Fic­tion

Suite Fran­caise

Irene Nemirovsky; San­dra Smith, trans.
  • Review
By – October 24, 2011

In her mov­ing nar­ra­tive Suite Française, Irene Nemirovsky forces the read­er to con­tem­plate what it would be like to sur­ren­der one’s home and pri­va­cy to ene­my forces and find one’s very life hang­ing in the balance. 

The first sec­tion of Suite Française, enti­tled June Storm,” recounts the tan­gled sto­ries of sev­er­al fam­i­lies forced to flee Paris as the invad­ing Ger­mans approach. The pet­ti­ness and cru­el­ty of the pop­u­la­tion is mer­ci­less­ly exposed as the per­va­sive suf­fer­ing rips away any illu­sion of human decen­cy and respectabil­i­ty. As she por­trays the mass exo­dus of sev­er­al fam­i­lies from dif­fer­ent social class­es, work­ing class and bour­geoisie alike, in flight, Nemirovsky offers poignant sketch­es of both col­lab­o­ra­tion and resis­tance on the part of peo­ple whose loy­al­ties and grudges pre­cede the out­break of the war.

Suite Française is a tale of ordi­nary peo­ple, some who become bet­ter than their imag­ined selves while oth­ers sim­ply bemoan their fate and wal­low in their new­found sor­did exis­tence. Nemirovsky beseech­es the read­er to pause for per­son­al reflec­tion. In con­junc­tion with many inci­dents, one must won­der, how would I react under those circumstances?” 

The strength of Suite Française is the way in which it vivid­ly con­veys the pan­ic and con­fu­sion felt by Parisians on the eve of the Ger­man inva­sion. It presents the war from the per­spec­tive of the aver­age cit­i­zen. While Nemirovsky does not pass moral judg­ment on her char­ac­ters, she does offer more than a touch of irony as she fol­lows the lives of char­ac­ters from dif­fer­ent walks of life, detail­ing their reac­tions to the hor­rors of war. All are vic­tims of cur­fews and short­ages. Yet, it is the dis­tinc­tion in their class that defines their reac­tions to their cir­cum­stances. The air of supe­ri­or­i­ty of the haughty grand dame Madame Per­i­cand as she instructs her ser­vants to pack the fine chi­na as her fam­i­ly is evac­u­at­ing the city, is cap­tured with a hint of irony. 

It is the inter­min­gled sto­ries of the many char­ac­ters that com­bine to pro­duce a vivid account of wartime France.

Relat­ed Content:

Paula Lubin is a human­i­ties teacher at the North Shore Hebrew Acad­e­my Mid­dle School. She has writ­ten for a vari­ety of pub­li­ca­tions, most recent­ly the New York Health­care Law Update.

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