Irene Nemirovsky,
Suite Francaise
(Knopf, 2006)

Irene Nemirovsky was a prolific and rising young French author when World War II began. As a Jewish woman in occupied France, she knew her life was in danger. Yet she continued to write.

After she died in one of Hitler's death camps, her family kept what they thought were her diaries. Instead, they found after 60 years the two connected novels that have been acclaimed as a masterpiece.

Both Storm in June and Dolce -- which make up Suite Francaise, take place during the German occupation of France. The first is the story of the sudden flight from Paris; the second a story of one small town where German soldiers are stationed.

Nemirovsky was born in Russia and so viewed both the French and Germans as an outsider. Her portrait of the French, particularly the wealthy, is less than flattering. Storm in June has few heroes, but the lower middleclass couple, the Michauds, are the most admirable of a bad lot. People are more concerned with saving what they have than helping out others. A priest is killed by boys who are looting a chateau. A rich couple cadges a meal from a restauranteur, but it is snatched up by poor folk.

In Dolce, the stronger of the two stories, the characters are from all three classes, and are both French and German. The Germans are the occupiers, but clearly it is the French who bear most of the animosity. Yet, to survive, some also collaborate with the enemy. Clearly, loyalties are divided. Nemirovsky masterfully plays out the relations between the classes, the sexes and the generations within the French village, and of course the occupier-occupied relationship is the key one.

Interestingly, the German soldiers she portrays aren't overt Nazis, but instead highly cultivated officers from the upper classes of German society. Ominously, the second novel ends as the Germans prepare for war on another front, against Russia.

Both as a portrait of a society under occupation, and as an observation of human nature, this set of novels lives up to its billing. What's more, Nemirovsky also tells a good story, leaving us with realistic portaits of the characters and their interactions in a time of extreme stress. It's reasonable to assume that the behaviour she describes is similar to what she actually observed during the early years of the occupation.

by David Cox
17 February 2007

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