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suitE FRANÇAISE,  de Irčne Némirovsky



April 9, 2006

'Suite Française,' by Irčne Némirovsky

As France Burned

Review by PAUL GRAY

THIS stunning book contains two narratives, one fictional and the other a fragmentary, factual account of how the fiction came into being. "Suite Française" itself consists of two novellas portraying life in France from June 4, 1940, as German forces prepare to invade Paris, through July 1, 1941, when some of Hitler's occupying troops leave France to join the assault on the Soviet Union. At the end of the volume, a series of appendices and a biographical sketch provide, among other things, information about the author of the novellas. Born in Ukraine, Irčne Némirovsky had lived in France since 1919 and had established herself in her adopted country's literary community, publishing nine novels and a biography of Chekhov. She composed "Suite Française" in the village of Issy-l'Evęque, where she, her husband and two young daughters had settled after fleeing Paris. On July 13, 1942, French policemen, enforcing the German race laws, arrested Némirovsky as "a stateless person of Jewish descent." She was transported to Auschwitz, where she died in the infirmary on Aug. 17.

The date of Némirovsky's death induces disbelief. It means, it can only mean, that she wrote the exquisitely shaped and balanced fiction of "Suite Française" almost contemporaneously with the events that inspired them, and everyone knows such a thing cannot be done. In his astute cultural history, "The Great War and Modern Memory," Paul Fussell describes the invariable progression — from the hastily reactive to the serenely reflective — of writings about catastrophes: "The significances belonging to fiction are attainable only as 'diary' or annals move toward the mode of memoir, for it is only the ex post facto view of an action that generates coherence or makes irony possible."

We can now see that Némirovsky achieved just such coherence and irony with an ex post facto view of, at most, a few months. In his defense, Fussell had not heard of "Suite Française," and neither had anyone else at the time, including Némirovsky's elder daughter, Denise, who saved the leatherbound notebook her mother had left behind but refused to read it, fearing it would simply renew old pains. (Her father, Michel Epstein, was sent to Auschwitz several months after her mother and was consigned immediately to the gas chamber.) Not until the late 1990's did Denise examine what her mother had written and discover, instead of a diary or journal, two complete novellas written in a microscopic hand, evidently to save scarce paper. Denise abandoned her plan to give the notebook to a French institute preserving personal documents from the war years and instead sent it to a publisher. "Suite Française" appeared in France in 2004 and became a best seller.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the back story of "Suite Française" is irrelevant to the true business of criticism. But most readers don't view books from such Olympian heights, and neither, for that matter, do most critics. If they did, publishers' lists wouldn't be so crowded with literary histories and biographies, those chronicles of messy facts from which enduring art sometimes springs. In truth, "Suite Française" can stand up to the most rigorous and objective analysis, while a knowledge of its history heightens the wonder and awe of reading it. If that's a crime, let's just plead guilty and forge ahead.

"Storm in June," the first novella of "Suite Française," opens as German artillery thunders on the outskirts of Paris and those residents who have trouble sleeping in the unusually warm weather hear the sound of an air-raid siren: "To them it began as a long breath, like air being forced into a deep sigh. It wasn't long before its wailing filled the sky." (Thomas Pynchon also hadn't heard of "Suite Française" while he was writing "Gravity's Rainbow," but compare his opening sentence, set in London, a few years later, same war: "A screaming comes across the sky.") The bombardment resumes: "A shell was fired, now so close to Paris that from the top of every monument birds rose into the sky. Great black birds, rarely seen at other times, stretched out their pink-tinged wings." With the utmost narrative economy, sharp, scattered images coalesce into an atmosphere of dread.

Parisians wake up to the realization that nothing, particularly the gallant French Army they have read and heard so much about, stands between them and the Germans, and they decide, as one, to get out fast. To depict the widespread chaos that ensues — railroads hobbled by overcrowding or bombed tracks, shortages of gasoline and food — Némirovsky concentrates on a few individuals caught up in the collective panic.

While her husband, a government-appointed museum official, remains behind, Charlotte Péricand mobilizes four of her five children (her eldest son, Philippe, is a Roman Catholic priest), her senile father-in law and a retinue of servants into an escape party, burdened by as many possessions as she can salvage from her haut-bourgeois household. Gabriel Corte, a rich, successful and egotistical writer, views the loss of Paris as an insult to his refined sensibilities. On the road, stalled in the choking traffic, he complains to his mistress, "If events as painful as defeat and mass exodus cannot be dignified with some sort of nobility, some grandeur, then they shouldn't happen at all!" As usual, Némirovsky offers no comment on this burst of folly; she allows her characters the liberty to display themselves on their own, for better and worse.

Maurice and Jeanne Michaud, a middle-aged couple, both work in a bank that is moving its operations to Tours. Suitcases in hand, the Michauds learn from their employer at the last instant that the space he has promised them in his car, helping to transport bank records, has been pre-empted by his mistress and her dog. "Both of you must be in Tours the day after tomorrow at the latest," he tells them. "I must have all my staff." The Michauds laugh as they watch his car disappear; they expect little from life and so are rarely disappointed.

Finding the Paris train stations shut down, the Michauds set off on foot: "In spite of the exhaustion, the hunger, the fear, Maurice Michaud was not really unhappy. He had a unique way of thinking: he didn't consider himself that important; in his own eyes, he was not that rare and irreplaceable creature most people imagine when they think about themselves." The Michauds are moral beacons among the rampaging selfishness all around them. Their only concern is their son, Jean-Marie, a soldier whose unit is in the path of the advancing German Army. A few chapters later, it is a relief for readers to learn what the Michauds have not: Jean-Marie, wounded in a bombardment, is recuperating in a farmhouse near Vendôme.

"Storm in June" is a tour de force of narrative distillation, using a handful of people to represent a multitude. Némirovsky's shifts in tone and pace, sensitively rendered in Sandra Smith's graceful translation, are mesmerizing. There are lighthearted moments — one entire chapter is seen from the point of view of the Péricands' cat — followed by eruptions of terror, as when German planes strafe a mass of evacuees: "When the firing stopped, deep furrows were left in the crowd, like wheat after a storm when the fallen stems form close, deep trenches." And it all ends as the facts ordained. News of the armistice — that is, the French surrender — is greeted by the beleaguered homeless as an answered prayer. Survivors straggle back to Paris, where an occupying enemy and a harsh winter await them.

