by Wesley H. Saunders
The history of how Suite Francaise came to be, and survived, is probably more fascinating than the story itself. Suite Francaise was posthumously released in 2004 in France to high accolades, and released last year in the United States. It was translated into English from the French by Sandra Smith. It was written by Irene Nemirovsky in 1942. Irene Nemirovsky was a Russian Jew living in German-occupied France. These were the circumstances under which the book was written as well as the setting of the story.
Ms. Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 and emigrated to France in 1919. After living the life of a society girl, Nemirovsky, the daughter of a banker, settled down and married Michael Epstein, also a banker. They had 2 children, Denise born in 1929 and Elisabeth in 1937. Her first major work was David Golder (1929), the story of a prosperous Jewish banker and his ungrateful family. David Golder was made into a movie the following year. Both were tremendous hits. She continued to write throughout the 1930s, publishing 12 books by the time she was 39. Although Ms. Nemirovsky, dearly loved her adopted country of France, she and her husband never bothered to apply for French citizenship. By the time they finally did decide to apply in 1938, it was too late and they were both denied. Even their conversion to Catholicism in 1939 was not enough ultimately to save them. She and her daughters eventually moved to the countryside near the non-occupied zone, while her husband continued to work in Paris. It was during this time that Suite Francaise began to take shape.
Nemirovsky had originally planned to make Suite Francaise into a five part "opus." Unfortunately, she was only able to complete the first two parts, Storm in Paris and Dolce. Although she had ample opportunity to flee France, she never did. Perhaps, she thought that things would blow over or that her friends would be able to secure her safety. We know from history that neither was the case. In July of 1942, she was deported to Auschwitz and she died there a month later from typhus. Her husband fought valiantly for her release but to no avail, as he too was deported and sent 3 months later to Auschwitz and immediately sent to the gas chambers. Before leaving, she left her work in progress in the care of her young daughters. With both of their parents now gone, the girls were essentially dependent on family friends and the kindness of strangers. The girls did have a grandmother, I. Nemirovsky's mother, who lived out the German occupation and WWII in relative comfort. However, the grandmother wanted nothing to do with the children. With a little luck and Providence's guiding hand, the girls and their mother's manuscript survived the War.
For several years, Denise, Nemirovsky's daughter, could not bring herself to read her mother's writing. This was due in part to the extremely emotional nature surrounding its conception as well as the exceedingly small print that Nemirovsky had used to conserve ink and paper. When Denise finally realized what her mother had written, she knew she had to get it published.
Remember, Suite Francaise, is technically an unfinished novel as Nemirovsky had originally intended to write her story in 5 parts. Nevertheless, the 2 parts that were written and miraculously survived are comprised of the inter-related stories of the families in a small French town and their German captors. Even though Jews do not appear in the novel, one could very easily conclude that Suite Francaise is semi-autobiographical. The novel details the everyday lives of farmers, soldiers, mothers, wives, the rich, and the proud and their reaction to the German occupation of their beloved country. Some acquiesce, some rebel, some just ignore and some fall in love.
For more information on Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise or her other works, please refer to the public library databases at http://lalibcon.state.lib.la.us or Irene Nemirovsky, the definitive website. Rapides Parish Library has Suite Francaise and Irene Nemirovsky: her life and works, by Jonathan M. Weiss. Fire in the Blood will be released in English later this year. Shadows of a Childhood: a Novel of War and Friendship, by Elisabeth Gille, Nemirovsky's younger daughter, is also on order or available through interlibrary loan.
Wesley H. Saunders was the Main Library Administrator of the Rapides Parish Library at the time this article was originally published.
June 03, 2007