Suite française


The plots and characterization of highly episodic novels often strike me as somehow "thin," and I often have trouble appreciating them as a result. So I was surprised, partway through Irène Némirovsky's Suite française (a tapestry of vignettes set during the German invasion of Paris and occupation of rural France), to find that I was not only liking but loving it. What differentiated this, then, from other episodic novels? For me, it was Némirovsky's unerring ability to pinpoint the tactile quality of a moment in time, suspended motionless but with all its past baggage and future uncertainty still intact, rendering her vignettes eloquent enough to stand on their own or as part of a larger narrative. Tempête en juin, in particular—the first section of this projected five-part novel, of which only two parts were ever completed—was constantly surprising me with the unexpectedness of its emotional insight. Take, for example, the Michaud couple, husband and wife, middle-class bank employees preparing to flee the city with the rest of the Parisians as the Germans advance. Némirovsky describes the process of lovingly cleaning and cleaning the flat, even in the full knowledge that it will likely be bombed or otherwise destroyed before they ever see it again:

Les Michaud s'étaient levés à cinq heures du matin pour avoir le temps de faire l'appartement à fond avant de le quitter. Il était évidemment étrange de prendre tant de soin de choses sans valeur et condamnées, selon toutes probabilités, à disparaître dès que les premières bombes tomberaient sur Paris. Mais, pensait Mme Michaud, on habille et on pare bien les morts qui sont destinés à pourrir dans la terre. C'est un denier homage, une preuve suprème d'amour à ce qui fut cher.
[The Michauds got up at five o'clock in the morning so that they would have time to put the apartment to rights before leaving it. It was undoubtedly strange to take such care of objects without value, and condemned, in all probability, to disappear as soon as the first bombs fell on Paris. But, thought Mme Michaud, one clothes and arrays the dead who are destined to rot in the ground. It's one last homage, a supreme proof of love for that which was dear.

It's the psychology of small moments such as this one, when people act in unexpected ways, or continue to act in expected ways even when that behavior has ceased to make sense, that struck me so forcibly about Némirovsky's writing. Particularly in the sentence about clothing and arraying the dead, her substance as well as her style reminds me of the way Virginia Woolf intermingles outer activity with inner psychological portraits—pretty much the best compliment I could offer.

But whereas novels like Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse take place on ordinary days, reflecting the grand events of the outside world only obliquely, the characters of Suite française are in the midst of a direct collision with the forces of history. The actions required of them—fleeing en masse from their homes in Paris; accommodating themselves to German troops living in their homes and their village—are cataclysmic, and yet these people more or less continue in their accustomed mental and emotional habits as long as they can. The bourgeois Péricand family, for example, is delayed in leaving their house by the servants' insistence on ironing all the handkerchiefs like they always do before anyone leaves on vacation; the writer Gabriel Corte, accustomed to thinking of himself as the absolute center of the universe, is incensed that the war would dare to encroach on his home. Occasionally the characters change and learn over the course of the novel; most often, they really don't. I like that about Suite française: there are no pat epiphanies tied up for the reader with a bow at the end of either section.

Which is not to say that the characters do not journey. Némirovsky portrays the mental and emotional lives of her characters with a quiet precision that offsets perfectly her chaotic, upsetting subject matter, and her characterizations struck me as absolutely believable—even, despite never having been through anything remotely like a foreign invasion of my home, familiar. The way in which one often finds oneself reacting in the "wrong" way to a traumatic experience: thinking odd, disconnected thoughts, experiencing and even expressing inappropriate emotions. It's a quiet portrait of a whole country in violent shock, whose individuals are often unable or unwilling to make the effort involved in donning the customary cloak of civilization and politesse.

I've read quite a few reviews of this book that dwell on how unlikeable the characters are, and there are indeed a few that are totally despicable. Most are what I would consider average people: often selfish; bad under pressure; with their pettinesses and their loyalties that percolate through their lives in predictable and unpredictable ways. Perhaps it speaks to my own worldview (I am sometimes accused of being a cynic), but I found Némirovsky's characterizations accurate and insightful, rather than overly dark. True, there are few real "heroes," but I found almost everyone in the book somewhat likable, if only by virtue of recognizing myself in their actions. Even in the case of Gabriel Corte, surely one of the least sympathetic characters in the novel, I often found myself smiling or grimacing in recognition, as in this scene when he explodes with frustration at having to share the roads with the unwashed masses:

— Si des épisodes aussi douloureux qu'une défaite et un exode ne sont pas rehaussees de quelque noblesse, de quelque grandeur, ils ne méritent pas d'être! Je n'admets pas que ces boutiquiers, ces concierges, ces mal-lavés avec leurs pleurnicheries, leurs ragots, leur grossièreté, avilissent un climat de tragédie. Mais regarde-les! regarde-les!
"If events as painful as a defeat and an exodus are not set off by some nobility, by some grandeur, they don't deserve to exist! I will not accept these shop-keepers, these janitors, these unwashed with their whining, their gossip, their rudeness, debasing the climate of tragedy. Just look at them! look at them!"

What he's saying is obviously despicable—would he have the roads guarded, allowing only those of sufficient "nobility" to save their own lives? And yet he's also so ridiculous as to be darkly funny: does he believe that he himself is acting nobly by complaining that the poor people are messing up his tragic atmosphere? Does he really believe that the universe owes him some kind of meaning in the way it unfolds its events? OF COURSE military defeats and exoduses don't deserve to exist! And yet, can you honestly guarantee that thoughts like these would never pass through your own mind, if you were similarly bored, terrified and grief-stricken, stuck on a hot, dusty road with a huge crowd of panicky people you neither knew nor cared about, but who were impeding your progress toward a place of safety? I certainly can't guarantee they wouldn't pass through mine—or even, if I were exhausted and scared enough, that I wouldn't say them out loud.

