The French collection

Suite Française Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not personally keen on historical fiction. I like the idea in principle but not in practice. Somehow, despite the drama of the events, I’m not very susceptible to the charms of reading about fictional people in real times, nor about fictional accounts of real people. Suite Française is an exception, albeit one that came upon me by accident.

This book was given to me by a relative who had just read it, though the buzz around this book when it was first released was enough to make me interested. Like most novels I suppose, it was written in the present time and populated with characters who were fully contemporary. It only becomes a historical novel in consideration of the time it was first published: 2004. But the only thing that separates it from a story written in 2004 about 2004 is that this was written in 1942 about 1942, which was arguably a much more interesting and significant time. A lot of attention is given to the fact that this book is the first piece of fiction written about World War II, and that it was written when the outcome of the war was still unknown. These are the kind of interesting facts that makes one want to read this book. Add to that the fact that Némirovsky, already a successful writer, wrote this while in fear of her life, with paper and ink that she could scarcely afford to buy, and only very shortly before being sent to Auschwitz and killed like any other victims of the Holocaust. Add these element up and you’ve got the must-read book of 2004.

So is it really all that good, or is it an overrated beneficiary of all the well-publicised circumstances which surrounded it? While I’m not the best critic of literature (given the kind of thing I normally prefer to read) this book does have many of the trappings of literary fiction that don’t interest me, like long slow passages in which very little happens apart from the progression of characters’ thoughts. And the inclusion of a chapter told from the point of view of a cat is the kind of thing that I see as a bit silly and which, had the author had the chance to edit the book after the completion of the first draft, may well have been excised or changed.

But there is a lot in this book to recommend it. Némirovsky’s skills in creating characters was formidable. I found them all to be just that little bit exaggerated. An Example is the seemingly ineffectual bank clerk so meek and humble that he accepts his sad circumstances as if they were the best he could have hoped for anyway. Another is the writer whose sensibilities condemn the war for artistic reasons, and who flees town with his latest in a string of muses/mistresses. There’s also the Catholic priest who knows that he doesn’t understand children, and that he doesn’t really have much love for the parishioners under his care, and who in an effort to change this ends up falling foul of the young people he’s trying to learn to love.

The way the chapters play out in the first section of the book is a bit fragmentary. The different characters share a more or less common purpose, but otherwise have little to do with one another. The chapters flit back and forth between their various stories, giving them all their own chance to shine. It’s a storytelling technique that I really enjoyed, and haven’t seen very often.

The second section is more cohesive, being the story of German soldiers being billeted civilian families in the French village of Bussy, and most specifically one particular German soldier who is billeted with a mother and daughter, the latter of whom finds herself having quite tender feelings for this Nazi invader. It’s impressive that Némirovsky, as much a victim of the Nazis as the characters in her book, was able to see them and depict them as human beings.

There’s a lot more to like in this book than I have mentioned here. There may also be more to dislike, but as I alluded to earlier the author never had the opportunity of editing her work so. It is a rarity to be able to read a first draft which is also a very strong piece of literature.

I recommend this book very highly. It’s an important piece of fiction which gives an authentic window on the lives of the people who lived through these events.

I wish Némirovsky had been able to finish it. Nevertheless, it functions well as a complete work.

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