"Dolce," the second novella, displays none of the tumults of its predecessor. It is bucolic, becalmed. The French people have lost the outward war, and the battle has shifted to the inner arena of their consciences and souls. The Germans, who seemed as spectral as invading space aliens in "Storm in June," now appear in person. A garrison of Wehrmacht troops is billeted in the village of Bussy. The local men of fighting age are all gone, either dead or prisoners of war; only old people, women and children remain, and they greet the conquerors with sullen apprehension. Conditioned by years of propaganda to fear the bestial, rapacious Huns, the villagers aren't prepared for these actual soldiers, some barely older than boys. The intruders smile, behave deferentially to their helpless hosts and give candy to the children. Yearning for a return to normalcy and the familiar rhythms of their lives, the people of Bussy grudgingly adapt to the new reality.

Lucile Angellier lives with her widowed mother-in-law in Bussy's most elegant house. She doesn't regret the absence of her loutish, philandering husband, Gaston, who is in a German prison camp, although she hides her feelings from his mother, who regards him as a saint. Bruno von Falk, a German officer, has been assigned to live in the house. Lucile tries to treat the intruder with the same icy disdain displayed by her mother-in-law, but she finds herself warming to him in spite of herself. He is handsome, he plays the piano beautifully — he tells her he had hoped to be a musician before his military obligations intervened — and he has read Balzac. Night after night, Lucile grows more sensitive to Bruno's presence in the next-door bedroom, to the sounds of his pacing and to the ensuing silences suggesting his sleep.

Némirovsky deftly establishes the terms of this melodrama and its inevitable question — where will the attraction between Lucile and Bruno lead? — and then adds a dissonant note of reality. A local farmer has killed a German officer, and the fugitive's wife, who happens to be one of the women who nursed Jean-Marie Michaud back to health in "Storm in June," asks Lucile to hide her husband in the spacious Angellier house, which should be above suspicion because of its German boarder. The terms of the inevitable question alter significantly. Will Lucile choose love or honor?

"Dolce" predates by nearly 30 years the explosive confessions of wartime collaboration in Marcel Ophuls's documentary "The Sorrow and the Pity," which French television declined to broadcast in 1970, even though it had partly paid for the project. Némirovsky recorded the best and worst of those times while living in them. Her novella ends as the occupying troops leave Bussy on their mission to Moscow: "Soon the road was empty. All that remained of the German regiment was a little cloud of dust."

But Némirovsky had more plans for "Suite Française," as an appendix to this volume makes clear. In her notebook, she sketched the possibility of a work in five parts. "Storm in June" and "Dolce" were to be followed by: "3. Captivity; 4. Battles?; 5. Peace?" The question marks punctuate Némirovsky's peculiar problem; she was trying to write a historical novel while the outcome of that history remained unknown. The fourth and fifth parts of the book "are in limbo," she observed, "and what limbo! It's really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens."

We now know what happened. Némirovsky lost her life in what she foresaw as "Captivity." The improbable survival of her two novellas is a cause for celebration and also for grief at another reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust. She wrote what may be the first work of fiction about what we now call World War II. She also wrote, for all to read at last, some of the greatest, most humane and incisive fiction that conflict has produced.

Paul Gray is a regular contributor to the Book Review.




April 7, 2006 Edition

The Daring of a Ghost



The publication of a new work by a writer killed in the Holocaust happens often enough that we can lose sight of the miracle involved in every such resurrection. It is not just the sheer improbability of a manuscript's survival that commands our attention, remarkable though it may be - from Anne Frank's diary, rescued by a family friend, to Kazimierz Sakowicz's "Ponary Diary," buried in empty lemonade bottles in 1944 and published in English just last year. More important is the historical, even the metaphysical victory that each recovered story represents. One of the first crimes of the Nazis was the obliteration of Jewish voices and words, through book-burning, censorship, and the imprisonment and murder of writers. Erasing the Jewish perspective from history was the necessary prelude to erasing the Jews themselves from history. That is why steal ing back a manuscript from oblivion represents a decisive victory over Nazism, a reassurance that no evil is so powerful that it can shape history in its own image.

"Suite Francaise" (Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pages, $25), by the French novelist Irene Nemirovsky, is the latest book to be so redeemed. Nemirovsky's name is unknown in the English-speaking world, but in France between the wars she was a popular and prolific writer. Her first novel, "David Golder," written in 1929 when she was 26 years old, was made into a hit movie the next year. "David Golder," with its stinging portrait of a rich Jewish businessman and his selfish, grasping wife, was Nemirovsky's revenge on her own family and milieu. Her father was a wealthy banker in Tsarist Russia, her mother a vain, promiscuous socialite, whom she loathed.

The family managed to escape Russia after the revolution and rebuild its fortunes in postwar France, where Irene cut a swath through high society. She married a fellow Jewish emigre, Michel Epstein, and had two daughters, while publishing a string of successful novels in the 1930s. Thoroughly alienated from Judaism, and sensing which way the wind was blowing, Nemirovsky converted to Catholicism in 1939. But she was not a French citizen, and after the fall of France in 1940, her situation became precarious. She was finally arrested in July 1942 and deported to Auschwitz, where she died a month later. Her husband, whose frantic efforts to rescue her are documented in the correspon dence printed in this volume, followed her later that year.

Only the courage and kindness of a family servant, Julie Dumot, prevented the Epstein daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, from sharing their parents' fate. As they fled their home in the village of Issy-L'Eveque, Denise slipped her mother's leather-bound notebook into her suitcase, wanting to keep it as a memento. For the next half-century, she found it too painful to open the book, which she presumed to be her mother's diary.When she finally decided to read it, she found that it was not a journal but a novel, two novels in fact: the first parts of what Nemirovsky planned as a five-volume sequence about France during the war.The book was published in French in 2004, 62 years after its author's death, and now appears for the first time in English in a translation by Sandra Smith.

