irene Nemirovsky, it was discovered more than half a century after her death in Auschwitz. Suite Francaise is, in fact, one of the earliest works of fiction about the occupation of France.

Born in Kiev, Irene Nemirovsky fled the Russian Revolution with her family, settling in France at the age of 16. Nemirovsky started writing in French and published a total of nine novels. A Storm in June and Suite Francaise were passed on to Nemirovsky’s daughters after the arrest of her husband Michael Epstein. Denise Nemirovsky discovered that her mother’s battered notebook contained a novel only in the 1990s.

It is a strange feeling, the realization that you’re reading a novel written almost at the time as the historical events unfolded. I couldn’t help but wonder that Irene Nemirovsky might have known some of the book characters, or rather the real people that could have inspired them, that some of the scenes from Suite Francaise may have happened around her.

The characters of Suite Francaise are connected by an intricate thread, their paths cross and collide, as the war and Nazi presence provide the perfect setting for the reveal of their true character. A Storm in June captures the flight from Paris. As the Nazis advance on the French capital, Parisian residents scramble to get out of the city. Fear, lies, petrol stealing, worries about personal goods and status while the enemy is knocking on their doors… Dolce covers the year in the life of an occupied town called Bussy. The residents are forced to host a German regiment, they learn to co-exist, accept and in some cases, see the enemy as mere men. The story of Lucille and German officer Bruno is beautifully heartbreaking. The recently-released Suite Francaise film follows the events recounted in Dolce. It is a pleasure to say that the adaptation turned out brilliantly, despite some minor plot changes.

A reviewer has once compared Suite Francaise to a bombed cathedral. There are no truer words to describe a book of such magnitude: “The ruined shell still soars to heaven, a reminder of the human spirit triumphing despite human destructiveness.”

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Review: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

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