Bittersweet: Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky

I must be one of the last book addicts in the world to heap praise on Suite Francaise. Originally published in French, this masterpiece by Irene Nemirovsky is not only an incredible piece of writing, the history of its publication is almost worthy of its own novel.

The manuscript escaped occupied France in a suitcase, rescued by Nemirovsky’s daughters after their parents were taken to Auschwitz, where they died. Thinking the notebooks were simply personal journals, too painful to peruse lightly, the girls left them unread for nearly 60 years. Although Suite Francaise was written in 1941-1942, as Nemirovsky was plastered with a yellow Jewish star and daily feared for her life, its language, characters, and immediacy feel completely modern.

Nemirovsky originally viewed the book as a “suite,” a collection of five novellas that investigated themes of nobility, cowardice, and plain human frailty as the character and resilience of France was tested to its limits during World War II and the occupation of France by the German army. Only two of the novellas were ever finished before she died, both included in Suite Francaise, along with notes from her diary and excerpts of letters from this period of her life.

In the first novella, Storm in June, Nemirovsky views her fellow citizens unflinchingly, exposing their flaws as they protect possessions over people while fleeing Paris; yet in Dolce, which chronicles the effect a battalion of friendly occupying soldiers has on a French village, she exposes her own sympathetic humanity and an understanding that real-life, day-to-day dramas are both complex and very simple. It would have been easy for her to boil down the plot into a basic “the enemy is evil and I must hate him” or “the enemy is simply another human being and I cannot avoid loving him.” Instead, she acknowledges the real situation, that a state of occupation involves a great deal of both emotions on both sides.

Irene Nemirovsky’s tumultuous early life seemed to prepare her to be one of France’s best novelists and war chroniclers. She was born in 1903 to a family of well-off Russian Jews living in St. Petersburg. Her father was a banker, and the whole family was forced to flee the Bolshevik revolution when Irene was about 14 years old. After some time in Finland, the family finally landed in France, where Irene finished school and started writing.

Nemirovsky has been criticized for being a “self-hating Jew” (a term I grow heartily sicker of the more I hear it), and some critics have wondered why she didn’t make the concentration camps of the Second World War a larger theme in Suite Francaise. However, being half Russian-Jewish myself, I sympathize with a writer who chooses to write about any stories that inspire her, rather than focusing on an identity she never chose. I, too, have been questioned by people wondering why my Jewish ancestry isn’t a larger theme in my writing, to which I can only answer, “Neither is my brown hair or inability to digest clams,” or my maternal grandfather’s pure Danish blood, or in fact any other accident of genetics.

What’s more important is that this book is an incredible feat of literature. The language is precise, and the imagery and metaphors works of pure genius. They augment the clear eye with which Nemirovsky viewed the world around her. I couldn’t put it down. It shows a side of war we rarely see, especially in writing about World War II. Every aspect of humanity deserves to be written about — its best, its very worst, and, as in this case, its most quintessentially human.

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