The immediately striking, even shocking thing about Nemirovsky's aborted epic is how quickly she dared to turn history into fiction. The first of the two novellas she completed, "Storm in June," tells the story of a group of refugees fleeing Paris during the German invasion in June 1940; the second, "Dolce," takes place in a German-occupied village in the spring and summer of 1941. Since Nemirovsky herself died in the summer of 1942, she must have been writing about these events just weeks or months after they took place.

The pressure of immediacy is more obvious in "Storm in June," not just in its I-was-there reporting on the exodus from Paris,but in the deep anger and bitterness that informs the whole work. In assembling her cast of characters, Nemirovsky combines the zeal of a prosecutor with the method of a sociologist - appropriately enough, since her goal here is the indictment of a whole society. Indeed, "Storm in June" deserves to be read alongside Marc Bloch's famous treatise "Strange Defeat," as an expose of the spiritual and social failures that doomed France.

Each of Nemirovsky's characters stands in for a social class that crumbled in the face of Nazi assault. Madame Pericand, the grande bourgeoise, is paralyzed by status anxiety; Corbin, the banker, is greedy and brutal; Arlette Corail, his dancer mistress, is a pure opportunist. Most vicious of all is Nemirovsky's portrait of Gabriel Corte,a famous novelist whose reverence for art is just an excuse for his unlimited self-indulgence. When he spots German planes flying over his villa, his instinctive response is to cry: "Won't they leave me the hell alone?"

On the other hand, Nemirovsky reserves all virtue for a few favored categories: the pettybourgeois Michauds, bank employees who suffer at Corbin's hands, and the priest Philippe, whose spiritual mission is consummated in a luridly symbolic death. Such obviously tendentious construction damages "Storm in June" in literary terms, but it reveals the intensity of Nemirovsky's helpless rage. So do her vivid descriptions of columns of refugees fleeing Paris, clearly written from personal experience: "Occasionally the road rose more steeply and they could see clearly the chaotic multitude trudging through the dust, stretching far into the distance. The luckiest ones had wheelbarrows, a pram, a cart made of four planks of wood set on top of crudely fashioned wheels, bowing down under the weight of bags, tattered clothes, sleeping children."

"Dolce," the second novella in "Suite Francaise," is a more assured and complex work. Here Nemirovsky tightens her focus, concentrating on a few villagers who appear briefly in "Storm in June." Chief among these is Lucile Angellier, a young woman whose husband, Gaston, is a prisoner of war in Germany. Lucile never loved Gaston, however, and her lack of sincere grief at his absence is a source of bitter resentment to her mother-in-law, Madame Angellier, with whom she lives in a state of frozen hostility.When a handsome and musical German soldier is billeted in the house and awakens Lucile's loving instincts for the first time, the stage is set for a classic tragedy, pitting love against loyalty, passion against patriotism. Nemirovsky's skill at natural description stands her in good stead here, as the ripening of spring in the French countryside offers a counterpoint to Lucile's hopeless flowering: "Against a sky of pure and relentless blue - that deep but lustrous Sevres blue seen on certain precious pieces of porcelain - floated branches that appeared to be covered in snow. The breath of wind that moved them was still chilly on this day in May; the flowers gently resisted, curling up with a kind of trembling grace and turning their pale stamens towards the ground."

Passages like this mark the distance between Nemirovsky's lyrical fiction and the terse, stenographic style we associate with most writing about modern war. Considering the circumstances in which Nemirovsky wrote - invasion, occupation, poverty, and the constant expectation of arrest - the dedication to artistry demonstrated in "Suite Francaise" is deeply moving. In Nemirovsky's notes and journal entries, published at the end of this volume, we see her focusing on technical problems of novel-writing with the single-mindedness of a shipwreck survivor clutching to a spar: making lists of characters and plot points, sketching volumes she guessed she would not live to finish. "Never forget," she wrote on June 2, 1942, just six weeks before her arrest, "that the war will be over and that the entire historical side will fade away.Try to create as much as possible: things, debates ... that will interest people in 1952 or 2052."

Nemirovsky's determined neglect of the "historical side" is essential to "Suite Francaise," for good and ill. Fully aware that she was living through epic events, she decided not to write about them epically. This was not just an aesthetic choice but an ethical one: In an age that seemed intent on abolishing the individual in favor of the mass, Nemirovsky focused on a handful of ordinary characters, showing grand events only as they impinged on humble lives. This method is a perfect complement to what seems to be Nemirovsky's "message," the moral code that her most sympathetic characters avow. Lucile states it most directly: "I hate this community spirit they go on and on about. The Germans, the French, the Gaullists, they all agree on one thing: you have to love, think, live with other people, as part of a state, a country, a political party. Oh, my God! I don't want to! I'm just a poor useless woman; I don't know anything but I want to be free!"

Lucile's deeply human plea, however, seems to bear the seeds of the same selfishness that Nemirovsky criticizes so roundly in "Storm in June." "Suite Francaise," as we have it, represents just one moment in the response to the fall of France, the hope for individual salvation in the face of mass calamity. Comparing it to Camus's "The Plague" - a genuine masterpiece of World War II fiction, as "Suite Francaise" finally is not - shows that Nemirovsky fails to proceed to the second, answering moment, in which the genuine ethical claims of the community on the individual are reasserted.

For Nemirovsky, France has failed so shamefully that it forfeits any claim to allegiance - a reaction that Camus fully understood but also managed to transcend. Nemirovsky only begins to approach this trancendence in "Dolce," when Lucile's atavistic patriotism finally thwarts her love for her German soldier. For it to appear fully, Nemirovsky would have had to embrace the genuinely political aspects of the war - the real nature of Nazism, the peril and necessity of the Resistance - which are almost completely absent from "Suite Francaise" as we have it. Nemirovsky's notes show that, in the planned later volumes, the action would have moved to Paris, and the themes of resistance and collaboration would have taken center stage. The elements missing from "Suite Francaise," then, only serve to remind us of how much Nemirovsky did manage to accomplish in the time allowed her - and how lucky we are to have her truncated novel at last.



Recovered WWII novels tell of chaos and suffering

2 books were finished when French writer was arrested and shipped to Auschwitz

By Alan Cheuse, a book commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered," a writing teacher at George Mason University and the author, most recently, of the short-story collection "Lost and Old Rivers."
Published April 9, 2006

Suite Francaise
By Irene Nemirovsky, translated from French by Sandra Smith
Knopf, 401 pages, $25

UNLESS you're an expert in 20th Century French fiction, you probably haven't heard of Irene Nemirovsky, a best-selling novelist before World War II. I certainly hadn't.

