It’s interesting, or at least noteworthy, that the fall of France in the Second World War led almost immediately to so many great books. Historian Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat (written 1940, pub. posthumously 1946), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Flight to Arras (pub. 1942), Joseph Kessel’s Army of Shadows (pub. 1943), and most recently novelist Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française. Written while Némirovsky was in hiding in rural France – as Catholic convert whose family were Jews from Kiev she was subject to Vichy France’s brutal anti-Semitic laws – its rediscovery and publication in 2004 led to a revival of interest in the author’s work.
The plot of Suite française is relatively simple. The first half of the book, “Storm in June,” follows the flight of several families south from Paris in the face of approaching German troops and catalogs the collapse of genteel society into selfishness and horror. The second half, with a different set of characters and set after the surrender, deals with the inhabitants of a small town (not unlike the one in which Némirovsky was living at the time) and how they deal with the disruption of the German occupation.
The novel’s tragic origins – Némirovsky was murdered in the death camp at Auschwitz in 1942 – and its gripping portrayal of the disintegration of French society in the war led to its success, but the revival of Némirovsky’s reputation through Suite française is all the more interesting because of how atypical its portrayal of the French haute bourgois for Némirovsky.
Born in Kiev in 1903, Némirovsky emigrated with her middle-class family to France after the Russian Revolution. In France, she moved in conservative Catholic circles and had her work serialized in right-wing magazines. Beginning with her breakout 1929 novel, David Golder, you can see Némirovsky’s ambivalence about her foreign and nouveaux riche origins. David Golder is about the last days of a Russian-born Jewish financier and his pitiful attempts to recover the love of his reckless daughter, Joyce. The book’s great quality is its remarkable corporeality, communicating every ache and pain of Golder’s aging body, but otherwise its portrayal of the man comes painfully close to an anti-Semitic stereotype (Némirovsky herself later said she regretted writing Golder as such). While Golder, The Ball, and Némirovsky’s other stories show her keen eye for the foibles of the rich, she always approaches old French wealth with sympathy while saving her ire for those recently arrived in high society.
Even as war clouds gathered, Némirovsky couldn’t shake her pattern; sympathetic presentations of the passivity of the French haute bourgeoisie, combined with sneering disdain for those who stood beyond their circles. The most disturbing example is the 1937 short story “Brotherhood” (reprinted in English in Dimanche and Other Stories) in which the passing contact between a third-generation French Jew and an immigrant recently arrived from Russia is the source of total revulsion for the former.
Némirovsky wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fortunes of war. In one of the other stories reprinted in Dimanche, “The Spectator,” Uruguayan flâneur Hugo Grayer finds himself aboard a torpedoed liner, and is forced to admit the shallowness with which he used to regard the catastrophes of others – even as he knows that others will do the same with his: “So tomorrow, decent, untroubled people would briefly consider the picture of a calm, smooth sea with its floating wreckage and would not lose an hour’s sleep over it or pause over their breakfast.” The same collection also includes, “Mr. Rose,” a touching account of a rich man caught up in the refugee columns fleeing Paris.
Since Suite française led to the translation and re-publication of Némirovsky’s work in English, there’s been a perpetual debate about whether Némirovsky was anti-Semitic, self-hating, or simply politically clueless. Némirovsky’s stories certainly give one the chance to read in any or all of those interpretations. None of them, though, negate Suite française’s sucessfull skewering of French society in its moment of ultimate humiliation. It’s unfortunate that it took betrayal by all of those she considered near and dear to her to lead Némirovsky to look at the society around her with the same cruel vision that she had always applied to the arrivistes in her stories.