This book again raises the question of how far an author’s personal circumstances should effect the evaluation of their work. One argument is that to be fair readers should be entirely ignorant of the details of an author’s life – and it is dodgy that many critics will raise or lower their estimation of an artwork based on, for example, the race, gender, age, wealth or prior reputation of the writer.
Clearly this doesn’t apply for biography. But this book isn’t a biography. It’s a skilled professional writer weaving a powerful story, with strong characters and themes, out of the people in her time and place. Ironically (but as is so often the case) her fictional characters are more authentic than the factual ones of many an amateurish biography, because she has the insight to observe and understand key aspects of personality, and the ability to articulate this.
Enough, surely. Who needs to know her postcode or date of birth?
Well, you don’t need to know to enjoy a potent evocation of life in France under German occupation. But it does make the story have all the more impact with the knowledge that Irène Némirovsky wrote this book in the chaos of French fleeing from the invading German army. More chillingly, she continued writing in the aftermath: order is restored, yet Germans and French collaborators steadily restrict and then hunt Jews in France, including Némirovsky, her husband and children.
It’s refreshing, it’s impressive, and it’s so sad that she doesn’t merely write a vivid account of fear, and of heroes and villains. Given the fascinating historical appendices it’s quite clear that there were heroes (such as publishers that continued to do all they could to support her financially even when she was no longer allowed to publish, and risking themselves in trying to save her after her arrest), and villains (it was the French police that delivered her and her husband to Auschwitz, and continued trying to find her children for years afterwards). But while ‘Suite Française’ draws constantly on her experience – the exodus from Paris, the practise of German soldiers being billeted with French families, the dynamics of class, nationalism, and gender in this context – she maintains her keen understanding that humans are not essentially defined by their uniform or birthplace. Something of this malicious absurdity is the very reason she and so many others were brutally killed, and unlike many a war story, she doesn’t fight idiotic patriotism with even greater idiotic patriotism.
Sure, some of the maturity she shows in being not merely bunting for German = bad, French = good, would be that many French were all too keen to collaborate, throwing people like herself into torture and death without hesitation to serve their own interests. But her story, if you like, is not her story: there is no mention of Jews and their persecution. The first appendix are the fascinating notes of where she planned for this ‘symphonic’ story to go (she was only able to complete the first two of five planned books). She talks about the interaction between personal destiny and collective destiny, and even days before her arrest she is aware that the noise and fury of her time is so ephemeral, and means so much less than the individual:
‘Contrary to what is believed, what is general passes, the whole remains, collective destiny is shorter than the destiny of the simple individual (that’s not exactly right. It’s a different timescale: we are only interested in the upheavals; the upheavals, either they kill us, or we last longer than them)…
… To sum up: struggle between personal destiny and collective destiny. To finish: stress Lucile and Jean-Marie’s love and stress eternal life. The German’s musical masterpiece. There must also be a reminder of Philippe. Which all in all would correspond to my deepest conviction. What lives on:
1. Our humble day to day lives
Powerful, huh. ‘My kingdom is not of this world’.
So she continues to imbue her characters with depth and colour, yet crafting a story with a more powerful point than the Reich could conceive of.
With all this praise, why am I not giving this an A+? While I totally acknowledge her skill, I’m probably not going to seek out other books of hers, which have probably (and justifiably) become more available since the publication of ‘Suite Française’. As with many an undeniably good writer, she doesn’t happen to connect with me as immediately as other good writers. Perhaps a hint too much cynicism with some characters, the nature of romance, the family dynamics in this story are too removed from me – real as they often are, the characters don’t generally make me laugh or feel as much as I would if I was someone else.
What did really strike me in this book was related more to the excellent appendices. That someone could write with such layers in this context. The window onto how a good writer like herself plans to organise her novel, rather than just having some able characters and events. The heart-rending correspondence from her poor, desperate, devastated and loving husband futilely contending, advocating, arguing and even begging for her rescue, and all with unaffected dignity – there’s even the ultimate, ‘can I take her place’. The extraordinary summary of how their daughters were hidden – and how somehow the novel travelled around from hiding place to hiding place with them.
Having taught the history of various wars as a High School teacher, this is such a reminder that while the syllabus would never cope, so much of war history falls for the same lie that the fools that cause them perpetuate. They dismiss rich and textured lives and years with a mere word – a battlefield, a nation, a date – as if that is understanding what took place. They are not even dimly aware of the more important, the more substantial things that permeate a novel like this. This puts the tragedy of war into a much clearer perspective, showing what it can and can’t touch.