But the facts now available to us non-experts because of the publication of two of her novels, only recently brought out for the first time in France and now offered here in English translation, reveal that her talent was quite considerable and her personal story rather moving and awful.

Nemirovsky was born in Russia in 1903 into a Jewish banking family, and in the wake of the rise of Bolshevism she emigrated with her family to France in the early 1920s. The young woman had a future. Ten years later she made a big splash with her first novel, found an audience, sold books to the movies. As the Nazi menace loomed larger and larger, she converted to Catholicism, and after France fell to the Germans she began writing what she outlined as a five-volume novel about the aftermath of this horrific historical event.

She had finished the first two books--"Storm in June" and "Dolce"--and had copious notes for the others when she was arrested by the Nazis. Shipped off to Auschwitz in 1942, she was never seen again by her husband (later arrested and murdered by the Nazis) and her two daughters (who survived the Nazi occupation with the aid of their nanny and some sympathetic Catholics in the countryside).

The daughters salvaged her suitcase containing the manuscripts of the first two novels in this series and handwritten notes for the rest. Nearly 60 years after their mothers' disappearance, the daughters brought out these books in France. And now we have the English translation under the umbrella title "Suite Francaise."

These are two beautifully restrained novels about the chaos and suffering immediately following the fall of Paris and the subsequent exodus of tens of thousands from the capital (in "Storm in June"), and the tragicomic results of the Nazi occupation of the French countryside (in "Dolce").

A large part of the first book takes place on the road, with Parisians fleeing to country towns. Nemirovsky's picture is quietly disturbing:

"Silently, with no lights on, cars kept coming, one after the other, full to bursting with baggage and furniture, prams and birdcages, packing cases and baskets of clothes, each with a mattress tied firmly to the roof. They looked like mountains of fragile scaffolding and they seemed to move without the aid of a motor, propelled by their own weight down the sloping streets to the town square. Cars filled all the roads into the square. People were jammed together, like fish caught in a net."

Packed into these cars are a number of families, and Nemirovsky intertwines their stories as the chapters move along and their desire for safe havens and food becomes more acute. Two seasoned bankers, an avowedly non-political fiction writer, families with sons who have been interned as prisoners of war, the rich and the not so well to do, Catholics mostly, struggle to survive as the Nazis settle their net over the countryside.

In "Dolce" we see some of that country life under the rough new order of the German army. The pace quickens as some aristocrats take comfort in the regularities of Nazi rule, some French-women, cut off from their men by the rigors of war, flirt with the occupiers, and some farmers resist to the point of murder.

"War . . . yes, everyone knows what war is like," the omniscient narrator says about the French state of mind at the time. "But occupation is more terrible in a way, because people get used to one other. We tell ourselves, 'They're just like us, after all,' but they're not at all the same. We're two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever."

Hardship and suffering, from the personal level to the political, take up page after page of Nemirovsky's clear-throated story. And in constant counterpoint to the human aspect we greet the seasons, from the heat of that fateful first June onward.

"The stars were coming out," Nemirovsky writes of Paris at the beginning of the occupation, "springtime stars with a silvery glow. Paris had its sweetest smell, the smell of chestnut trees in bloom and of petrol with a few grains of dust that crack under your teeth like pepper. In the darkness the danger seemed to grow. You could smell the suffering in the air, in the silence."

This all seems in keeping with the final note Nemirovsky left behind about how to compose the projected later volumes. "The most important and most interesting thing here is the following: the historical, revolutionary facts etc. must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life . . . must be described in detail."

This she did rather splendidly in the first two books, until history, with all of its murderous irony, hauled her up in its net and kept her from writing further.






22 APRIL 2006


Masterpiece from madness



From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Suite Française

By Irčne Némirovsky

Translated by Sandra Smith

Knopf Canada, 395 pages, $34.95

If you read only one piece of fiction this year, read Irčne Némirovsky's miraculous last novel. Suite Française is miraculous for the power, brilliance and beauty of the writing, and for the very wholeness of the work, despite its being less than half the 1,000 pages its author intended. For in media res, Némirovsky and her husband, Michel Epstein, were deported to Auschwitz from the French village where they and their young daughters had taken shelter: The daughters managed to survive by fleeing from one hiding place to another, their mother's notebooks in tow.

For more than 60 years they could not bring themselves to read what the notebooks contained: When they finally did, Suite Française was published in France to enormous acclaim. Despite its time "in hiding," Némirovsky's novel speaks as resonantly today as it would have had it been published in the year of her death, 1942: It is a stunning denunciation of the hypocrisy and greed of the ruling elites who make, but never seem to suffer from, war.

Storm in June and Dolce, the two sections of the masterwork that Némirovsky did manage to complete, relate, on the one hand, the epic exodus from Paris of a mass of humanity terrified by the imminent occupation of their city by the victorious Germans, and on the other hand, day-to-day life in a Burgundian village where the German occupiers are not brutes and sadists, but young, mostly good-natured, sometimes careless men whom history has forced into uniform.

In both sections, Némirovsky presents us with sharply realized characters unforgettable in their generosity or venality, their spitefulness or simplicity of soul. Part of the richness of the writing lies in Némirovsky's gift for satire: She is fully the equal of Jane Austen in delineating the intricate tensions of provincial society, and as for snobbery and misuse of power, her Vicomtesse de Montmort holds her own perfectly against Austen's formidable bully, Lady Catherine de Burgh.

Egotistical collectors of porcelain and writers of fashionable novels; self-righteous bourgeois matrons and their infirm but tyrannical fathers-in-law; the quick-witted mistresses of bank managers who, even in wartime, know how to get their hands on American cosmetics; exhausted and defeated soldiers, working-class survivors fleeing Paris with their newborn babies and birdcages, and, rarest of all, decent, ordinary people like the Michauds, forced from their settled lives into the dangers and hardships of refugee existence -- Némirovsky's most brilliant pages detail their ruses and survival strategies, their arrogance and self-deception, their loving kindness.

