Sad, Beautiful, Absurd: Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française

suite

How sad the world is, so beautiful yet so absurd . . . But what is certain is that in five, ten or twenty years, this problem unique according to our time, according to him, will no longer exist, it will be replaced by others . . . yet this music, the sound of this rain on the windows, the great mournful creaking of the cedar tree in the garden outside, this moment, so tender, so strange in the middle of war, this will never change, not this. This is for ever . . .

There are two aspects to Suite Française: the (unfinished) novel itself–two parts of an imagined five–and the story of its author, whose arrest, transportation, and eventual death at Auschwitz haunt her fiction about occupied France. It is difficult for me to disentangle my reading of the former from my response to the latter. I was interested enough in Suite Française, which is almost uncomfortably cool and acerbic in its depiction of its characters’ various trials and traumas. There’s no room for sentiment or heroism in Némirovsky’s portraits of people under extraordinary pressure–almost everybody is to some degree petty and self-absorbed, but her upper-class characters in particular are more afraid of losing their luxuries and privileges than they are of the larger and more dire implications of the German occupation.

I found Part I (“Storm in June”), about the flight from Paris as the Germans approached, more gripping than Part II (“Dolce”), about the uneasy relationship between the French characters and the occupying forces: the drama was more overt. Part II is more subtle, both morally and emotionally, as it deals with the difference between “the enemy” in the abstract and the all-too-real human beings sharing homes and gardens and public spaces with the vanquished. One thing that particularly struck me about Part I was that Némirovsky mostly avoided clichéd wartime melodrama: although the evacuees are bombed, for instance, the carnage seems almost incidental, and the two most shocking deaths in that part are only indirectly caused by the war. Part II is primarily about character and atmosphere until near the end, when it turns out Némirovsky has been laying the groundwork for a plot twist that, as her notes show, was going to drive a lot of the action in the subsequent parts.

suite-2I was interested, as I said, yet I wasn’t really captivated. The novel has a rather flat affect–perhaps the result of translation, but also reminiscent of Olivia Manning, who writes about war and violence and what survives with similar restraint. Némirovsky’s novel follows a cast of loosely or incidentally connected characters; the overall effect is somewhat like a sampler, or (as the title suggests) a “suite.” If Némirovsky had been able to finish the novel, the cumulative effect might well have been more than the sum of its parts; it seems shoddy to judge what seem like imperfections knowing that what we’ve got is only a fragment.

Having said that, I did appreciate the novel’s long descriptive passages, which–in contrast to its typically more stilted and utilitarian prose–are often very beautiful, even poetic. Here’s an example that also captures some of the paradoxes of the war-time world Némirovsky depicts. The French villagers have gathered to watch the Germans celebrate the anniversary of their occupation of Paris:

Little by little, darkness spread across the lawns; they could still make out the gold decorations on the uniforms, the Germans’ blond hair, the musicians’ brass instruments on the terrace, but they had lost their glow. All the light of the day, fleeing the earth, seemed for one brief moment to take refuge in the sky; pink clouds spiralled round the full moon that was as green as pistachio sorbet and as clear as glass; it was reflected in the lake. Exquisite perfumes filled the air: grass, fresh hay, wild strawberries. The music kept playing. Suddenly, the torches were lit; as the soldiers carried them along, they cast their light over the messy tables, the empty glasses, for the officers were now gathered around the lake, singing and laughing. There was the lively, happy sound of champagne corks popping.

“Oh, those bastards! And to think it’s our wine they’re drinking,” the Frenchmen said, but without real bitterness, because all happiness is contagious and disarms the spirit of hatred.

It is a memorable vignette, one of many such striking moments in the novel. If it sounds as if Némirovsky is holding out beauty or happiness as in any way the antidote to war and cruelty, though, that would be misleading: the aesthetic pleasure the French take in this spectacle does nothing to undo their resentment and fear at the German presence in their lives, or to compensate for their grief for the loss of their sons and husbands at German hands.

nemirovskyThe individual stories Némirovsky tells all have their interesting details, but one thing I thought was missing as I read along was any acknowledgment of the specific risk to Jews. This made me wonder exactly what Némirovsky would have known while she was writing in 1941-2. The Appendices include her notebooks and then correspondence from her and her husband Michael including his letters, increasingly desperate, to friends and connections after her arrest in July 1942. It is clear that he, at any rate, did not realize what it means–that it is almost certainly a death sentence. Not only does he try every means he can think of to find her and bring her home, but he even offers to take her place: “Can you please find out,” he writes a couple of months after her arrest,

if it would be possible for me to be exchanged for my wife–I would perhaps be more useful in her place and she would be better off here. If this is impossible, maybe I could be taken to her–we would be better off together.

By the time he sent this letter Irène had been dead for over a month. Michael himself was arrested in October 1942 and sent on to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chambers. Their daughters survived only thanks to the courageous efforts of friends who sheltered them.

Maybe if I hadn’t read these documents immediately after finishing Suite Française the novel itself would have made a stronger impression on me. I found the appendices so compelling and immediate, though, so painfully real, that they overshadowed Némirovsky’s more muted and analytical fiction. The juxtaposition did raise questions for me about the kind of novel she wrote: about whether it deliberately lacks melodrama and avoids the horror and urgency her own story evokes or whether–though the included Preface to the French edition notes that she and her family “all openly wore the Jewish star” as restrictions on French Jews increased–she was spared the full painful understanding of what was really at stake until it was too late for her to write about it. (I’m sure there are answers about who know what when, though who believed what when is probably a somewhat different question. Then as now, it would have been hard to grasp the worst realities.) In any case, it is her personal story more than Suite Française that will stay with me, I think, which seems somehow both all wrong and entirely right.

2 thoughts on “Sad, Beautiful, Absurd: Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française

  1. banff1972 August 30, 2018 / 10:59 pm

    Thoughtful and interesting piece, Rohan. I’ve not read Némirovsky–a bit surprising, given my research and teaching interests, though I gather she is something of a controversial figure. Some of her early works have been criticized as anti-Semitic.

    As to the question of who knew what when: that is a perennially difficult one. You’ll recall from Night that Wiesel strongly criticizes the Jews of Sighet for not heeding any warnings, indeed for not wanting to see that there were any warning to heed.Hungary was a different case, especially rural Hungary, as the government dragged its heels in acceding to Nazi Germany’s demand that they round up and deport Jews that the Germans eventually (1944) took over. In Poland people knew much sooner what was up, if not in exact details, then certainly that nothing good was in the offing.
    France–unlike Hungary (or Bulgaria), quite ready to give up its Jews–is a different story. Sara Kofman’s memoir suggests that by 1942 Jews knew well how much risk there was of arrest and deportation. (Though what deportation actually meant–i.e. what awaited in the ominous “East”–I don’t think anyone imagined.) But Kofman’s account is retrospective and the letters you cite are of the moment, so we have to account for that difference.

    There’s knowing and there’s knowing, I guess is what I am saying.

    • Rohan Maitzen August 31, 2018 / 7:08 am

      That’s interesting about her earlier works. Nemirovsky and her husband had converted to Catholicism so did not identify as Jewish–which obviously didn’t matter to the Nazis. They had emigrated from Russia and a lot of her husband’s letters after her arrest are focused on “proving” she wasn’t a “Bolshevik” sympathizer.

      Thank you for the details about what was known. There are also a couple of post-arrest letters from her asking for supplies (including chocolate)–it’s hard not to think she thought she faced no worse than imprisonment.

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