Irène Némirovsky was a well-regarded writer in France between the World Wars. Born a Jew, but a convert to Catholicism, her writings and politics are controversial in the literary world. She came to be known to the world with her book Suite Francaise, published posthumously, under the direction of her surviving daughter, Denise. This new book precedes the events in Suite Francaise, depicting events from the beginning of World War I through the early years of World War II. The novel begins slowly, describing two French families and a Sunday outing. Gradually the peaceful ambiance of pre-war France gives way to the distant sounds of war. The conversation turns from everyday domestic issues to the politics of when, not if, France will go to war with Germany. Bernard Jacquelain as the central character of the novel is presented to us as a naïve young man; still in short pants, wanting to fight for the honor of France. He represents the nationalistic fervor of the day. Through Bernard’s eyes we witness a nation about to embark on one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. But Bernard will not remain idealistic for long as the horror of the war turns him into a cynical, self-absorbed man, longing for the comforts of wealth and power. Upon returning from the war, Bernard embarks on a business career and becomes caught up in the speculation and corruption of the 1920’s.
The second main character, Therese, a childhood friend of Bernard, marries only to lose her husband in the war. Left a childless widow, she seeks a new life, with Bernard, the man she has always loved. They will marry but the marriage will not always be the ideal imagined by Therese. The book is two stories: one of domesticity in a country ravaged by two world wars, and, a story that is a more profound, cynical view of society. The early pages set the tone, painting a society that on the surface appears to be cultured, but underneath is a deeper current of selfishness and greed. The reader will leave the book wondering who Bernard really is and if he has come to terms with his identity, not unlike his nation and perhaps, the author as well.
- Irène Némirovsky Reading List
- Alexis Landau: The Absence of “the Jewish Question” in Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francais
- Trina Robbins: Great Women, Cut Short