Magnificent as they are, the novel's opening pages, a bravura realization of a hot spring night after the first bombs have fallen in Paris, are matched by a later chapter devoted to the night-time prowls of a cat that has been evacuated, along with the family silver and linen, by the wealthy, stuffy Péricand family. In one of Storm's most harrowing chapters, the Michauds' eldest son, a young, selfless and ingenuous priest, meets his death at the hands of the boys he has been shepherding out of Paris: juvenile delinquents whose amorality seems a match for the insouciance with which the cat's claws pierce the soft body of an unlucky bird.

Dolce, the novel's second part, is first and foremost a love story, but does not deal only with the conflicted relationship between Bruno van Falk, a sensitive German officer who is a composer in civilian life, and Lucile Angellier, an unhappily married woman under the thumb of her despotic, stingy mother-in-law.

The other remarkable love story told in Dolce is that between the author and the paradisal countryside in which her story takes place. For, as with one of her favourite authors, Katherine Mansfield, Némirovsky's comic and satirical gifts are matched by a passion for the beauty of the sensuous world: the scents of newly mown hay and opened roses, the white undersides of storm-shaken leaves, the sheer glory of a hot, sunny summer in one of France's lushest landscapes.

As is suggested by an appendix to Suite Française -- notes made by Némirovsky during the writing of her novel -- it is the abiding beauty and power of the natural world that make art possible for her at all. For it appears that Némirovsky wrote the bulk of this novel not at her desk, but in the woods behind the house in which she and her family had taken shelter on fleeing Paris: Only two days before her arrest, she describes herself sitting and writing on a fallen tree, at her feet a satchel containing the provisions needed to sustain her: Volume 2 of Anna Karenina, the diary of Katherine Mansfield and an orange.

Suite Française is not a "Holocaust novel": No yellow stars appear in its pages (though Némirovsky, her husband and children had to wear such stars each time they left their house) and anti-Semitism is referred to only once. The family converted to Catholicism in 1939, though whether out of desperate expediency alone is not clear.

What is certain is that, for whatever reason, Irene Némirovsky and her husband, both Russian Jews who had earlier fled the Bolsheviks, had neglected or refused to take out French citizenship -- not that that would have spared them: Their two French-born daughters, 5 and 13 when they last saw their mother, were pursued just as zealously by the French police as their parents were, a fact made clear by the heart-wrenching correspondence also included in this volume, between Michel Epstein and those among his friends and acquaintances who, he hoped, might have the influence to have his wife released.

The impact of Suite Française on France must have been remarkable, for the novel makes impossible the kind of ignorance imagined by the schoolboy-turned-soldier Hubert: "And to think that no one will know, that there will be such a conspiracy of lies that all this will be transformed into yet another glorious page in the history of France. We'll do everything we can to find acts of devotion and heroism for the official records. Good God! To see what I've seen! Closed doors where you knock in vain to get a glass of water and refugees who pillaged houses; everywhere, everywhere you look, chaos, cowardice, vanity and ignorance! What a wonderful race we are!"

Yet this is not a novel contorted by hatred: "I swear here and now never again to take out my bitterness, no matter how justifiable, on a group of people, whatever their race, religion, convictions, prejudices, errors," Némirovsky declared. And yet, she makes it clear that she will play no part in the "conspiracy of lies": "I cannot forgive certain individuals, those who . . . coldly abandon us, those who are prepared to stab you in the back. Those people . . . if I could just get my hands on them . . ."

In Suite Française she has wielded her pen to flay the inhumane and to show up their cowardice by depicting the only heroism possible in Europe during the Second World War: that of the "sorrowful nobility" miraculously shown, in spite of everything, by the Michauds, the von Falks, the Epsteins of this horrific, still astonishingly beautiful world.

Janice Kulyk Keefer's most recent novel, on the life of Katherine Mansfield, is Thieves.

A novel written during the Holocaust roars into the present

By Susan Rubin Suleiman  |  April 30, 2006

Suite Française
By Irčne Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith
Knopf, 395 pp.

It is not often that an almost totally forgotten novelist publishes a runaway bestseller 60 years after her death. But that is what happened to Irčne Némirovsky, a Russian Jewish exile who lived and wrote in France, was feted in Paris literary circles in the 1930s, and died in Auschwitz in 1942. ''Suite Française," the novel she was working on until the day of her arrest by French police on July 13, 1942, did not see the light of day until September 2004; it quickly climbed the French bestseller lists and remained there for several months.

This is in many ways an astonishing work, not least because Némirovsky was writing about events that were unfolding almost simultaneously with her putting them into fictional form -- a kind of ''instant" ''War and Peace" (she was a great admirer of Tolstoy), covering the period from the fall of France in June 1940 to Hitler's declaration of war against the Soviet Union a year later. While complete in its own way, the book is less than half of what Némirovsky projected, as indicated by the notes she kept (which appear here in an appendix, along with excerpts from her correspondence). Undoubtedly, the appeal of ''Suite Française" lies partly in its author's tragic death and in its own dramatic back story. Written in a tiny script in a leatherbound notebook, the work was kept unopened for many years by Némirovsky's two daughters, who survived the war as young children and found it too painful to dwell on this reminder of their mother. Only decades later did they realize what the notebook contained. It was thanks to the efforts of her older daughter, Denise Epstein, that Némirovsky's work finally reached publication.

''Suite Française" consists of two quasi-independent parts, though they clearly belong to a single work. Part one, titled ''Storm in June," is a brilliant description of what the French call the ''exodus" of June 1940, when tens of thousands of civilians from Paris and the north took to the road -- in cars, on bicycles, on foot, carrying as much as they could of their household belongings -- to flee from the advancing Germans. Surprisingly few novelists have tried to represent the days of terror and confusion that followed the German invasion, before Marshal Pétain signed the armistice that initiated four years of German occupation as well as the Vichy regime. Némirovsky tells this story by following the movements of a dozen or so characters from various walks of life, who find themselves on the road as refugees. Her observations and insights are often stunning, delivered in a coolly objective or ironic tone. She is pitiless, for example, in relating the ''hardships" suffered by some members of the privileged classes, as they make their way in chauffeur-driven cars to country houses and luxury hotels; very soon after the armistice, she shows them back in Paris, ready to resume life as usual, even if it means collaborating with the occupiers. The only characters for whom she shows sympathy are a couple of poor but honest bank employees, who married for love many years ago and whose only son is in the army. He is seriously wounded but survives, and Némirovsky had grand plans for him in subsequent volumes that she never lived to write.

