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Suite Française
By Irčne Némirovsky

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Suite Française

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Suite Française
By Irčne Némirovsky
Translated in English by Sandra Smith
Thorndike Press Large Print (2006)
ISBN 10: 0-7862-9155-9
ISBN 13: 978-0-7862-9155-7
Genre: Fiction - World War II / France

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - February 28, 2007

Suite Française contains the text of two interrelated novellas written by Irčne Némirovsky. Both these books, Storm in June and Dolce, deliver a shattering look at the French, and life in France, under Nazi occupation during the early years of World War II. Storm in June is the story that contrasts various Parisians, from a snooty banker to a gentle priest, who are all fleeing to the countryside ahead of the Nazi's march on Paris. Dolce, on the other hand, looks at life in a small village, who residents are living under occupation, and of whom many are collaborating with the Germans. Both these pieces paint a vivid and graphic picture of life in France at the time, and how diffuse peoples reacted to the events unfolding around them. Without doubt, Suite Française is a literary masterpiece, one whose story pales in comparison to the real life drama that engulfed the book's author...

Irčne Némirovsky was a Russian born Jew who immigrated to France after the Boshevik Revolution. In the early 1940's, as Nazi forces swept into France, Némirovsky, who was living in Paris, began what was intended to be, a five part novel about life under Nazi occupation. Némirovsky was destined never to finish this masterpiece. In July 1942 she was arrested for the crime of being a Jew and deported to the Auschwitz death camp. She died there on 17 August 1942. Her husband was to die in the gas chambers at Auschwitz later that year. At the time of her death she was thirty-nine.

At the time of her deportation, she had completed drafts of the first two books in her series, entitled Storm in June and Dolce. At the time of her death, Némirovsky was a respected and well-established writer in France, having published to great acclaim numerous books such as Jezabel and David Golder. Her young daughter's, Denise and Elisabeth, survived the war by going into hiding. They managed to save her copies of the work-in-progress. Now at long last, this monumental work is available in English, translated from French by Sandra Smith. Published as Suite Française, this book includes the text of both Storm in June and Dolce, as well as Némirovsky's notes on the last three books in the planned series. Also included are some gripping and horrifying letters that shed light on Némirovsky's own situation, and that of her family as they struggled to survive the Nazi onslaught and the rampant anti-Jewish laws then in force in France, and their attempts to flee France.

Suite Française is a book that should be read on many levels. Although a novel, it does double duty as a biting social commentary on the varied responses of the French to the Nazi occupation. Strangely, however, especially considering Némirovsky's plight as a Jew in a Nazi occupied country, she does not write about Jews or the persecutions that they endured. It is impossible to know the reason for this, but the possibilities are numerous. Perhaps she did not write about the plight of the Jews because she and her family were living as Catholics, and she wanted to distance herself from her Jewish roots. Or perhaps she would have covered this aspect of the occupation in one of the later books in the series. Then again, perhaps the Nazi menace was a horror too unspeakable to writer about, a horror that stood too close to her door, and she was afraid that if she gave it voice, it would become all too real - which it did anyway. Unfortunately, we'll never know the true answer. Némirovsky's life, and her voice, like that of so many others, was snuffed out by the Nazi's genocidal endeavor to murder all the Jews of Europe, and beyond.

In writing these novellas, Némirovsky was able to look at the French with a critical eye of an outsider, while at the same time understanding the nuances of French culture and mores that comes from one being steeped in all things French. Commentary aside, Suite Française is a literary classic in its own right. One that is enthralling to read, and one that can be read over and over again as each time you reread these novellas you'll uncover new insights into the French mind set and decipher more and more of Némirovsky witticisms that are hidden within the pages of the novel.

I highly recommend Suite Française, not only as a literary and highly descriptive work of fiction, but also for the insights that it affords on life in France during the early years of the German occupation. This book should be required reading in all high school and university level literature and history courses. It is also an ideal book to read for a book club or reading group as it will provide you with a wealth of topics to discuss. It is also a wonderful book to simply read for the pleasure of reading an outstanding novel full of memorable characters and which offers an unprecedented glimpse into life in France during the Nazi occupation.

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