I recently finished reading Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky on the recommendation of a friend who had called the book one of the most ‘humane stories’ she had ever read. I enjoy reading war stories (my favourite book is The Things They Carried and so looked forward to this one which takes place in France in 1941 when the Germans occupied Paris. I was initially surprised at my friend’s enthusiasm for the book because the story takes a candid look at French society from the highest to the lowest classes and ruthlessly pillories each and every one of them. Leaving no stone unturned Nemirovsky clearly has no sympathy for the French or the fate that awaited them during the war. I’m glad I stayed with the story because it’s in the second half of the book as well as in the Appendices that the full emotional import of what the author documents bears fruit.
The fact that the author, a Russian Jew, is in France during the occupation at the time this story was written and later perished in a concentration camp makes this story even more poignant. Suite Francaise was never published until now, sixty five years later when her surviving daughter discovered a suitcase she assumed was her mother’s journals was in fact this novel.
Suite Francaise brilliantly creates an authentic tableau of French society and the impact of the German occupation during this period. What she reveals in its telling isn’t very pretty. With clinical precision she unpeels the layers of civility to reveal what people are truly made of when confronted with horrific and often life and death circumstances. The characters she portrays come from all walks of French life from urban upper middle classes, to farmers, aristocrats and villagers. While some of the characters disappear early in the book the story truly hits its stride when we’re introduced to Lucille a young, beautiful, married French woman who ultimately falls in love with the German soldier billeted in her mother-in-law’s home.
It is against the backdrop of the German occupation of this small village that Lucille and Bruno’s love for each other unfolds. Here we see a parallel relationship between the French and their German occupiers and Lucille and her German officer. During their three month stay the initial shock and shame of having foreigners in their homes and village dissipates as familiarity creates a skein of normality that allows day to day life more or less to continue. When the immediate pressures of war fall away, friendship and in the case of Lucille and Bruno, love blossoms.
Love like war is chaotic and has no rules. It’s only when a French farmer kills a German soldier that the reality of the occupation re-asserts itself and both Lucille and the villagers find themselves once again at odds with their occupiers. In the end, love like water can’t be contained but in dangerous times it poses a real threat. Nemirovsky’s real skill here shows not only how war, class, jealousy and other malignancies keep people from love but also what brings them to love in spite of all these obstacles. Therein lies the humanity in this book.
What I also found interesting was Nemirovsky’s depiction of French class structure and how it invited complicity when the war came. When the Germans occupied the small village the aristocrats, notorious for hoarding and unwilling to sell food to the starving villagers, began to assume a comfort level with the German soldiers. In the end they knew that these foreigners would protect their interests.
This book is brilliant in its detail and evocation of everyday life under the German occupation and shows yet another sorry time in our contemporary history. It’s a great read.