Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

I suspect Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith, (published 2004 in French, 2006 in English, written 1941-2), is going to be my favorite book read in 2010.

Although Nemirovsky's imprisonment and death in 1942 at age 39, followed soon by that of her husband, leaving their two daughters orphaned and gone into hiding with their nanny at the ages of five and thirteen, adds a certain extra element to the novel, Nemirovsky's sheer genius in character study and writing style make this work a classic. There's something special about reading a book of fiction regarding the German occupation of France written while events unfolded, too, especially since Nemirovsky's actions in her personal life make clear her belief that her own detainment awaited her.

Starting right before the fall of Paris to German forces in 1940, Suite Francaise follows various, almost startingly different, characters in 1940 and 1941. Especially graphic is the flight of many from Paris to the countryside and small towns early in the story, and the story of Lucile, a young woman with an imprisoned French officer as a husband, and the German officer who comes to live in the home of Lucile and her mother-in-law.

Originally meant to be written in five parts, Nemirovsky completed, though unedited, two portions of the work, leaving some notes behind about the coming story, part of which I expected, part of which really surprised me. So, although not exactly left hanging, there is a kind of expectation at the end of the book as written that more should be coming.

I'm including a couple of passages here that reflect Nemirovsky's style particularly well, and speak more eloquently about this novel than I can:

Kindle Location 882-885: Christian charity, the compassion of centuries of civilisation, fell from her like useless ornaments, revealing her bare, arid soul. She needed to feed and protect her own children. Nothing else mattered any more.

Kindle Location 3031-3035: Important events--whether serious, happy or unfortunate--do not change a man's soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves. Such events highlight what is hidden in the shadows; they nudge the spirit towards a place where it can nourish.

Kindle Location 5065-5068: After all, people judge one another according to their own feelings. It is only the miser who sees others enticed by money, the lustful who see others obsessed by desire.

[Aside: Nemirovsky's daughters, Denise and Elizabeth, survived the war with the assistance of their nanny, not knowing that both parents died. When they eventually found their way to their maternal grandmother after looking for their parents, she refused to even see them. Denise discovered Suite Francaise decades later when planning to donate the notebook, which the sisters believed to be their mother's diary and could never bring themselves to read previously, because she wanted to make a copy of the contents prior to the donation. Elizabeth died before the discovery.]

My overall personal rating of Suite Francaise is an A.


Anonymous said…
Wow - favorite book of 2010! I have been seeing the rave reviews for this book and keep meaning to read it. Now I see I must move it to the top of my list.
Can't wait to see what you think of the book!

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