Sunday, June 01, 2008

Book review: Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky

I was really looking forward to reading this book. The author, Irene Nemirovsky, was a Russian emigre to Paris who became a successful author in France in the late 1930's early 40's.

She'd begun a series of five novels outlining life in occupied France when she herself was taken to a concentration camp, where she eventually died. Only two of the novels were written, and those were secreted away before her arrest. Her daughters kept them after the war, and they were recently published.

The author's story is tragic, and I was expecting to see some of that tragedy in her stories. What I found instead was the interweaving stories of the capture of Paris and occupation of a small village. Lives intersect in the exodus from and return to Paris, and more lives intersect in the village. There are dozens of characters to keep track of.

The problem is, I didn't end up caring about any of them. The people in the novels seemed obnoxious and self-serving, and the French occupations seemed more of an inconvenience than a terror. I picked up more resentment than fear, and a lot of bombastic talk behind closed doors with capitulation in the face of the enemy. Most of the characters seemed glossed over, and I got no real sense of their feelings from any of them.

Perhaps Nemirovsky never got the chance to flesh them out. Perhaps she held a dim view of the French people. It's a shame that we'll never find out what else might have happened. If there were actual people behind the cardboard facades. Nimerovsky's fate is indescribably tragic, as much as that of any other victim of the Nazis. That doesn't make this a particularly good book.


  1. I heard it as a talking book and found it haunting and insightful, ironic. In crisis situations, the individual is far less individual than s/he would imagine. Nemirovski sees her characters from the perspective of a bemused spectator, observing how the war sinks character into a mass of fleeing people bent on survival. None can afford to feel deeply for others. At first there is some compassion for the refugees leaving Paris, then the doors are shut to them. For example, a devoted priest, in tune with his beliefs and so obedient to the will of god, is brutally killed by his charges. May be the movie did not capture this distinct perpective of the writer

  2. Your comfortable smugness compares with some of the less savory characters in Nemirovsky's book. Perhaps, endo, a little history and a lot of context would be in order for you. Then you could read the book again. Did you even read the appendices and forward the the 2004 French edition? Apparently not.