Suite Francaise – A Review.

Suite Francaise was written by a Russian Jew who had fled Russia to France after the 1917 Revolution, her family fearing persecution from the Bolsheviks. Irene Nemirovksy experienced the Fall of France in 1940, when the Nazis very quickly overrun the country, mainly because of the Blitzkrieg, but also due to an unwillingness to fight on behalf of the French troops, because of the suffering they had endured during the 1914-18 war, which decimated a lot of the French male population; we can look at the reasons for their quick capitulation mainly coming from this angle, a country who did not want another war or bloodshed on the same scale. The Great War was still too fresh in their minds.

This book lay undiscovered for some sixty years, the manuscript finally being found by her daughter amongst Irene’s old possessions, believing her written works to be just a diary. Irene Nemirovsky moved from Paris following the surrender in 1940 to a small village to the south of Paris, where she wrote this novel in a most hurried fashion, which explains some of the quickness of the prose (I think it is very evident it was rushed), and I suppose, the way it was written and what the novel deals with she probably knew she had to get this story down on paper very quick. The main reason being that she was a Jewish Woman and maybe she had some presentiment of her fate. In 1942 she was caught by the French police and sent to a death camp where she was murdered, leaving all her possessions and manuscripts to her young daughter.

Suite Francaise is a novel split into two parts; part one is about the Fall of France, detailing the lives of a group of Parisians and how they try and flee the French Capital in June 1940, the second part dealing with life under Nazi Occupation. Nemirovskys characters in part one are quite diverse, ranging from a well respected middle class family with ties to the State, to a married couple who work for a bank and whose son is in the army fighting, the banks manager who is having an affair and finally a writer who quite basically is so used to his upper class life that he falls apart when his lifestyle is threatened. A few other characters are interspersed throughout part one, but these are the books main focus. It’s a mix of French society, a story told from the perspective of different classes.

What picture is it trying to paint? Well, we get a contrasted image, one of a pleasant, hot summer, the peacefulness of Paris, which image is completely shattered when the air raids start, and the evacuation begins. It seems as if everyone, from the lowliest worker to the middle-classes fears being in Paris when the Germans arrive, so a mass exodus occurs, throttling the roads leading from Paris, and it seems as if the exodus is of biblical proportions, or at least that is how it is portrayed. Then there is image of a countryside choked with civilians, with their cars packed full of their belongings, from mattresses tied to the backs of cars, animals in cages – all out of petrol, food and in danger of being strafed by enemy planes, which happens on several occasions, whilst nature, painted in the form of butterflies, birds, and so on, carrying on as if nothing is going on. A totally marked contrast – everyone is fleeing, the army is disintegrating, towns and civilians are being shelled; the butterfly flies from one flower to the next, oblivious to the carnage going on around it.

So, part one of this book, aptly called ‘Storm in June’, is about the defeat and exodus from Paris. Slowly, the characters become accustomed to the inevitable surrender, the older people remembering the ’14-18 war, with its memorials in all the French villages which the book mentions, people familiar with war, with their old wounds, both physical and mental. The capitulation is seen, I think, as being of some kind of betrayal by the ruling orders that this has happened again as well as a great blow, and everyone is fearful of the outcome. Some brave French soldiers fight a rearguard action, and even the son of the respectable middle-class family is brave enough to go and want to fight, but it is futile; defeat is certain. Slowly, after the defeat, they all trickle back to Paris, return to their normal lives, and it is left to the writer and the dancer (whom was having the affair with the bank manager) to see if there are new contacts to be made, new relationships to be formed with the new ‘rulers’ of France, seeing as they were the two people who basically were so used to their old way of life; the writer being full of his snobbery, the dancer seemingly without any ethical conscience . Collaboration – that most terrifying of French words post 1944 for the collaborators, begins.

Part Two, Dolce, is about life under the occupation, this time set in a village in the occupied territory. A German Regiment is stationed in this village, and the villager’s relationship with the soldiers is essentially what it portrays. There is a love element; a woman, Lucile, a wife of a prisoner of war, slowly begins to fall for a German Officer, but she has this moral dilemma, whereby it is seen to be frowned upon to have any romantic dealings with the enemy, and she actually criticises one young girl for sleeping with them, but, she herself also slowly succumbs. This dilemma is exacerbated when a farmer, Benoit, kills another officer and Lucile hides him in her house. Her patriotism overcomes her fledgling love. Slowly, there is a form of acceptance of the German troops in the village (and even the murder of one of their officers doesn’t really rupture this, in some sense, form of tranquillity), with the fraternising of the locals, but still deep down there is a form of mistrust, dislike, hidden patriotism. Again, Nemirovsky brings the class issue into play; we have the Mayor and his wife, aristocrats, who basically are the biggest collaborators of all, turning in the peasant who shoots the officer because he owns a gun and is poaching on their land. Sometimes it seems as if the French Revolution never occurred when reading this book. Then there are the middle classes, Lucile being part of this, who hate the Mayor and basically are a class apart from everyone, probably having the most patriotism of all. It’s an interesting insight into French society at the time of the occupation.