The second part, ''Dolce," set in a single village during the first year of the Occupation, focuses on a much smaller cast of characters; and here Némirovsky's insights are even more astonishing than in the exodus chapters. She seems to have understood right away what would be the sorest points for France during the years of occupation: how to behave with the enemy, how to behave with one's neighbors if they collaborated, or to the contrary if they resisted. Némirovsky spent several months with her family in a village near Paris before being arrested, so she based the story on personal observation. She shows the gamut of human interactions that inevitably occur between the occupiers and the occupied, ranging from seething hatred to tender but impossible love. As in the earlier section, her prose is spare, beautifully pointed, and it is well served in this translation. Describing the arrival of young, good-looking German soldiers in a town emptied of its able-bodied men, she writes: ''The mothers of prisoners or soldiers killed in the war looked at them and begged God to curse them, but the young women just looked at them."

Perhaps the best-known literary text to come out of the French Resistance was a novella published clandestinely in 1942 by a journalist writing under the pseudonym Vercors. ''Le Silence de la Mer" (''The Silence of the Sea") is a story about an elderly Frenchman and his young niece, who are forced to billet a German officer in their home. He is aristocratic, idealistic, courteous, and they treat him politely; but they don't address a single word to him -- that is their way of resisting, although there is a hint that the niece finds him very attractive. Némirovsky was dead by the time this story was published, but to a reader today her ''Dolce" seems like an uncanny variation on Vercors's tale. In her version, the young woman (who lives with her strict mother-in-law, not her uncle) converses and falls in love with the handsome, cultivated German officer, but in the end she too realizes that she cannot fraternize with the enemy: The war has created a conflict that is insurmountable, even between would-be lovers.

It is heartbreaking to read Némirovsky's notes for the sequels she had in mind. ''To sum up: struggle between personal destiny and collective destiny," she wrote to herself on July 1, two weeks before her deportation to Auschwitz. Her own personal destiny was crushed by the collective Jewish destiny, which appears all the more ironic given that she thought of herself as totally assimilated, Jewish in hardly more than name. There is not one word about Jews in ''Suite Française," although she wore the yellow star while she was writing it. She died in Auschwitz in August 1942. Her husband, after trying desperately to get her freed, was deported in November and also perished there.

Susan Rubin Suleiman is a professor of French and comparative literature at Harvard. Her new book is ''Crises of Memory and the Second World War."  



Bearing Witness
A gripping novel about the German occupation of France, written as the Nazis closed in on the author.

Reviewed by Ruth Kluger
Sunday, May 14, 2006; BW06


A Novel

By Irčne Némirovsky

Translated from the French by Sandra Smith

Knopf. 395 pp. $25

This extraordinary work of fiction about the German occupation of France is embedded in a real story as gripping and complex as the invented one. Composed in 1941-42 by an accomplished writer who had published several well-received novels, Suite Française , her last work, was written under the tremendous pressure of a constant danger that was to catch up with her and kill her before she had finished.

Irčne Némirovsky was a Jewish, Russian immigrant from a wealthy family who had fled the Bolsheviks as a teenager. She spent her adult life in France, wrote in French but preserved the detachment and cool distance of the outsider. She and her husband were deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where he was gassed upon arrival and she died in the infirmary at the age of 39. Her manuscript, in minuscule and barely readable handwriting, was preserved by her daughters, who, ignorant of the fact that these notebooks contained a full-fledged masterpiece, left it unread until 60 years later. Once published, with an appendix that illuminates the circumstances of its origin and the author's plan for its completion, it quickly became a bestseller in France. It is hard to imagine a reader who will not be wholly engrossed and moved by this book.

Némirovsky's plan consisted of five parts. She completed only the first two before she was murdered. Yet they are not fragmentary; they read like polished novellas. The first, "Storm in June," gives us a cross section of the population during the initial exodus from the capital, when a battle for Paris was expected and people fled helter-skelter south, so that the roads were clogged with refugees of all classes. Némirovsky shows how much caste and money continued to matter, how the nation was not united in the face of danger and a common enemy. In her account, the well-to-do continue to be especially egotistical and petty. And yet a deep, unsentimental sympathy pervades this panorama. Looking up to the sky at enemy planes overhead, the refugees who have to sleep on the street or in their cars "lacked both courage and hope. This was how animals waited to die. It was the way fish caught in a net watch the shadow of the fisherman moving back and forth above them." I can't think of a more chilling and concise image to convey the helplessness of civilians in an air raid.

Not being French herself but steeped in French culture may have made it easier for Némirovsky to achieve her penetrating insights with Flaubertian objectivity. She gives us startling, steely etched sketches of both collaboration and resistance among people motivated by personal loyalties and grievances that date from before the war.

The second part, "Dolce" (the title -- Italian for "sweet" -- derives from Némirovsky's plan to give the work a musical structure), covers the occupation by the Germans of a small village, from the so-called armistice in June 1940 to the Soviet Union's entry into the war a year later. One can forget that there was a period after the defeat of France when World War II could be seen simply as a war between Germany and Britain. The villagers yearn for peace, and many are indifferent as to who wins, England or Germany, as long as their own men come home. Némirovsky is superb in describing how fraternization comes about, including French girls and women giving in to the attractions of the handsome German occupants -- there are no other men around, most of the French men having been taken prisoner. But the unnatural situation also breeds fierce feelings of resentment and humiliation. Némirovsky embodies this conflict in the story of a woman who falls in love with a German officer and at the same time hides a villager wanted for the murder of another German -- a murder motivated partly by patriotic hatred and partly by marital jealousy.

One puzzling omission from the spectrum of conquered and cowering French society is the Jews -- the one group that was more endangered than any other, as Némirovsky knew only too well. Perhaps she wanted to save the fate of the Jews for the next part, which was to be entitled "Captivity." Even so, when one thinks of the threat the Jewish population endured even at this early stage of persecution, one feels the significant gap here.

