Suite française by Irene Némirovsky - 13 Nov

Eleven of us attended the November discussion. Last year we voted to modify the criteria we use when choosing which books we will discuss. Previously we read only books originally written in English, but we agreed that we might read one book per year translated from French. Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky, is the first book in that category which we read and discussed, and will surely not be the last. Katharine C did plenty of background research to prepare her presentation. Némirovsky was born in Russia, but her family was forced to leave (post-1917) and lost everything. Katharine said Némirovsky was "very Russian" in her writing ("Jean-Marie presses the cherries against his burning cheeks"). She was ambivalent about the upper classes, although she and her family were members, but she was also ambivalent about peasants
Suite Française is two novellas, Storm in June and Dolce, which were to be part of a broader five-part sweep based on the style of War and Peace, Némirovsky's favorite book, and also modeled on Beethoven's fifth. Her writing style was to make extensive notes (ed.- not unlike our Katharine), develop characters, write straight through, and then edit - which, in this case, she was unable to do, particularly with Dolce. She already had the outline for the third part, Captivity, which would have brought back former characters such as Jean-Marie, Benoit, Bruno the German officer, and Lucile. Némirovsky was renowned as a chronicler of society. The book is less about the war front than the everyday lives of people living in unsettled conditions. It's not a World War II novel about the treatment of Jews, or of brutality. It is fiction, but also real-time reportage. Storm in June tells of Parisians fleeing their city at the start of the occupation. Dolce (which could mean "sweet" or "soft") deals with life in an occupied village in France. Katharine noted that the story remains distant from the bloody brutality of war, and cited the German troops on manoeuvres who then returned to wash down in the village square. She remarked on Némirovsky's prescience: the outline for the book showed that the fifth part was to have been Peace. Katharine said that Némirovsky has been compared to Turgenev, Flaubert and her own idol Dostoievsky, but felt that there are also shades of Nancy Mitford in her satire of the characters, especially those of the upper class. She said Némirovsky had a bleak view of humanity. She noted that Némirovsky expresses no fear, no panic in the book. Katharine felt that the author was heroic; she was not confident of her survival, and said that writing gave her something to do. Katharine said that the book is compelling, and reflects an understanding of human behavior under pressure. She also felt that it is extraordinary that even though Némirovsky faced difficulties with payments from her publisher, and, although she had been baptized into the Catholic church, had to wear the yellow star, she wrote of the humanity of the individual German soldiers. She retained her malice for the French. Katharine mentioned that Cécile Michaud was the nanny employed by Némirovsky, and Michaud was able to take payment on behalf of her employer who, as a Jew, could not receive payment for her writing. Sharon said that Némirosky (she referred to her as Némirov), who had converted to Catholicism, never thought of herself as Jewish. The fact that she was writing not as a Jew meant that her text is more a commentary on the French (at all levels) and a sad commentary on human nature. Mireille felt that she was not writing from a Jewish point of view, but from her inner self, and was "dissociated." Katharine added that the book prompted her to go back to her history books. She said Némirovsky was very close to the demarcation line, just 10km from the unoccupied zone. Her husband was deported months after her. He helped the Germans to find him by offering to exchange himself for her, although she was probably already dead by then. Katharine said the appendices noted the heroic deaths planned for some of the characters. She found Appendix 2 (children waiting at the train station) to be heartbreaking. We wondered if the author would have liked people to be able to read her "notes" (appendices). One of her notes questioned which birds are in song at a particular time of year.

Following the background presentation, Katharine proposed a discussion of three themes: the behavior of the French, individual's. collective destiny, and class struggle, as well as remarks about the translation and lyrical writing style. Regarding the first theme, Katharine mentioned the long-held view of French resistance to the Germans, compared to a quote about "yet another glorious page in the history of France." The post-war French preferred to think they had barely tolerated the Vichy government, but Némirovsky saw, and wrote about, something else entirely. Why the panic of the fleeing Parisians, when Hitler had said that Paris should not be destroyed? From a German point of view, the fleeing Parisians were good strategy. They blocked the roads, and thus the movement of French troops. One reason for the exodus might have been that in the 1870's people stayed, and then starved. Mireille said she detected the animal instinct under the varnish. She noted that Grandpa Péricand was carried back upstairs to do pipi while the rest of the family waited to flee, but he was later forgotten along the way. Jan mentioned the priest's death, and felt that the images of the small children were very negative. She wondered if Némirovsky disliked small children. She felt the priest's death was brutal and horrendous, although throughout the rest of the book some humor was added around the brutality. She said she couldn't even imagine the reaction of the children, and compared it with Lord of the Flies. She also said that when Némirovsky was writing the book, she surely didn't understand the implications of the concentration camps. Katharine replied, "You don't understand the gas chambers until you're on your way in." We felt that the question of "collaboration" was not evoked very much. There were no cries of "sale boche" or "Fritz." In fact, in some villages in France, the people still don't talk about "collaborateurs." Katharine said that Lucile felt revulsion when she was about to be embraced by Bruno. She also noted that Jean-Marie wished for harmony, peace and unification, but not collaboration. Julie shared with us that she had read that Jean-Marie was the most heroic character in the book, but she wondered why. Comparisons could be drawn between Suite Française and Sophie's Choice or Sarah's Key. Katharine also mentioned The Book Thief, which showed ordinary German people struggling at the end of the war. We remarked that US territory was not put to a test, was not occupied. How might Americans have reacted? As to the second theme, Katharine said that in Dolce, the lovers question whether the needs of the individual or the community should take priority. She asked if Western society has conclusively decided to privilege the individual over the group. She said things have changed, and she doubts people are willing to give up something purely for "love of country." Countries are not horrible, but the individuals who inhabit a country can be horrible, and small interest groups have replaced national identity. She quoted from Suite Française, "Conquerors don't understand why people want nothing to do with the conquering forces," and Jan said that could be compared to Iraq. Regarding the third suggested theme, Katharine said that Némirovsky provides an impression that France was betrayed by its upper bourgeoisie and aristocracy, motivated by greed and fear. e.g.The Péricand family waits for its monogrammed linen to be returned from the cleaners before leaving Paris. She said that this contrasts with War and Peace, in which Natasha is horrified that her family has room for possessions rather than other passengers when fleeing Napoleon. Julie questioned whether the postal system was working better in Nîmes than elsewhere. She wondered why the Péricand family knew about the two deaths that touched them, whereas the Michaud family did not learn about their son's death until much later. Marrianick replied that the Péricand family was one of the richest and most powerful in France...

Katharine asked if anyone had yet read the book in the original French. She felt that the narrative and dialogue of the translation are simple (but not simplistic), perhaps reflecting the year the novellas were written. The "effet de style" of the original was mentioned, with a comment about a "ridiculous character with a hat" (ed.-that's what I wrote in my notes, although I didn't attribute the citation) which appeared in the original as "elle portait un joli petit bibi." A description of a cat's adventure was also mentioned, as well as the quote that the "croak of the frog was like crystallized tears." We heard that the author used the same style of writing for David Golder, the book for which she was noted prior to the war. Katharine wondered about the choice of the title "Dolce." Jan replied that it might refer to the calm after the storm.

Katharine noted that the book, only two of the originally planned five parts, is like a bridge that has been only half-constructed. Gretchen, who was not able to attend the discussion, had sent an e-mail message which also referred to the "unfinished novel." She said her book club in Florida read Suite Française and they all felt that it was "tough to discuss when it just stopped without an ending." She wonders if that is "too American a concept - Did that group just want to have the story tied up with a bow at the end?"

Sharon said that she has a biography of Irène Némirov that she is willing to lend.


November 2012