Furthermore, to crown this whole complex little episode, a couple of pages later we see one of the despised band of shopkeepers and janitors delivering a grief-stricken little speech of true pathos and nobility. And indeed, I'm eager to seek out Némirovsky's short stories, because she does such an excellent job of creating, in each chapter, a miniature, self-contained journey for the reader, often one whose final paragraphs cause a shift of perspective. Not what I would call a "twist" exactly; more like a turning, as if one were pelting forward on a path only to stop and turn around, glimpsing a different view of the way one had come. She has a developed sense of the irony of life (one character, for example, survives all the dangers of the Paris exodus only to be run down by a car on his safe return), but it never feels gimmicky or overly pat; on the contrary, this is a complex, deeply felt, yet unsentimental portrait, and one I won't soon forget.


All above translations are mine, but there are probably better versions of them available in Sandra Smith's English translation of this book.


  • you're making it very hard to resist picking this one up right now.

    but you complimenting someone by comparing them to v. woolf? she's at the top of my list.

    i do wonder how you'd respond to the English version though, if it would have the same effect on you as the French version did. have you tried the Sandra Smith translation?

    • Selena: Haha, a Woolf comparison is definitely the ultimate compliment I could give. :-) Re: the English versus French question, I haven't looked at the Sandra Smith translation, but I've heard very good things about it.

  • This has been on my wishlist since Violet's post on it. It sounds like a gem. I think I might actually like a more cynical view of people better than the oftentimes heroic presentation of people during WW2. But that might be influenced by the long enduring myth that all the Dutch were part of the resistance during WW2 instead of often complicit with the Nazi regime.

    • That's so interesting about your perspective being colored by the Dutch national ethos, Iris. I was just watching Hiroshima, mon amour (which deals with the bombing of Hiroshima and the war in France) and realized how much my own perception of both stories is colored by a) being from a country where the war was not fought on our soil, and b) being from the country that dropped the bombs. I feel a tiny bit of the vast responsibility for ringing that bell, I suppose - now it can never be un-rung.

  • Suite francaise is one of those books that I'm supposed to have read already, so it's infused with guilt for me. (WWII literature is my main field.) As with most things I put off reading, it sounds as if I'd love it. Thanks for the lovely review.

    • Oh no, Jenny - the guilt-infused novel is never the fun novel. :-P I hope you can overcome that feeling of obligation, because it really is a beautiful piece that I think you'll enjoy.

  • I hope to read Némirovsky myself someday, Emily, but I was wondering if you could compare the foreign language experience of reading her in French vs. de Beauvoir, Flaubert, or Zola. Easier, tougher, about the same? Loved the personality of the two passages you selected (for different reasons altogether, of course).

    • Oh, I'm glad you gave me the opportunity to do the self-indulgent comparison exercise, Richard! Némirovsky is of the same basic era of Beauvoir, and I found Suite Française only slightly more difficult than Mémoires..., just because there are more descriptive passages with lots of concrete nouns (I tend to find theoretical stuff easier because the fancier words in English are often derived from French). FAR less difficult than Flaubert; I'm not even sure what made him so difficult. Slightly less difficult than Zola, who was pretty manageable once I learned all the coal-mining vocab (I think it helps that all of Germinal takes place around the same objects & settings, so once you learn them you're good to go). Basically Némirovsky's prose tends to clarity and precision, which makes for ease of reading. I think you would really like this book!

  • You know, I've seen SO many references to this book, but I usually don't read about it in detail, so I've never actually learned much about it. Your review makes me more interested in reading it than I ever have before, especially with the Woolf comparison. Perhaps I'll have to put it on my list!

    • Némirovsky certainly has been making the blog rounds lately, which sometimes turns me off of books - but in this case, I think her popularity is well-deserved. Think you would connect with the keen psychology in this one, if you ever feel inclined, Dorothy!

  • It's a while since I read this but I remember thinking what an extraordinarily good writer Nemirovsky was. There was humour too - the part where she makes room in the case for her cosmetics, by taking her husband's work out! A wonderful book.

  • Nemirovsky has been trying to sneak into my reading life for some time now. Had read some short worked and loved it so impulsively snagged a whole stack of her titles. But have not read them yet. In what little I have read, what I admired is something you touch on here. The precision. Not just in language in a linguistic sense but in the psychological sense as well. I found her ... not sure but maybe unflinching is the right word. I can see Woolf but there was a hint of Elizabeth Bowen there for me as well.

    • It's so interesting you bring up Bowen, Frances, because I have a very odd relationship with her work...while I find her writing technically amazing, psychologically it strikes me as hard to approach, hard to penetrate. I do relate to your point about Némirovsky's psychological precision, though, and very much agree - maybe that's something I should keep in mind the next time I venture into Bowen's world.

  • I have the English translation on my self.

    Question: because it is episodic, is it okay that it was never "finished"? I was afraid it will feel dissatisfying when it just ends...

    • Rebecca, I was expecting to be bothered by the unfinished quality more than I actually was. You can definitely tell that there was a direction the story would have headed had Némirovsky been able to continue it, but since she did get to finish Part 2, there is also a certain feeling of closure as well. It didn't bother me at all, but then I tend to like a few loose ends and I've heard that some people do find it bothersome, so I suppose it's a matter of taste.

  • I've had this book hanging out on my shelves for longer than I care to admit. I am glad to hear it is so good and the characters so real and human.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography