Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky: 3/12/09

Suite Francaise Suite Francaise
by Irene Nemirovsky

Nemirovsky’s story of war and occupation impressed our group. Her writing skill was formidable, especially when considering the fact that the work is incomplete, interrupted by her arrest and eventual murder in a Nazi camp. Several were struck by the author’s vivid descriptions of nature – life going on about its business on breathtakingly beautiful days at the same time that the war and its horrors took over the lives of the people of France. DS was reminded of another image of terror with a beautiful backdrop closer to all of us – planes flying into towers on a crisp fall day.

We were charmed by Nemirovsky’s humorous view of her characters, most of whom were shown in quite a critical light. We wondered that this book about the German occupation of France – written by a woman with Jewish heritage – has no Jewish characters or even a reference to the Jews.
There is quite a contrast between the two parts of the novel; the first full of the frenzy and chaos of displacement, the second slowing to the languid tension of occupation in the countryside. Nemirovsky has given us a stunning exploration of the intimate, complex relations between occupied and occupier.

The appendices are almost as interesting as the rest of the book, giving us insight into the author’s process and plans for her characters, and providing a heartbreaking record of her husband’s efforts to find her and free her after her arrest.

I highly recommend CD’s comment below, written in response to several members’ request for his reaction to this book. He brings a writer’s perspective to our discussions, and people were curious to hear his thoughts about this book in particular, which is unfinished and accompanied by the author’s notes. He hadn’t finished the book before our meeting, so he wrote on the blog.

Book club members also recommend Nemirovsky’s other novel, Fire in the Blood, and the nonfiction Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.

Irene Nemirovsky
Irene Nemirovsky
Irene Nemirovsky New York Times Book Review
More about Nemirovsky and “Suite Francaise”:
Irene and her daughters
  • For more articles on Nemirovsky and her writing, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).

2 Comments »

  1. Comment by Chris
    March 18, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

    Well, I’ve finished all of Suite Francaise now, and there are two things that I want to talk about.

    The first is those last 40 or so pages of the book that I hadn’t read by the time bookclub met. Wow. They completely turned some of my opinions around. I already thought the book was good (although, as I said, I will NOT criticize any unfinished work harshly, even if I don’t like it). But the last part really surprised me. For one thing, it changed my opinion of which section (Storm or Dulce) I liked more. Initially, I liked Storm more. But with those final pages, Dulce pulled ahead. Storm’s frenetic pace and multitude of characters, to me, captured the panic of the invasion situation extremely well. When it was hard to follow and breathless, I accepted that as deliberate authorial decisions. Dulce, on the other hand, seemed slow and plodding. But in that last section, it picked up greatly. And Nemirovsky also set up a tremendously interesting situation, with the coming encounter (and interdependence?) of Benoit and Jean-Marie in the next section (alas, not written). That was a deft and surprising move that tied Storm and Dulce much more tightly together and really began to give the book (and I include the unwritten sections in this) a coherent scope and a unity of idea and purpose. Simple as the twist might seem to some, I was impressed.

    Second, and this is especially for Deb, I took the time to read the notes and letters in the appendices. Deb, you specifically were curious about what I thought of her writing process and the kind of notes she was making. Although these seem to be very much edited down, I’ll have a go at it and say a few things. One is that these notes are familiar to me. Not in the sense that I’ve read them before, but in the sense that these are the kind of notes I know other writers work with (and which I often create myself). No writer follows the same method, but there are a lot of similarities. I find myself leaving the same kind of notes she did - sometimes perfectly clear, sometimes later incredibly cryptic, frequently contradictory - in my notebooks all the time. It’s very familiar. You can see how her thoughts evolved on the book as a whole (the work will be five books, no three, no four, maybe five again), on situations (Jean-Marie will fight with the resistance, no he’ll flee to England), on particular characters (Jean-Marie will die; no, he won’t, Benoit will; wait, what about Hubert?; Corte will be a total collaborationist…or maybe he’ll become a leader of the left?), and so on. It’s all part of the process, working it out in one’s head, kicking ideas around, fitting the pieces together over the long and short term. Very familiar. I’m not well-versed in ‘Ivan Turgenev’s methods’ (and it’s been a while since I read any of his work), but I understand the idea. I know of and have known writers who either follow that same method (writing obsessively about a character before ever putting any of the material to use in a story) or who maybe don’t follow it so well but recommend it. It’s not something I do a whole lot of myself, but there are far worse approaches.

    I have to say, also, that the “Notes” were in some ways a joy to read themselves. Not gripping stuff, but interesting, and with two absolutely fantastic tidbits in there, almost worth reading the whole 431 pages for by themselves. The first of these is a description of Corte’s character on page 385. “Could someone like Corte have such cynical ideas? Of course, at certain times. When he’s been drinking or after making love his favourite way, a way that a mere mortal could barely begin to understand, and even if he did understand, it would cause only amazement and panic.” This has got to be one of the funniest descriptions of how a self-centered egotistical character views himself and the world that I have ever read. I laughed out loud. That is really hard to top.

    The second little gem - although I should point out that there are all kinds of little gems in the novel itself, especially when it comes to insight on human nature - is on page 387. In discussing what matters in life, and how we view it, Nemirovsky comes to this taut conclusion: “Salvation, in general, is when the time allocated to us is longer than the time allocated to a crisis.” Wow. If that doesn’t really sum up a huge fraction of human existence, without resorting to religious language, I don’t know what does. That little piece of philosophy is a keeper in my book. And the whole novel is a keeper. Thumbs up.

    - Chris

  2. Comment by Robin Doroshow
    February 10, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    Our book group (Washington DC area Brown Alumni) thought rather highly of this book in general, but in particular of the letters in the appendix. They were astonishing to me–almost impossible to read. I recommended to a friend that she read this part first, as it gives the author (and her life) an intense reality.

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