Suite Francaise - A wonderful story told in three sections, all concerning the German occupation of France. What's so amazing about this book is that Irène Némirovsky, lived through this actual time in France and wrote this in her journal. It took her daughter 50 years to publish it - why? Read on to find out more.....
This book will give you a real sense of what it would have been like to be French as the Germans moved in.
The desperate fleeing from Paris, to go and live in a small French village, still under German rule, but fairly amicable., to finally captivity and prison.
The story of the journal/manuscript itself is interesting in its own right.
Plenty for your book club to discuss.
Irène Némirovsky was originally from Russia from a well off family, but they had to flee, leaving their home and most of their possessions during the Russian Revolution.
The family settled in Paris where Irene studied at the acclaimed Sorbonne, where she started to write. She wrote a successful novel called David Golder and also wrote publications for anti Semitic publications.
This is somewhat strange given she was from Russian-jewish descent. Was this to protect her two daughters? She did convert to Catholicism in 1939, but sadly this did not help her plight later on.
Irene and her husband were labelled as jews and made to wear the yellow star during Paris' occupation by the Germans. They sent their daughters away to Burgundy and then later fled themselves to Issey L'eveque with their two children.
But a year or so later, Irene was arrested for being of jewish descent. She ended up in Auschwitz and died of typhus, a common disease in POW and concentration camps due to the poor conditions.
Her husband was later sent to Auschwitz and was gassed.
Irène Némirovsky's Manuscript For Suite Francaise
During her time in Paris and then in Issey L'eveque, Irene kept a journal and wrote a fictional (but clearly based on some facts) story of German occupation. Apparently the handwriting was absolutely tiny. It's likely then that this was the first ever book about World War II.
Her daughter kept hold of the journal for nearly 50 years, refusing to read it, thinking it would be just too painful. She was amazed at the story she found inside and got the book published in 2004. It was quickly translated from french to English later that year.
The third section of the novel was never completed - it was just a series of notes but these are included in the book. There were plans for 2 further sections - "Battles" and "Peace"
The Word "Suite" in french means a "collection" or "continuation"/"next" - The fact that there were supposed to have been 5 parts to this book would suggest that the the author thought the book was a "French Collection" of stories.
Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky
Part 1: Storm In June
We are introduced to several characters and their different stories of fleeing Paris, as the Germans enter in 1940.
Most are well off but this doesn't seem to count for much when everyone is scrambling to survive.
Characters are killed in the process, flee to join the army or sink to real lows like stealing petrol of others just to get to where they need to go. It's survival of the fittest.
We meet to particular characters, Maurice and Jeanne Michaud who try to get to Tours but can't and have to return to France. They have no idea where their son is. Jean Marie, or how to contact him. He has been injured and ends up being nursed to health in a small French town called Bussy by Madelaine.
Second Part: Dolce (Sweet)
This part is set in Bussy, a small village outside of Paris that is occupied by the Germans. Whilst the Germans occupy the best houses and get the best food and wine, the situation is fairly amicable. Some choose to resist the Germans where as most try collaboration.
Lucile lives with her mother in law (her husband is away as a prisoner of war). Their relationship is very strained. Bruno, the German commander has picked to live in their house - it is the best house in the village. Lucile begins to fall in love with him.
Benoit is Madelaine's husband returned from war. He is jealous by nature and still believes she has feeling for Jean Marie who she nursed back to health (he is now back in Paris with his family) or in love with the German Bonnet who is living in their house. Benoit ends up killing Bonnet and needs a place to hide.
Madelaine asks Lucile to help her by hiding Benoit in their house - surely there will be less searches there given the commander lives there and is clearly very fond of Lucile?
The end of this section is wonderful - a party to celebrate the first anniversary of the Germans occupying France. The scenes are beautiful, with the whole evening coming to life with music (Dolce is after all an Italian musical word)
Third Part: Captivity
This section is not really a novel and is definitely in need of a little editing or for it to be turned into an actual story. But still, it is an interesting read where Jean Michel and Benoit are arrested.
Lucile manages to get Jean Marie pardoned by asking Bruno for help.
Jean Marie and Lucile fall in love but both Jean Marie and Bruno are killed as part of the war.
For Suite Francaise
There are plenty of examples of love in Suite Francaise, particularly concerning Lucile. It is proof of the phrase "You can't help who you fall in love with" - as she falls in love with the German Commander living in her house, as well as Benoit, later on in part 3.
But you could say that the sanctity of marriage, is not alive and well here. Whilst her husband is away as a prisoner of war, she is hardly faithful, and this is true of other characters in Suite Francaise.
The first part of the book, where everyone flees Paris, is an interesting reality check.
Whilst we all might think we would try to act honourably, the reality is probably quite different. Our overriding need to survive kicks in, and to hell with anyone else. Stealing petrol seems totally acceptable under "survival mode"
Suite Francaise shows us many contrasts - the hectic-ness of Paris V's the relative calm of Bussy.
The differences between the French and the Germans in Bussy - although many of these are quite trivial.
"What separates or unites people is not their language, their laws, their customs, but the way they hold their knife and fork." This is a comment made from Mme de Montmort's in the second part of the novel.
There is plenty of evidence of the class system in this novel. Upper classes manage to escape Paris, where as the poorer classes struggle, often having to return to Paris. But to start with, they are all thrown into the same terrifying situation, eradicating the class system to some extent.
It is nice though that Maurice and Jeanne manage to rise in social scale as part of their return to Paris, despite being of a lower class.
The Commanders and officers all live in the best houses, along side the most wealthy of the villagers. It seems where the french choose to collaborate they get on quite well - seeming to agree with Madame De Montmort's comment above.
Human Nature and Kindness
There are plenty of examples of kindness in this novel e.g. nursing of Jean Michel back to health by Madelaine, or Lucile agreeing to hide Benoit.
Equally, there are characters that show no scruples, particularly in the first part of the novel where survival insitincts take over. Isn't this just human nature?
Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky
Could you tell the book had been translated or did it read well?
What did you think of the three parts of the book. Which part did you enjoy the most?
The book has been left in its raw state with limited editing. Is the book in need of some editing? If so, which bits?
Did the third part leave you wanting more and wishing the book had been properly finished?
What do you think the author's view on the class system is? Can you tell she is from a well to do family originally?
What contrasts did you notice in Suite Francaise?
It is commonly sited that the French were very hostile and resistant to the occupation of their country. Does Suite Francaise make you think differently?
Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky
Our book club really enjoyed this book giving it an 8/10.
The writing is lovely and there are many interesting quotes and thoughts.
The story is a page turner and adds a very different perspective to the World War stories we are usually told.
There are perhaps too many characters in the first section, which could do with some editing, especially as only a handful feature later in parts two and three.
It certainly lacks something given that the ending is not complete, but the story of the author and what happens to her more than compensates.
Lots of good themes and interesting characters to discuss. Enjoy it! (before they make it into a film!)
Top of Suite Francaise
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