Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

It’s difficult to separate Suite Francaise from the destiny of its author. Essentially written as the war, and later occupation, were happening, being able to capture the moment so thoroughly and thoughtfully is remarkable. Perhaps more remarkable is that she had also planned out three future sections which she never had the opportunity to write.

I’m not sure “novel” is a fair term, though. Really, they are two novellas with slight connections in character. They work well together and share the obvious connection of the war but could likely work just as well apart. Maybe they would have drawn together into a more uniform whole had Nemirovsky had the opportunity to complete the work, and I have strong feelings that she would have, but she didn’t. The first novella, A Storm in June, focuses on France realizing that they have lost, that there is nothing standing between them and the German military, and their panicked, desperate flight for freedom and safety. Nemirovsky picks out a few individuals and families to follow in this exodus, from the wealthy Pericand family to the substantially less wealthy Michaud’s who are left to fend for themselves on the road when their ride with the bank manager is given to the bank manager’s mistress. We also ride along to witness the travails of the Pericand’s two boys, Hubert and Philippe, the writer Gabriel Corte and the wealthy Charles Langelet.

Needless to say, a lot of people end up unhappy and/or dead. Langelet, who is self-centered and, eventually, devious, ends up being struck dead by the bank manager’s then former mistress, after he has returned to Paris and is crossing the street to meet up with a woman he had talked to earlier. Philippee is beaten and killed by a group of orphans he is charged with watching over and which he quietly believes are soulless monsters. We learn the bank manager has his car, and bank records, destroyed in a bombing. Corte survives at a glamorous hotel in the south, shacking up along with numerous other artists, where we are left believing they pick up life roughly where it left off, perhaps saying something about the mentality of artists.

The only family that turns out well are the Michaud’s. They are poor but they survive and their son returns to them alive. The Pericand family continues on, afloat of their money, but their son, Hubert, seems to have changed. It seems his experience wandering around the countryside of France, where his vision of war and honor are given a splash of reality, shifts his emotional and intellectual framework away from those of his family. But this isn’t something we are given much to wander with as it happens towards the end of the novella and they don’t make a reappearance in the second half.

I want to draw some sort of moral corrolation between the characters and their fates. Given how both the Pericands and the Michauds survive, I’m not sure there is a definite social aspect going on, though the Pericands certainly seem to “cope” with the situation much more easily.  However, characters who act with questionable morality clearly get dinged here. Langelet, with his self-centeredness, is killed by a car. Philippe, despite being a priest, is killed after having many less than kind thoughts of the orphans he is in charge of.  The bank manager has his records destoryed, has his wife pissed at him after she discovers a nude photo of his mistress in his belongings and is later left by his mistress. Corte is just as self-centered and pompous as Langelet, but he survives and appears to live in relative ease in his hotel. Perhaps Nemirovsky has a bit of a soft spot for the self-centeredness of the artist? Meanwhile, as I mentioned earlier, the Michauds merely continue on.

The second half of the work, Dolce, is entirely contained within a small village forced to board a German military force. The bulk of the story enters around Lucy Angellier and the young German housed in her home, Bruno von Falk.  Lucy’s mother-in-law also lives in the home, and her husband is in a POW camp. Lucy’s mother-in-law’s husband was killed in the first WWI and she has a clear preference for her son over Lucy now, to the point of overlooking any and all shortcomings her son has including his having a mistress (to which her strongest feelings of reproach for this is that he has bought the mistress things – she cares more for the money her son has spent on a mistress rather than the fact that he has a mistress at all).  Meanwhile, Lucy is torn between feelings of nationalism, loyalty to her husband and the burgeoning pangs of love for Bruno – a man she clearly has much in common with, who cares for her, but is unfortunately from the wrong country at the wrong time. The turning point comes when a neighbor kills a German officer and seeks refuge in the Angellier home. Knowing her romance with von Falk is impossible, Lucy grants him safekeeping, winning the approval of her mother-in-law while secretly crossing a line the mutual love between her and von Falk can not cross. However, this never becomes a problem as the novella ends shortly thereafter with the news that Germany has invaded Russia and these troops are being transported to the eastern front.

There are times where Dolce touches on nationalism, where it touches on a bit of class conflicts, and on nationalism versus the personal and private needs of people, regardless of the circumstances – largely, the need to love and be loved. But it’s really more of a tale of characters, of circumstances and of doomed love. While it is a good read, it doesn’t feel as critically weighty as A Storm in June. Instead, it feels like a bridge between the first act and what Nemirovsky was planning for the rest of her work.With Angellier using Von Falk’s affection for her to gain a travel pass and gas, the novella ends with the implication that she will take Benoit Saberie, the man who earlier killed a German officer, to Paris where it can only be assumed the novel would have picked up at.

As a whole, it is a good read. It well written, it is balanced, it is thoughtfully and artfully constructed. But it’s also half-done. And what might be the most impressive aspect of the work is the time in which it was written. Not only was it forged during war, but it depicted the events of the war itself. And did so with a skill and grace that is remarkable.


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