Suite Française, historic novel and tragic account of the woman who wrote it

Book cover of Suite Française

Book cover of Suite Française

I recently read Suite Française, a poignant novel by Irene Némirovsky that would have remained hidden from history were it not for the courageous actions of her daughter, Denise Epstein. In 2004, sixty-two years after Némirovsky’s death in Auschwitz, Suite Française appeared in French libraries for the first time. It earned the Prix Renaudot that same year. While Suite Française is a literary tour de force, the story of Irene Némirovsky’s life and resurrection of her last surviving manuscript is equally gripping. Both tales are included in this international best seller.

A Brilliant Career Erased

Born in Kiev in 1903, Némirovsky’s Jewish family fled the Bolsheviks in 1917 and eventually settled in Paris. An avid reader and talented polyglot, Némirovsky earned a degree in literature from the Sorbonne in 1926. By 1929, the year her daughter Denise was born, she had written and published her first novel, David Golder, which was an instant success. Over the next ten years, Némirovsky would write and publish ten more novels. Two of her books were made into films. Then came World War II. During the German Occupation, the prolific and heralded novelist disappeared and in the war’s aftermath, her novels fell into obscurity.

Photo of Irene Némirovsky

Irene Némirovsky, author of Suite Française

Before her death, Némirovsky began writing Suite Francaise.  Inspired by Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, she hoped to produce a five-part epic novel that would illustrate the daily struggles and complexities of French life during the war. She and her husband, Michel Epstein, had moved from Paris to Issy-l’Evêque with their two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth. Given Némirovsky’s notoriety, the family could have probably found refuge in neutral Switzerland, but they chose to stay in occupied France. Despite their prior conversion to Catholicism, they openly wore the yellow stars that would mark them as Jewish and precipitate their demise.

Némirovsky knew that her days were numbered and worked tirelessly, completing the first two parts of Suite Francaise before German soldiers arrested her in front of her children and rapidly transported her to Auschwitz where she died of typhoid. Two months later, they arrested Epstein and sent him directly to the gas chambers. Until the war’s end, the children moved from one hiding place to the next with French police hot on their trail. During that first hasty flight after her father’s arrest, 13-year old Denise managed to grab her mother’s leatherbound journal. This she kept with her for more than 50 years, daring not to look inside lest the pages provoke memories and circumstances too painful to revive.

Finally, in 1996, Denise and her sister Elisabeth decided to entrust the journal (and other documents that they’d managed to save) to the Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine. They soon discovered that Némirovsky’s leatherbound notebook was more than a journal. Incredibly, it contained the manuscript for the first two parts of what many would call their mother’s crowning chef-d’œuvre.

Exodus from Paris

In outlining Suite Française, Némirovsky hoped to provide an authentic account of what life was like in France during World War II. The 5-part series would unfold chronologically, as would the lives of her numerous characters. Some of these characters would appear only in one or two volumes. Others, she planned, would play prominent roles through to the end.

Painting of Paris Exodus

Exode près de la porte d’Orléans, Exodus on the road to Orléans, by Slavic painter, Imro Weiner-Kráľ

In part I, Storm in June, Némirovsky describes the city of Paris and its residents in the days immediately prior to German control and the subsequent exodus from the famous city. Fearing that the encroaching German army would destroy their beloved ville lumière, hundreds of thousands of Parisians fled to the countryside. When the Germans entered the city on June 14, 1940, they found the streets nearly empty. In the rush to leave Paris, however, many people failed to make adequate preparations. They soon found that the surrounding villages were ill-equipped to supply the provisions needed to get them beyond occupied territory. Historians estimate that more than 8 million people abandoned their homes, only to return weeks later to a Paris that was physically, if not psychologically, intact.

Némirovsky constructs the lives of several families caught up in the chaotic evacuation. Despite the varied social and economic standings of her characters, all eventually find themselves in the same desperate situation. Money and prestige have no effect in a world devoid of resources. Pre-occupied with the whereabouts of a missing son, a mother hurriedly moves her other children to the next village only to realize with horror that she has left her elderly father-in-law behind. A priest, charged with leading a group of teenage orphans, struggles to keep the boys in check. Abandoned at the last minute by their rich employer, a middle-aged couple is forced to flee on foot. In the end, the lucky ones are able to find their way back to Paris.

Life Under German Occupation

1940 French girls and German NCO

Photo shot in June of 1940. A French girl approaches a German NCO.

In part II, Dolce, Némirovsky depicts life in a small village where German soldiers have taken up residence in the townspeople’s homes. Némirovsky brilliantly illustrates the varying levels of contempt held by the residents for their occupiers. In an effort to hide their deep-seated resentment, the subjugated citizens project an outward demeanor, ranging from complacent to affable. The pervasive presence of the Boches, who try to ingratiate themselves with the local population, gradually softens the animosity between conquerors and conquered. A veiled romance begins to develop between the lonely wife of a French POW and one of the German officers. The unwinding atmosphere is broken when a farmer kills a German soldier, restoring the previous level of hostility and tension. At the end of the story, the Germans depart, ominously following orders to head to the Russian front.

The film Suite Française, by British director Saul Dibb, is an adaptation of the story told in Dolce. Némirovsky’s daughter, Denise, was still living during the early phases of production. She was able to read drafts of the screenplay but died before the film was released. Portions of Némirovsky’s journal appear during the credits. The film was generally well-received but certain critics charged that Dibb over-emphasized the romantic thread, shortchanging the more intriguing plotlines that illustrate the strained ties between French citizens and their German oppressors. You can watch the official trailer here.

The Mark of a Great Story

It’s astonishing to think that Némirovsky must have been writing the passages for her book nearly simultaneously with the historical periods that they describe. Despite the tremendous pressure she had to have been under, Suite Française is undisputedly regarded as a literary masterpiece. Those that care little, however, for the scholarly merits of a particular piece of writing will likely find (as I did) that at the end of Dolce, they are dying to know what comes next. Cut to the series of appendices that terminate the book. Here, in the transcribed pages of Némirovsky’s harrowing journal, you will find a partial answer to this question.

Tragically, Némirovsky’s life came to an end during the period that part III of her book, Captivity, would have encompassed. Her journal, however, reveals her plans for some of the key characters, much to the guilty satisfaction of the reader. Parts IV and V were never drafted. The distraught yet determined author chillingly writes that these sections rest “in the lap of the Gods”. Whether the result of omniscient guidance or total happenstance, taken as a whole, Suite Française, with its fragmentary fictional and factual parts, is an eloquent and exemplary portrayal of human endurance during a calamitous period of utter upheaval.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.

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