Suite Francaise – a Review

Irene Nemirovsky’s tale of 1940s France is a story of dualities; it is good versus evil, rich versus poor, the conquered versus the conquerors, complete versus incomplete, birth versus death. The original idea for the novel was penned by Nemirovsky in the few years prior to her execution (1938-1942), written in horrendously small hand-writing over pages and pages of loose-leaf (rationed), all while the Germans were indeed occupying France – the central tenet of the multiple plots. Many of the vignettes within the novel parallel her own migration throughout France as she and her family attempted to find refuge within a war torn nation.

The two stories in one were to be part of five as detailed in her notes, similar to the way in which Beethoven expressed his fifth symphony (a musical suite). She had wanted five different themes all overlapping into a common few characters which she had heartily developed. While the idea was brilliant, the murder of Irene Nemirovsky prevents the reader from fully engaging into the complexity of the overlapping themes, and just as a song snippet leaves one wanting more, so too, does this novel.

By far the most engaging part of the novel is the Appendix, which further details the five sonnets, as well as discloses the unbelievable atrocities of genocide within the numerous letters between Irene and her husband, Michel, and other diplomats within Europe bidding on their half-Jewish lives.

The actual story is unfinished, yet the ideals behind the story are rich and strong, as time and again, Nemirovsky mocks the rich fleeing Paris as more concerned with their linens and china than able to stand up for their nation. An irony of sorts as it proves to be the French police acting on behalf of the Germans that actually arrest Irene and ultimately sentence her to death, sending her to Auschwitz. This unbenounced parallel theme is further evolved within the first portion of her novel, as one of the characters, Father Phillipe – a young dynamic priest who is portrayed as the light and the good is savagely murdered by the very orphans that he is trying to help, or when Madame Pericand is not able to abandon her house without her freshly pressed linens, yet able to leave her father-in-law behind. France, as a whole, is portrayed as abandoning and destroying its own.

Nemirovsky was born in Russia to a Jewish father and a Russian mother, and fled the Bolsheviks in 1917 at the height of the Russian revolution ( ). She lived in France as a novelist for 15 years prior to the German occupation, yet was never able to gain French citizenship and was considered a stateless Jew. Several months following Irene’s execution, Michel was also arrested by the French police and sent to Auschwitz where he, too, was gassed to death (1942). Their two surviving children fled from place to place in the hands of their nanny, Julia Dumont, all the while carrying a suitcase of manuscripts that would eventually become Suite Francaise, and would prove anything but ‘sweet’ in detailing man’s inhumanity to man.

Gaza and Israel need to revisit this piece of history, and perhaps learn the lesson that there is no-one without blood on their hands, and in the end, it is themselves that they are killing.

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