Suite Francaise | Book review

Well this is the heartbreaking one…

Snuggle under the duvet and make yourself a cup of chocolat chaud. Distance yourself from all distractions, close the windows and shut the blinds in an attempt to drawn the street’s loud noises. Pick up Suite Francaise and get reading.

The book was intended as a heavy volume consisting of five parts, a War and Peace kind of beast following the struggle of daily life in France during World War II. However, this we did not get. While Tolstoy got his time to write this literary masterpiece, and saw it grow in front of his eyes, Irene Nemirovsky was not so lucky. Death in a concentration camp before the war was over, and surely, before she was over with life, meant that we never got the book we were promised, the one she outlined within her notes (you can read them at the end of this edition). What we got instead is something with a lot of potential, an unfinished piece of work with a history that makes the story within its pages all the more tragic.

A true relic from the war that killed millions, but also a piece that wouldn’t have been created without this very war. Imagine how much better this book would have been after a few more edits – after all, this is only a draft, and what a draft it is!

We have two out of the five parts Nemirovsky originally intended to write, A Storm in June and Dolce. The former follows a few different characters as they abandon Paris that is about to be occupied by the Nazis. A massive exodus that saw so many people leave their homes at one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and hit the roads of France in search of something a lot of them would never find.

In A Storm in June we have the upper middle classes, the intellectuals and the artists, the poor and the elderly. What is interesting is that you can see Nemirovsky’s very own feelings towards the classes manifesting themselves very prominently amongst the pages. She openly shows us the neglect of the egoistic rich, who don’t care about anyone else but themselves; about the self-involved and self-indulgent writers who only care about the luxury objects they posses, and not much about the sufferings of the masses. And then she lovingly writes about the poorer (but of course, in a traditional literary way, much richer) Michauds: an elderly couple whose only son is gone to war, while the two of them try to survive on their own. Abandoned by the bank they work for, and the management they were supposed to count on in this hour when the whole country was in need. In a moment of painful realisation it is Madame Michaud that would ask ‘But why are we always the ones who have to suffer? (…) Us and people like us? Ordinary people, the lower middle classes.’ Needless to say, words that ring true across decades, and doubtless, will still be painful to read years from now.

Then there is Dolce.

This is probably the story most people think of when hearing Suite Francaise – no less due to the fact the film by the same name only features this part of the book (do check out the film as well, but keep in mind some creative freedoms were taken).

“Waiting is erotic.”

Dolce focuses on a small town in France, occupied by the Germans, and only follows a few characters within it. It’s an interesting insight into how the proud French had to coexist with the hated occupier. How at the end of the day, even during war, women are women and men are men, and that is all that’s true about anything. And this is what made matters worse or maybe better – depending on who you ask.

In seeing how these people learnt to live together with the enemy, you get some sort of hope, of a true belief into the internal goodness of the human nature. But then again, you can’t ignore what those same soldiers (described just as laughing young, handsome lads in the book) were up to on the battlefield and, indeed, outside of it too.

However, it is easy to see why young girls who haven’t seen men in ages would quickly fall for the blond, tall, well-build foreign guys that have just entered the scene of their lives. And just like them, you kind of try to forget that those same charming lads were the ones who probably injured, captured or killed their fathers, brothers and sweethearts.

I know what you must be thinking: how can you even entertain the idea of being interested in a man like that? Well, when you are left entirely on your own I can ask you: how can you not?

The sweetest bit of Dolce is a storyline that has now turned into a cliche – the woman that falls for the occupier, the German that falls in love with the girl whose house he is staying at. Might be a cliche today, but boy did I not enjoy reading about that all over again.

What is more heartbreaking than doomed lovers, an impossible love? An unfinished story.

Suite Fransaice is a heartbreak. A beautifully written piece of art that could have been even better (or maybe worse, alas we will never find out), made all the more tragic by the story of its inception. And this got me thinking.

How did Nemirovksy, a jew in France, write like that about the occupier? She was a famous author before the war, enjoying a comfortable life with her husband and daughters in Paris. They lost everything the moment France lost it too. She had to hide and beg her editor and friends to arrange for her to still get some money to live on; she was ultimately caught and arrested and sent to Auschwitz (edit: all of this info as well as all of her last letters and notes can be found at the end of the book). Yet, in the meantime, she wrote about the young German soldier as a lost boy that was caught within unfortunate circumstances.

As an attractive stranger that walked into your home and charmed you with his foreign accent and wicked smile.

Let’s be honest, she basically describes the occupying soldier as a hot piece of German sausage. In my head, reading the book, a lot of the soldiers sounded attractive and even kind of nice. Tall, blond strangers that you could have a drink and a laugh with – a fantasy made all the sweeter because of the impossibility of the whole affair. A forbidden fruit you want to bite.

But to bite from the comforts of your own living room many years later.

So how did she have it in her to write so kindly about this man? About this collective symbol of everything horrible that happened to her and her family? It does take a true woman, a proper writer, to do that.

And for that, Suite Francaise is a book I would whole heartedly recommend.

Suite Francaise is best enjoyed…

… on an old wooden bench in a remote village as the wind gently runs its fingers through your hair.