What I found to be the most distressing thing of all reading this, is looking at the authors life. She wrote this novel at the time this occurred, experiencing both the defeat and occupation of France during the Second World War. She had a family and children, and, being a Jew, she witnessed the persecution of her kind first hand. And yet, the image we get of the German troops who occupied this village is almost, to a small extent, forgiving of their behaviour. These were ordinary soldiers, with families themselves, and towards the end of the book when they all leave for the Russian Front, to certain death, you can sense that the villagers are going to miss them, because of the relationships formed; they have almost become part of the village. Yes, there is the curfew imposed, the ‘Verboten’ signs throughout the village, but (despite the almost continuous stormy weather), there is a sense of calm, fraternisation, etc. These were honourable soldiers, not fanatics. Irene Nemirovsky had further ideas for the book, which are in note form in the appendices at the end, but in 1942 she was deported for being a Jew to Auschwitz, along with her husband. Her children survived, and it took until nearly sixty years before her daughter uncovered her novel, in some sense gaining a form of victory over her death at the hands of the Nazis.

A spooky tale…

She was sat in her chair with a book in her lap, on this cold, dark February night. The weather had taken a turn for the worse, with storm clouds rushing across the moonlit night, occasionally obscuring the moonbeams with their almost bedraggled, sinister, dark, grey forms, as if trying to shut out any form of illumination altogether. The wind had picked up, causing the trees outside to sigh in a sorrowful, almost ghost-like murmur, adding to the already dark impression this night had created on her fanciful imagination. Of course the book she was reading was not that conducive to many bright thoughts on her part. A collection of Victorian Gothic tales, a book she had picked up in some run-down old antiquarian bookshop, which itself looked like it was still stuck in that era what with its dusty tomes gracing its woodworm infested bookshelves, and its owner, a rather eccentric looking old man with pince-nez stuck on his rather hawkish nose, looking like the years had also eaten away at him as of his shop. One could not wonder if he himself were not also for sale.

She loved gothic short stories though, something she had studied whilst an English Student, but there was something not quite right about this particular book. Probably due to the fact that it was quite old; the pages emitting a musty odour that reeked of a time past. The stories themselves were written in quite an archaic, 19th Century fashion, but the passages contained within spoke of something quite not like she had ever read before. They spoke of a horror which chilled you to the bone; stories of old ghosts and the macabre, of haunted manor houses, ghostly apparitions in churchyards and the usual ilk of old gothic fiction.

It seemed as if the whole atmosphere of her surroundings had changed whilst she sat reading that evening. The fire she had lit seemed to be fending off the night, its flames cavorting around the walls, and once or twice she looked up from her book with a sudden start at a shadow on the wall caused by the flames, which, to her aroused imagination, seemed to resemble some kind of ghastly figure from out of the corner of her eye. The weather had worsened as the night progressed, and it was almost as if her room and the night outside were adding their own ominous, theatrical performance to the stories she was reading, creating a backdrop of supernatural proportions. But even though she slowly began to feel the icy fingers of fear deep within her stomach begin their ghastly grip, and she knew that she had to stop reading this book; it had captivated her and she felt frozen to the chair, a rising feeling of being consumed by the very horror contained within these words.

The wind suddenly picked up, its howling becoming more pronounced; a branch had started to scratch furiously against her window, its sound almost like a high-pitched laughter to, at this point, her very vivid and very fearful imagination. She saw, or rather thought she saw, more and more shadowy figures within the murkiness caused by the dancing, leaping flames to her back with a suggested whispering which she was not sure was being caused by either the wind or something else entirely. A ghost perhaps? Could it be? What was it? She felt a rising panic grip her soul. Her skin started to crawl, her heart beating furiously and her stomach tightened. The whole room seemed to become darker, an icy chill sneaking through the windows, pervading the whole room, the fire becoming impotent against its menacing intent. Mustering all her remaining rationality and swallowing the rising fear back into herself, she slowly laid the book down, and rose from the chair. She spun around quickly, hoping she would try and catch whatever she thought lay behind her off its guard. Nothing was there – apart from, no, what on earth was THAT?
Next thing she knew was the room light had been switched on. Suddenly everything became back to normal, no more shadows were dancing around the room, the wind had died down, the fire seemed at peace in the fireplace, the book lay closed on the chair and what she saw before her was her bemused partner, who had arrived home late.