The International School for Holocaust Studies
Reviewed by Jackie Metzger
In this e-newsletter, which features different aspects of the Holocaust in France, we have chosen to review a book which was written during the first years of the Second World War but was published only in 2004 in the original French, and in 2006 in an English translation. The circumstances surrounding the writing of Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky and the personal story involved in its delayed publication by her daughter some sixty years later are as fascinating and heart-wrenching as the book itself.
Nemirovsky was born in Kiev and grew up in a wealthy family. Her father was a wealthy banker, often away on business, and the loving relationship between father and daughter was marred by his frequent absences. The relationship with her mother was fraught with difficulties and unloving in essence. The young Irene, attended to by a tutor, immersed herself in the world of books as a means of overcoming a love-deprived childhood.
With the looming dangers of the Russian revolution in 1917 appearing increasingly ominous, the Nemirovsky family started a difficult period of seeking places of refuge in Scandinavian countries, finally ending up in Paris. In a short time a teenage Irene learnt the French language with such acuity that the budding novelist published her first short novel in her adopted tongue before she was twenty-five years old.
Irene Nemirovsky married in 1926 and by the time war broke out in 1939, she and her husband, Michel Epstein had two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth. The Nemirovskys removed the children from Paris to a village called Issy-l’Eveque about 300 kilometers south-east of the capital. The village would remain in the occupied northern part of the country and the parents only joined the children when Paris was occupied in the summer of 1940.
Here, in the pastoral surroundings of a small French village that was occupied by German soldiers and having just experienced their own flight from Paris, Irene settled down to writing up what she was experiencing herself and witnessing with her own eyes. She was planning a much more panoramic novel of the war than we have in our hands today, but before she could do so, Irene and her husband were murdered in the Nazi assault on European Jewry in 1942. This was the personal tragedy of the Nemirovsky family. So, a much grander plan for a five-part novel depicting events that had still not unfolded became a two-part novel, unfinished in terms of its original design because of the author’s fate at the hands of the forces and events she was describing. Therein lies the tragic irony of the novel we have today, the thwarted plans of the authoress and her own premature death in Auschwitz-Birkenau in August, 1942.
Suite Française is divided into two parts entitled ‘Storm in June’ and ‘Dolce’. The first part is a wide-brush depiction of the French evacuation of Paris after its fall to the invading German army in June of 1940. It is not a history book. The reader comes away with a sense of the extreme dislocation of society as a result of warfare. Different families and characters fill out in clear delineation as they absorb the shock of occupation, decide on packing up and fleeing, and of course the flight itself, fraught as it is with all the fear, pain and hourly difficulties suddenly thrust upon a country, a capital city and its people. The book is about the people and how the varied types contend with their fate. Irene Nemirovsky does not only pit the French against the Germans as one might find in a historical account. One finds German soldiers in the second section of the book, Dolce, with whom one can sympathize. The occupation of a French village by a German cavalry unit replete with their horses is so unsynchronized historically with the main thrust of the highly mechanized German army that the reader willy-nilly finds himself immersed in the unfolding relationships between people – some of them French villagers and others German soldiers, or, young French women and young German men with all the human possibilities that can emerge from the given situation.
From the various difficult episodes in Irene Nemirovsky’s short forty years and certainly from her writing in Suite Française, the reader comes away with an appreciation of a writer who presented human frailties and human strengths without pretense or pretension. Some of the French characters in the book are depicted in negatives which can be juxtaposed with sympathetic portrayals of individual German soldiers. Truth appears to emerge from the tough, sometimes brutal descriptions of occupied France. Human beings are at the heart of this war novel and Nemirovsky did not shy away from praising the good and criticizing the weak in the mixed human panorama that she created.
No book review of Suite Française would be complete without reference to the two appendices and the translated preface to the French edition written by Myriam Anissimov which appear at the end of the book.
The first appendix contains Nemirovsky’s hand written-notes on the situation in France and thoughts on the progress of her novel. The second appendix provides the reader with correspondence written between 1936 and 1945. After the writer was deported in July, 1942, and her husband a few months later, most of the remaining letters concern the fate of the two children. They were saved by the efforts of the governess into whose hands the children were entrusted and who succeeded in moving them from hiding place to hiding place in the face of the relentless efforts of the French police to track them down.
Both appendices make for compelling reading and, together with the powerful canvas painted in the novel, one is left with an aching admiration for Irene Nemirovsky and her contribution to literature. Her own and her husband’s personal tragedy and that of their orphaned children as they unfold in the notes and letters compliment the novel with a personal and unique touch.
Myriam Anissimov’s preface at the conclusion of the book presents the equally riveting saga of how the elder daughter, Denise Epstein, came to publishing her mother’s ‘lost’ novel more than sixty years after she wrote it.
For readers interested in a wider literary canvas, Irene Nemirovsky’s writings have generated discussion focusing on some of her depictions of Jews with resultant accusations of antisemitism and Jewish self-hatred on the part of the author. Articles with varying viewpoints have been published on this biographical aspect, all of which were pointedly ignored in the book review above. Ruth Franklin has accused Irene Nemirovsky of being a self-hating Jew in her article in The New Republic called “Scandale Française: the nasty truth about a new literary heroine”; Stuart Jeffries has reached a different conclusion in his article in The Guardian called “Truth, lies and anti-semitism”; and Jonathan Weiss has published a biography of Nemirovsky where he treats the subject in depth, called Irene Nemirovsky, Her Life and Works (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2007). Weiss reaches this conclusion: “As for her Jewishness, it remains as an identity, a mark of distinction, a difference, and, to a great extent, a solidarity with a people in whose culture she recognizes her own origins.” Ibid., p. 171-172.