This is a remarkable yet unsatisfying novel – a tragedy within a tragedy, yet a triumph within a triumph.
The story is set in France during the German occupation of World War 2 – and it was actually written during the occupation by someone who would not survive the war.
Before you start to read this book you know that it is unfinished – a substantial fragment of what was to have been a major work, comparable in some ways perhaps to War and Peace. You also know that the author died in Auschwitz in 1942 and that it remained unpublished until 2004.
Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, part of a wealthy Jewish family who fled the Russian revolution in 1919 and settled in France. Irene, already experimenting with writing from the age of 14, enrolled at the Sorbonne, where she graduated with distinction in literature. Fluent in French, she also spoke Russian, Polish, Basque, English, Finnish and a little Yiddish. She married in 1926 and by the time her second daughter was born in 1937 she had published nine novels in French, one of which, David Golder, had been made into a film.
In spite of their conversion to Catholicism the family were persecuted by the Nazis and they fled from Paris to a distant village where in 1941 Irene began work on an ambitious novel to be called Suite Francaise. She planned a book of more than 1,000 pages, inspired by the current situation in France. It was to be constructed like a symphony, but in five sections. She took Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as a model. Unfortunately only two sections were written, “Storm in June”, and “Dolce”, before she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz; her husband suffered a similar fate soon afterwards. Their two daughters were hidden from the authorities by friends and survived the war, carrying with them their mother’s unfinished manuscript, which was published 64 years after Irene’s death.
“Storm in June”, the first (200 page) section of Suite Francaise, consists of stories about various unrelated characters fleeing Paris ahead of the German invasion. The threads are widely spread and do not converge; possibly they would have done so in the later, unwritten sections. There is little connection between “Storm in June” and “Dolce”, the second section. “Storm in June” is undoubtedly a candid description of these chaotic events, revealing in many cases unpleasant aspects of human nature.
“Dolce” (160 pages), is different in its construction and style, and deals with the residents of a French village adjusting to life with the occupying force billeted in their houses and using their resources. A major character is the young wife of an absent French officer; while he languishes in prison camp far away a courteous young German officer is billeted in one of their guest rooms, which leads to complications that are more mental than physical. There is nuanced character development, their story is left hanging, and one wonders whether the author intended to bring him back in one of the later sections.
The tragic events that unfold in the novel do so, in the mind of the reader, against the backdrop of the personal tragedy of the author. In real-life correspondence which is included as an appendix, Irene wonders whether this novel will ever be completed, and if it will be published posthumously.
The triumph, bitter-sweet as it is, lies in the fact that Suite Francaise was eventually published, and shared with the world, at a time when Nazism had been defeated and France was once again a free country.