The reputation of Irène Némirovsky, in the English-speaking world as in France, rests on Suite Française, an unfinished multipart novel that appeared in print only in 2004, some sixty years after its author’s death. During her lifetime Némirovsky was best known for an early work, the novel David Golder (1929). Astutely promoted by its publisher and swiftly adapted for stage and screen, David Golder was a runaway commercial success.
Némirovsky never struck it quite as rich in the rest of her short career (she died at the age of thirty-nine, one of the victims of the Final Solution). She wrote a great deal, her books sold well, but in an age when experimental Modernism held the high ground she received little serious critical attention. After the war she slid into obscurity. When in 1978 Germaine Brée published her authoritative survey of French literature of the half-century 1920–1970, Némirovsky did not figure in the list of her top 173 writers (nor, however, did Colette, who would today be among many critics’ top ten). Even feminist critics paid her scant attention.
All of that changed when Suite Française—which by amazing good luck survived the war in manuscript—was finally published. Against all precedent, Némirovsky was awarded the Prix Renaudot posthumously. Suite Française became both a critical success and a best seller. Hastily her publishers began reprinting her oeuvre.
With its large cast of characters and wide social range, Suite Française is more ambitious than anything Némirovsky had previously attempted. In it she takes a hard look at France during the Blitzkrieg and the subsequent occupation. She saw herself as following in the line of Chekhov, who had addressed the “mediocrity” of his times “without anger and without disgust, but with the pity it deserved.” In preparation for her task she also reread War and Peace, studying Tolstoy’s method of rendering history indirectly, through the eyes of his characters.
Of the four or five novels of the planned Suite, only the first two were written. At the center of the second is a young woman, Lucile Angellier, whose husband is a prisoner of war and who has to share her home with a Wehrmacht officer billeted with her. The officer, Lieutenant von Valk, falls deeply and respectfully in love with her, and she is tempted to respond. Can she and he, nominal enemies, not transcend their political and national differences and, in the name of love, make a separate peace? Must she really, in the name of patriotism, deny herself to him?
Today it may seem puzzling that a writer confronting the crisis for the individual conscience occasioned by the occupation and the wider war should have framed that crisis in such romantic terms. For the war in question was not just a matter of political differences spilling over onto the battlefield: it was a war of conquest and extermination aimed at wiping certain despised peoples from the face of the earth and enslaving others.
Genocide is of course not the enterprise von Valk…
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