Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
(b. 1903 kiev, ukraine; d. 1942 auschwitz-birkenau, nazi germany)
thoughts on a remarkable modernist book and writer:
if you love books, you probably welcome long haul flights as a chance to read undisturbed. on a direct flight to london recently, my book choice was suite francaise . consequently, one rainy afternoon in paris I found myself at memorial de la shoah, scanning the walls for irene's name among those commemorated jewish deportees from france remembered there.
to say I found suite francaise to be a book like no other is not an exaggeration. after reading some reviews which explained the content (which is in two parts) I was delighted to encounter a story which was unexpected. One part deals with the flight of parisians immediately before the occupation and the second focuses on the occupation itself. additionally, the strength of the characters and the human insight nemirovsky espouses in her writing allows this tale to transcend being a mere historical account.
it is important to read the translator's note and understand the book you are reading as part of a work in progress. had irene nemirovsky survived, she would have edited these writings and completed the larger novel she intended suite francaise to be.
irene nemirovsky had already won literary acclaim in france before suite francaise. In 1929 her novel David Golder brought the young 26-year-old instant fame. when french publisher bernard grasset first read the manuscript for David Golder, he was so enthusiastic about it he made the immediate decision to publish it. as the manuscript had been sent to him anonymously, he first had to locate its writer. he could scarcely believe that the cheerful young russian woman he found could have written a book which he considered so brilliantly daring, cruel and mature. he questioned her carefully to ensure the work was authentic and that she was not standing in for a famous author before publishing the work. there is an important lesson immediately here for us - wisdom and deep insight are not something which is exclusive to a certain age group.
to me, irene nemirovsky's suite francaise is a powerful example of wisdom, honesty and courage and we are fortunate this young writer shared her experience. the time when suite francaise was written required courage as a character prerequisite, yet the courage I most admire is that which she used to write about her characters with intense depth and rawness.
throughout the book, the writer moves her characters beyond the boundaries of nationality and war time roles. her refusal to submit to a 'them-and-us' mentality is extraordinary considering the time nemirovsky was writing. this approach highlights how we all carry choice in responding as individuals to any circumstance. these responses affect how we question and review our reactions and learn from them.
there are many moral challenges hidden in the pages of suite francaise and you will doubtlessly find yourself identifying with the characters, wondering what you would have done if faced with their situation. nemirovsky's characters are portrayed so clearly one wonders not only about their own probable response, but how the individual conditioning, experience and disposition of each character influenced their respective actions. this compassionate view is one of hope and meaning that eclipses the harsh nature such judgement can entail.
remarkably, irene nemirovsky's two daughters, denise and elisabeth, carried the manuscript for suite francaise with them as they fled Issy l'Eveque, the french village from whence their mother was deported. having watched their mother writing, in a tiny hand to save ink and paper in her large leather bound notebook, denise and elisabeth had no idea the journal they bore was a manuscript. the notebook followed them from one dangerous hiding place to another. after the loss of their mother, many years passed before either daughter could bear to read irene's journal. eventually, they decided to entrust the writings to an organisation dedicated to documenting memories of the war. denise began to type it out before doing so, and discovered her mother's miniscule handwriting was the beginnings of a novel which would later be described as a violent masterpiece. sixty-four-years after nemirovsky's death, we are finally able to read the last work of a writer who held a mirror before france in its darkest hour.
denise epstein remembers the day her mother was deported to auschwitz and how she explained she was 'going on a journey'.
after reading this book, I found myself craving more writing from irene nemirovsky and fortunately discovered some is available. i was also left with great sadness and a sense of shock that this literary genius could be extinguished so cruelly with phenomenal writing talent to share which would help each of us on our journey.
written by cathie davis (Dip Art & Creativity) Hons.
(photo credit thierry huet, www.picturesque.co.nz )
suite francaise is available now from the jumping tangents bookshop, click on the link and keep an eye out for more books by irene nemirovsky which will be arriving instore soon (including David Golder)