Suite Française

20th Century
This edition printed in:

A tortoiseshell cat stands beside Suite Française.

Tokens of Affection for a Bad Day

Yesterday wasn’t a very good day. It started with waiting for an appointment followed by some bad news. Though I’m going to be fine and I’m grateful for that, it still was hard to hear and hard to accept. I’m still frightened. My lovely spouse is there beside me and she takes such good care of me. In the afternoon she took me to the local independent bookstore and bought a few books for me. She took time off of work to calm me down. We went on a walk, we got coffee, and she bought me a few presents — a new birdfeeder, and some birdseed.

Her presents mean so much even if they aren’t expensive. She always gives me them as tokens of her affection, carefully chosen, and gifted with love and the hope that I’ll feel better. More than the gifts themselves, she gives me a moment to breathe and to lose myself in books and laughter and just being in her presence. She makes me feel so special, even when it seems like everything is going wrong and the world is spinning backwards on its axis. I can’t find the words to convey how loved I feel, and how much I love her.

A tortoiseshell cat stands in front of Suite Française.

Recovered From a Suitcase

Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française is actually two novels – Storm in June, and Dolce – with notes for a third included (at least in my edition) and two more planned but never realized. The story behind the work is a fascinating one in and of itself. Némirovsky wrote the two novels in 1942, but was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz where she died of typhoid. The novels and notes were kept in a suitcase and taken by her daughter when she fled from the Nazis during the war. After that, the suitcase remained unopened until 1998.

Némirovsky’s writing is something that nearly defies description. It’s lyrical, concise, and has a poetry that conjures the moment in history with a vividness that I’ve rarely seen an author accomplish. She balances plot with detail in a way that gives the reader a snapshot not just of the lives of the characters but also of everything that’s going on around them and leads to a stunning amount of impact when violence erupts. Even after you put the book down, it haunts you.

A tortoiseshell cat stands on top of Suite Française.

The tragedy of Némirovsky’s short life and its end cuts into the novels and lends them a turmoil that the reader can feel coming off of the page. It is so fortunate that these novels were not lost to time, because the world would have lost writing that I would consider a masterpiece.

Novels Written in Time

The two novels of the suite that survive tell the story of the exodus from Paris just before the Nazi occupation as well as that of the occupation itself, following several characters as they flee to the French countryside. Some of them remain in exile while others return to the city. Some have family that are soldiers, others have already lost loved ones in the confusion of the fall of Paris. Still more are dealing with the realities of being confronted with enemy soldiers and suddenly living in close quarters with them.

One of the unique aspects of Suite Française is that it was written at the time it is set. That might seem unremarkable, but it actually is quite amazing. Némirovksy was going through a lot and experiencing a series of personal tragedies, yet she still managed to write these novels with an objective eye. She captures a moment in time and uses it to make a bold, compelling statement about human nature and how the war changed lives in both large and small ways. What she emphasizes is the experience of a cross-section of people of different classes, genders, and backgrounds. She compares and contrasts the ways in which people deal with war, death, uncertainty, hunger, turmoil, politics, and a gathering storm of disaster on the horizon. Suite Française is composed of so many stories rolled into one, forming a lush landscape with a depth that shows the skill of Némirovsky’s writing.

The inside cover of Suite Française.

Suite Française is definitely worth the read and the difficulty of finding a copy.

When History Comes Alive

I’ve read quite a few narratives set during the events of the WWII, some of which are based on real experiences of the authors or members of their families, but Suite Française really stands out among them. I think it is the distance that Némirovsky manages to maintain while at the same time still bringing a sense of closeness to the narrative. It’s clear when you read Suite Française that she is speaking from experience and that she also is a keen observer of people and events around her. Combining these two is what produced Suite Française, and Némirovsky’s ability to produce the perfect mix of elements is what makes it so special.

A tortoiseshell cat stands beside Suite Française.

History seems to come alive when you read this novel. Like it’s a living, breathing piece of time that is being revived in front of you so that you can share in Némirovsky’s observations and her story.

It Can Be As Simple As Dinner

My lovely spouse had another surprise for me. She insisted on buying take-out so that we didn’t have to cook and could spend that time together. So she ordered food, we picked it up, and then came home and ate it and talked. I usually don’t like surprises, but she always knows how to surprise me in the best way.

A tortoiseshell cat stands beside Suite Française.

I can’t believe that this is the third review in March already! Next week I’ll be reviewing Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea.

Notify of
Inline Feedback
View all comments