|Suite Francaise : A Story of Occupied France|
Author: Irene Nemirovsky
Suite Françoise is an interesting book for several reasons. The book is written by a Russian Jew and consists of two novellas bundled into one. They portray life in France from June 4, 1940, as German forces prepare to invade Paris, through July 1, 1941, when some of Hitler's occupying troops leave France to join the assault on the Soviet Union.
The second novella ends abruptly, because the author was not able to finish the manuscript. This was because she was arrested and sent to the concentration camps and eventually to the gas chamber. Irène Némirovsky was a Russian Jew who had lived in France since 1919 and had established herself in her adopted country's literary community, publishing nine novels and a biography of Chekhov. The edition of the book that I read ends with lots of correspondence between Irene’s husband and many of her associates in the publishing industry and the occupation regime of Marshal Petain as they try to establish her whereabouts after she was arrested and sent off without any knowledge of her whereabouts being made known to her family. the correspondence reveals that her husband’s efforts at tracing her continued for long after she had been sent to the gas chambers ; of course these facts became known only after the war ended.
Suite Francaise was originally meant to be a set of five vignettes of French life under the Nazis but of course only two were completed. “Storm in June” is the first novella. What is interesting about the book is the diversity of characters that Irene has created and their range of responses as German bombs dropped over the Paris sky and people were forced to retreat to the countryside. So there is the aristocracy, the artistes and writers, the trading and merchant class, middle class bureaucrats and commoners; all of whose familiar way of life comes to an end and they must no prepare to move to the countryside. How they do so, the priorities in their lives as they surface under the pressure and the eventual choices they make seems to underscore the basic selfishness of the human race and the instinct for self preservation that overrides every thing when the chips are down.
“Dolce” is the second novella where the occupation is now a reality and German Army is stationed in the villages of France and most things have been requisitioned by the occupation army for military use. Again the reactions and responses of the French villagers are beautifully captured. The young women are welcoming of the German Army – the French young men are all away fighting and the German officers and men are invariably polite and respectful.
The older generation (and mostly women are portrayed) are more confused. they have memories of the First World War when the French were victorious; their husbands and sons are away fighting – some are prisoners of war and some are killed and the fate of many is not clear as France has just surrendered, and here they are; under duress, having to provided hospitality to the enemy who seen and heard close by is courteous, polite and even embarrassed at what is now happening.
A great strength of the book is that although it depicts the political scenario and the military occupation of France for what it was, it doesn’t not demonize the occupying German Army, but rather portrays them warmly with families and loved ones of their own.