Suite Francaise By Irene Nemirovsky
This is a book as wonderful in the story of its own history, as the story that it tells. Irene Nemirovsky was born into a wealthy Russian Jewish family, who fled to France during the Russian Revolution. They made their home in Paris, and rebuilt their lives, and their wealth. Irene became a well known French writer and was living a very comfortable life when the Nazis invaded France in 1940. Irene left Paris, as did many residents when the Germans were threatening to occupy the city.
Parisians who had country homes had places to go, and others, fearing the city of Paris would be destroyed, packed their valuables into their cars and headed away from the city - some to other parts of France, some out of the country to Switzerland, and beyond.
Irene started a novel - it was to be a big novel of the experience and behaviour of several diverse couples and families during this exodus, and the duration of the war.
France had already been through a similar experience in 1914-1919, only a generation before, so they were in some ways quite blasé - we've been through this before, it will pass. They had no idea that this time the Nazis had an agenda to purge the country and were prepared to kill as necessary.
There rose collaborators and resistance fighters - and of course the expulsion of the Jews to the death camps - the murder of thousands of French men, women and children.
Irene Nemirovsky was born Jewish but like many had been baptized as a Catholic before it became dangerous to be Jewish.
Regardless of this, she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1942.
Her husband attempted to find her - the letters and correspondence among her friends are published as an appendix to the novel, along with her notes about her plans for this novel. Irene's husband was also arrested and murdered a few weeks later.
Their two daughters were saved by their nanny, hidden in Catholic boarding schools for the duration of the war, and financed by Irene's publisher and friends. The two daughters grew up and lived their lives in the shadow of this tragedy - never being able to bring themselves to read their mothers work, which had been saved by the same nanny, and kept for the daughters - in a suitcase all these years.
Finally, one daugh-ter read the manu-script and arranged for publication. Irene Nemirovsky had planned for this to be a novel of epic proportions - 1000 pages - a Tolstoy of a novel - and it would have been.
The 338 pages that make up Suite Francaise are bril-liant and profound, the writing crisp and clear, with characters of depth and intensity.
I could not put it down - I didn't want it to end - I want to know what hap-pened to these people! Many reviews have dis-cussed this novel as an expose of the bad behaviour of the French during the war.
I disagree, certainly many of them were trying only to save themselves. Many were selfish in hoarding their provisions and did not help others. I saw them simply as human.
How many of us, really, truly would have behaved differently in those circumstances.
Of course we'd like to think we would be generous and heroic, but would we really or would we also try to save only our own children and even just our own selves.
It is a novel of history, and a novel of human beings, people living during an extremely stressful time, most of them simply trying to do their best, observed by, and written by a brilliant writer.