Still, this is an incomparable book, in some ways sui generis . While diaries give us a day-to-day record, their very inclusiveness can lead to tedium; memoirs, on the other hand, written at a later date, search for highlights and illuminate the past from the vantage point of the present. In Némirovsky's Suite Française we have the perfect mixture: a gifted novelist's account of a foreign occupation, written while it was taking place, with history and imagination jointly evoking a bitter time, correcting and enriching our memory. ·

Ruth Kluger is the author of the memoir "Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered."



Exposing France's ghosts
Author of 'Suite Française' and a reviled Vichy figure are the subject of two books

Reviewed by Jason Warshof
Sunday, September 24, 2006

Irčne Némirovsky

Her Life and Works By Jonathan Weiss


PRESS; 200 Pages; $24.95


Bad Faith

A Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland and Vichy France

By Carmen Callil

KNOPF; 607 Pages; $30

After the writer Irčne Némirovsky was arrested and interned at the concentration camp at Pithiviers, south of Paris, in the summer of 1942, her husband, Michel Epstein, sent a volley of desperate letters to various "influential people" in an attempt to gain her release. One of these letters he sent to Otto Abetz, the German ambassador to France's Vichy government.

This was not so strange in itself, sending a letter to Abetz. The ambassador had intervened successfully on behalf of at least a few other interned French Jews, such as Maurice Goudeket, husband of the French writer Colette. More surprising, perhaps, is the content in Epstein's letter: "In none of (my wife's) books ... will you find a word against the Germans, and although my wife is Jewish she speaks of Jews without any tenderness. ... (She) has no sympathy, and all her books show this, for either Judaism or Bolshevism."

This plea comes across as almost ludicrous in its naivete, but Epstein was operating according to a kind of logic. His wife, the only child of an influential banker in Kiev and St. Petersburg, had fled Russia with her family in the chaotic days of the Revolution of 1917. She would never be comfortable with revolutionaries, Communist or otherwise. And, at the time, Epstein could not have understood the rigidity of the German-Vichy partnership -- and the unwillingness of individual officials to act out against it.

Still, with the acclaim that accompanied the posthumous publication of "Suite Française" in France (Denoël, 2004) and abroad (Knopf, U.S., 2006), the question almost sizzles: Was Némirovsky -- could she have been -- an anti-Semitic writer? And, whether yes or no, what exactly was her relationship to her Jewish, as well as her Russian and adopted French, heritage? These questions are central to "Irčne Némirovsky: Her Life and Works," a brief but intensely thought-provoking biography by Jonathan Weiss, a professor of humanities and French at Colby College.

Though she spent the better part of her childhood in Russia, Némirovsky, like other members of the Russian upper classes, cultivated a distinctly French sensibility. Her parents employed a French governess, and she traveled to France in the summers. She also spoke French almost exclusively at home, and did her first writing in French. So that by the time the family arrived in Paris in 1919, the writer-to-be felt that, in a way, she was returning to her true home.

Beyond her identification with France -- and in particular with the conservative ethos of "the provinces, respectful of tradition and resistant to change" -- there is the more troubling issue of Némirovsky's relationship with her Jewishness. Never observant, while growing up in Kiev, her family lived in a Jewish enclave on one of the city's hills "festooned with linden trees (and situated) between the homes of high Russian civil servants and those of Polish nobles." Down in the valley was the podol, or the Jewish ghetto, calling to mind Bernard Malamud's description in "The Fixer," where the protagonist settles "in a teeming tenement hung with mattresses airing and rags of clothing drying, above a courtyard crowded with wooden workshops."

Némirovsky rarely admitted a feeling of kinship with such Jews -- in 1939, she would ultimately convert to Catholicism with her whole family -- and especially in her early fiction, she portrays them in startlingly racist language. In "David Golder," published in 1929 and probably the author's most successful book during her lifetime, she describes the protagonist as having an "enormous hooked (nose), like that of an old Jewish usurer (and) soft, trembling flesh smelling of fever."

Though in later works she would increasingly abandon such flagrant stereotypes, it is with the unfinished "Suite Française," written in 1941 and 1942 before she was ultimately deported to Auschwitz, where she died at 39, that Némirovsky would make her boldest statement. In those years she continued to associate herself with right-wing publications such as Gringoire, but in "Suite" -- which she kept hidden -- she unloosed a withering attack against the Vichy regime. Her metaphor describing collaborationists Pierre Laval and Philippe Henriot gives some idea of her thinking: "The first is a tiger, the second a hyena; one smells on the first the odor of fresh blood, and the stink of dead bodies is on the other."

Arguably the most hated figure in the Vichy regime, both by his colleagues and his natural adversaries, was Louis Darquier, commissioner for Jewish affairs from 1942 to 1944, whom Carmen Callil portrays in her stirring and ultimately personal achievement "Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland and Vichy France."

Darquier was raised in the southwestern French city of Cahors, by a physician father, a likable philanderer who served as mayor for many years, and a mother who was described as "very spoiled, very old France, very beautiful ... with a high, studied voice, given to little exclamations." Darquier was the middle child of three; his two brothers would eventually drift to opposite ends of the political spectrum -- the older brother, Jean, to the right, the younger, René, to the left.

But no amount of mining of family details can account for the thoroughly loathsome person that Darquier, who was obsessed with pure French blood but married an Australian alcoholic, would become. By all accounts, the first principle that guided his actions was greed, even before hatred. When Darquier had risen to the position of commissioner for Jewish affairs, he proposed terms for the deportation of French Jews that exceeded even the Germans' most liberal expectations. This included removing citizenship from Jews naturalized since August 1927, pushing the date back from 1932. But for all his zeal, Darquier -- scrounging for money for most of his life -- could always be bribed, by Germans, Jews and Frenchmen alike.

Darquier's more trivial vices are too numerous to name in a review of this length. Among them were his claims of noble lineage, thus the added pretend surname "de Pellepoix." Later, in Franco's Madrid, where he fled after the war, he would modify the title to "Barón Louis d'Arquier de Pellepoix." Darquier, sentenced to death in absentia by France but never pursued, was also a physical brute, prone to getting into fistfights in public, and a voracious womanizer. His colleagues viewed him as a boor, and figures such as Laval came to dread his whining letters, which usually involved a request for additional funds.

