The story of the manuscript of Suite Française is remarkable. That Némirovsky completed as much of it as she did in the aftermath of the German invasion of 1940 -she was a Russian émigré of Jewish origin living in France but never took (received?) French citizenship – is an achievement in itself; that it managed to survive the turmoil of the war years is a minor miracle. Nevertheless it still lay unread in a suitcase for sixty years as the author’s two daughters found the memories of their mother it evoked too painful to contemplate.
There are two appendices, the first relating to Némirovsky’s plans for the whole work, the second giving some of her correspondence with her publishers and also that of her husband and publishers with various authorities subsequent to her transportation to Auschwitz in 1942 (a fate her husband also suffered a few months later; perhaps as a result of so much inquiring after his wife.)
The first part of the book, Storm In June, is not so much multi-stranded as diffuse. There is an almost scatter shot approach to the narrative where various characters are highlighted, left, picked up again, left again and returned to in no particular coherent order and with very little in the way of plot to sustain it.
To an extent this must mirror the confusion of the refugee exodus attendant on the German breakthroughs in 1940, the misery of which is admirably demonstrated in the text without dwelling too much on gore and death.
In the second part, Dolce, the focus is tighter – on the small town life of Lucile Angellier, whose husband is a prisoner-of-war in Germany, and her relationship with the German officer billeted on her mother-in-law’s house, in which Lucile lives. Here Némirovsky eschews the obvious story line (physical consummation of the friendship which of course develops) though another female character is shown with a different attitude towards the German soldiers.
The complexity of interactions between the occupiers and the occupied is well drawn; there is no black and white on either side, the humanity of both is laid out – venality, capriciousness, acts of kindness are not restricted to one nationality. I assume this is how it really was in the early days of the occupation, when hopes of a quick end to the war were high, before it became clear the conflict would drag on and the Germans would lose. It is certainly far from the picture familiar from war films and TV productions set in occupied France.
Dolce ends with the dispatch of the billeted German regiment to Russia on the widening of the war in 1941.
Throughout these two finished parts of Suite Française there is an intermittent emphasis on class differences in French society, an illustration of the enmities present in pre-war France which, we are left to infer, perhaps led to the defeat, and are obviously still alive. Class is not quite such a uniquely British obsession, then.
On the evidence of these two parts, Némirovsky had an unusual approach to narration with regard to point of view. This frequently shifts within chapters, within scenes even. This is one of reasons why Part 1 was so diffuse but it occurs also in the more focused Part 2. It lends the narrative a strange air, as if we are following a drifting film camera as it ceases to track one character and shifts to another, then abruptly swings back. This sort of changing of viewpoint is one of the cardinal sins aspiring writers are firmly warned against and yet Némirovsky just about manages to get away with it.
Given the circumstances in which Suite Française was written these are harsh criticisms. The complete work with its possibilities of editing and re-drafting may have negated them.
Appendix 1 makes it clear that the author’s intentions were to put emphasis on the quotidian, to have the war and its horrors off stage, highlighted by the interactions of her characters.
The five part work Némirovsky contemplated may well have been a masterpiece, but it was not to be. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Storm In June and Dolce on their own merit such an accolade but they do represent a fine work nevertheless.