As thorough as Callil's portrait is of the antihero Darquier -- so readable in part because even villains can be colorful -- this book also manages to interweave several other stories: of the competing Fascist subgroups that roiled France in the late 1930s and early 1940s; of the unsettling friendship between former French President François Mitterrand and René Bousquet, Vichy's secretary-general for the police; and, finally, of Darquier's abandonment of his daughter, Anne, who was raised by a governess in Oxfordshire, England, on an irregularly paid allowance of one pound per week.

This is where Callil herself, the pioneering founder of Virago Press, enters the picture. In 1963, at 25, she began seeing a psychiatrist outside of London named Anne Darquier, whom she describes as having "singular empathy" for her patients. Seven years later, Callil was still seeing Darquier when the latter died of a drug overdose. After viewing Marcel Ophuls' documentary "Le Chagrin et la Pitié" ("The Sorrow and the Pity"), an exposé of Vichy France, Callil made the connection between Anne and her criminal father.

That revelation would ultimately result in this telescopic yet meticulously drawn study of Darquier and his era. Among this book's many merits, it is what we might call a "living" document -- not a staid history of a locked-up past. In the portrait of a tortured but essentially moral Anne Darquier, we can nearly follow the results of Vichy into our own generation. In some sense, we can glimpse the fluidity of history and, perhaps, the possibility for redemption.

Jason Warshof has written for the Jerusalem Post, among other publications.



The TLS n.ş 5414  January 5, 2007




Suite portraits


Natasha Lehrer


Jonathan Weiss

Irene Némirovsky

Her life and Works

Translated by Dace Weiss

224 pp. Stanford University Press  $ 24,95

Distributed in the United Kingdom by Eurospan, Ł 17,50

0 8047 5481 0


In 2004, a book by a once popular and now long-forgotten author was published in France to ecstatic praise. Its author, who had been dead for fifty-two years, was awarded the prestigious Prix Renaudot for her novel, which described life in a French village under Nazi Occupation. A year later, the English translation headed the bestseller lists in New York and London for many weeks - almost unheard of for a literary novel in translation. The after-life of Irčne Némirovsky, the author of Suite française (reviewed in the TLS, January 14, 2005), has been as astonishing as the last part of her life was tragic.

Jonathan Weiss became interested in Némirovsky’s life several years before the publication of the novel that would bring its author such extraordinary posthumous fame; it had remained unread for half a century because her daughter could not bring herself lo read the manuscript. His biography of Némirovsky, originally published in French in 2005, is now available in English (translated from the French by Weiss’s wife, Dace). It is a valuable attempt to put Némirovsky in context, not simply as a victim of the Vichy regime and the Nazis but also as one of the most successful women writers in pre-war France, one whose literary success was comparable to Colette’s.

Weiss is hampered by the fact that very little primary material exists to throw light on a large part of Némirovsky’s life; she left behind no diaries, few photographs and little correspondence about her early life in Kiev or her years in Paris before the Second World War. Weiss gets round this by using her early novels to construct a portrait of the milieu into which she was born and to throw light on her life and her writing.

Némirovsky’s upper-middle-class Jewish origins gave her family access - both in pre-Revolutionary Kiev and later in Paris where her family moved after escaping the 1917 Revolution when she was fourteen to a cultured, francophone world of privilege. It was a world of refinement that contrasted sharply with the world she evokes in David Golder, the novel that made her name when she was only twenty-six (it was adapted for both cinema and theatre the following year, 1930). The financier Golder, along with other Jewish characters in the book, is described in the kind of stereotypical terms that appealed lo the right-wing press of the time, and she gained rave reviews for her “pure” prose from he likes of the virulently anti-Semitic writer Robert Brasillach. In her introduction to the French edition of Suite Française,  curiously edited out of the English version of her preface), Myriam Anissimov easily elides Némirovsky’s early fiction and her Jewish identity:


What self-hatred she reveals in her writing. She has taken on board the idea that Jews belong lo a different, less worthy “race”, and that their exterior signs are easily recognizable: frizzy hair, hooked noses, moist palms, swarthy complexions, thick btack ringlets, crooked teeth . . . not to mention their love of making money, their pugnacity, their hysteria    (Reviewer’ s translation)


Weiss, by contrast, negotiates the question of Némirovsky’s supposed anti-Semitism deftly, putting it into the social context of the time, and making it clear (as does Anissimov) that Némirovsky and her husbaud Michel Epstein never denied their Jewish origins. Weiss insists that the couple’s conversion lo Catholicism, in 1939, was driven by belief rather than expediency; he cannot so easily explain away the relationships that Némirovsky had with some of the most well-known figures of the pro-Vichy Right and the publication of her writing in the most anti-Semitic newspapers of the time.

By the time it came to Suite française - which is set during the very years in which it was written, between 1940 and 1942 - the only clue to Némirovsky’s ambiguous attitude towards her Jewishness was in the fact that not a single Jewish character appears in the book, even though its author was then in the process of trying to protect herself from anti--Jewish legislation and calling on all her friends and acquaintances among the Parisian bourgeoisie to help. She wrote a desperate letter (that went unanswered) lo Marshal Pétain himself, in which she took pains to distance herself from the wrong kind of stateless person: “I cannot believe, sir, that no distinction is made between the undesirable and the honourable foreigners”. The portrait she paints in her extraordinary last novel of her once beloved France is far from forgiving, as a diary entry she wrote from Issy L’Evęque, where she was living with her husband and young daughters after escaping from Occupied Paris, makes clear: “My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honour and its life”.

In 1942, Némirovsky was arrested, deported and murdered at Auschwitz before she managed to complete what was planned as a series of five interlinked novels, but even the incomplete Suite française is an exceptional tour de force. It would be a mistake to read it solely to the light of its author’s terrible fate, just as it would be doing Némirovsky’s memory a disservice to remember her simply as a victim of the Nazis, or as a “self-hating” Jew. Jonathan Weiss’s imaginative exploration of the complexities and ambiguities of this enigmatic writer are a commendable attempt to return to Irčne Némirovsky some of the dignity that such reductive portraits have denied her.