Irène Némirovsky was born in 1903 into a rich Jewish banking family in Kiev. They fled to Paris during the revolution, and she was educated in French schools and at the Sorbonne. By the start of World War II, she had been to a great many parties and particularly balls because she adored dancing. She had married another Jewish-Ukrainian refugee—a banker called Michel Epstein—and produced two little girls and nine very successful novels.
Her tenth, Suite Française, was written in 1941 and 1942, and not published until more than sixty years later. She had planned a Tolstoyan saga about the war in five parts, but only the first two were more or less finished by the time she died in a concentration camp. They were called Tempête en Juin and Dolce, and when, under the title Suite Française, they appeared in translation earlier this year in Britain, the reviews were ecstatic—no other word fits. And it would be unfair to say that this enthusiasm was heightened by the pathos of the author’s life and death as described in the preface to the French edition by Myriam Anissimov. Némirovsky is a genuinely remarkable writer in whose work one finds a rare combination of deep feeling and a light touch. She is particularly good at imagining conversations (including conversations with oneself), and there are a lot of them in Suite Française.
The two sections of the novel are published with two appendices. The first consists of Némirovsky’s notes while writing it. They read like a constant explanatory, persuasive argument with herself; they tell one a lot about her, and incidentally about what it feels like to be writing a novel:
What’s important—the relationship between different parts of the work. If I had a better knowledge of music, I suppose that would help me. Since I don’t know music, then what is called rhythm in films. All in all, make sure to have variety on one hand and harmony on the other. In the cinema, a film must have unity, tone, a style. E.g.: those street scenes in American films where you always have skyscrapers, where you can sense the hot, muffled, muggy atmosphere of New York. So unity for the film as a whole but variety between the parts…. It’s this type of rhythm I want to achieve.
The second appendix contains Némirovsky’s letters, as well as relevant selections from those of Michel Epstein, between 1936 and 1942. By the end of that year they had both been deported to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus and he was probably gassed. Not at the same time, though: Irène was arrested in July and died in August, and Michel was arrested in October and killed in November. His last letters from Issy l’Évêque—the village to which the family had fled when the Germans moved toward Paris—are all addressed to influential (he hoped) persons who might discover where his wife had been taken, and save her and their two little daughters. Among the people he wrote to without any success were prominent members of right-wing and often anti-Semitic circles she had come to know during the 1930s.*
In the end it was the children’s nanny who succeeded in hiding and saving the girls. The elder, Denise, was thirteen at the time, and she took her mother’s manuscript with her in a suitcase wherever she went. For sixty years, though, neither she nor her sister could bear to look at it, because they thought it would be autobiographical and therefore too harrowing for them to read. When they finally opened the suitcase a few years ago, they were surprised to find it contained not a diary or a memoir, but an unfinished novel—Suite Française, about the German takeover of France and how different groups of French reacted to it.
Among the very large number of the English critics whose reviews I have read, the novelist Dan Jacobson, writing in the London Review of Books, was one of the few who had reservations about Suite Française. He couldn’t help liking the book. “Yet I must say,” he wrote,
that overall neither “Storm in June” [the first part] nor “Dolce” [the second] seems to me to work satisfactorily as a novel. With its rapid movement in many directions (humanly and geographically speaking) “Storm in June” suffers from what becomes the iron maiden embrace of its mode of narration, whereby each family or couple we see setting out in panic from Paris [when the bombs start dropping and the German army can be heard approaching] is given more or less equal time in subsequent chapters to pursue its particular fate, with occasional, accidental, tangential overlaps between itself and the others in the same plight. As a result, their individual trajectories are difficult to follow; repeatedly, I found myself turning back the pages in order to recall what exactly the circumstances of this or that little group had been initially and how its members have come to be where they are when the author turns her attention to them once again. One might well ask: how else could the story of a rout be told? How else could the randomness and dread, the disconnections and sudden conjunctions of this swarm-like experience be dramatised? These questions are impossible to answer; all I can say is that though Némirovsky is truly seized by her subject, she does not seem to have found the form that would have enabled her to carry it through the Tolstoyan task she had set herself. If she had, “Storm in June” would indeed be the masterpiece which some of its more generous reviewers have declared it to be.
A warm rush of agreement comes over me when Jacobson complains of having been forced to turn back the pages over and over again when he read Storm in June. It becomes especially irritating because some of the chapters are only three pages long. One of the best of these, however, is entirely about a cat—so deliciously sensuous in its description that it makes one want to join in when it licks its fur:
He eyed the distance from the drainpipe to the ground. It was an easy jump, but he appeared to want to flatter himself by exaggerating the difficulty of the leap. He balanced his hindquarters, looking fierce and confident, swept his long black tail across the drainpipe and, ears pulled back, leapt forward, landing on the freshly tilled earth. He hesitated for a moment, then buried his muzzle in the ground. Now he was in the very black of night, at the heart of it, at the darkest point. He needed to sniff the earth: here, between the roots and the pebbles, were smells untainted by the scent of humans, smells that had yet to waft into the air and vanish. They were warm, secretive, eloquent. Alive. Each and every scent meant there was some small living creature, hiding, happy, edible…
The two sections of the novel we read are perhaps not exactly what they would have become in the final fivepart version. The translation by Sandra Smith reads wonderfully well, with Némirovsky’s charm and humor holding up through the tragedy she describes. (My only criticism would be that the word “rosy” appears a bit too often, especially on people’s cheeks: the French rose could just be “pink,” occasionally.)
The progress of each refugee or group of refugees is charted in separate chapters every day or two (this is where Jacobson’s complaint about having to turn back the pages seems justified). The rich are able to travel by car until the car breaks down or runs out of unobtainable gasoline. The rest have to walk from the start, begging for lifts in the daytime and for shelter at night, and rarely getting either. They are increasingly exhausted, filthy, and desperate. The drivers—or rather the driven: they all have chauffeurs—include a banker, Corbin, and his mistress, Arlette; a writer, Gabriel Corte, and his mistress, Florence; an aesthete art collector, Langelet, with a crate of priceless porcelain on the back seat instead of a mistress. Langelet gets run over by a car when he finally goes back to Paris after an armistice is declared between Germany and France. The future of Corbin and Corte and their girlfriends is saved for the unwritten later sections of the novel.
There is also a large family called Péricand, who have their own car: “They belonged to the French upper middle class who would prefer to see their children with no bread, no meat, no air rather than no education.” The father is a museum director, so he has to stay behind, and the rest get off to a late start because Madame Péricand insists on waiting for their laundry to be delivered. It is still damp when it finally arrives, so she is furious. There are five Péricands in the car, the mother, her aged father-in-law, and three small children; an older son of seventeen follows by bicycle. They spend a week on the road before finding shelter in a village; then a bomb falls on the house and they have to flee again.
This time Madame Péricand forgets to pack her father-in-law. He survives asleep in bed with fires blazing all around the house, and wakes up in a nursing home run by nuns. The first thing he does is to order them to send for his lawyer so that he can make his will, and he barely notices that the man they bring to his room is not his own lawyer at all. In the will he instructs a charitable institution he supports to commission “a life-size portrait of me on my deathbed” and put it in the entrance hall. This wicked insight into what really matters to people is one of Némirovsky’s specialties, and old Péricand’s instructions are particularly ridiculous because he assumes that the war around him is taking place between 1914 and 1918. On the other hand he is right to make his will: he dies with the lawyer still in the room.
The eldest Péricand child, Philippe, has been ordained a priest. Reluctantly, he becomes the leader of a group of delinquent orphan boys. They have been forced on him by the director of their orphanage—who ought, of course, to have looked after them himself. Father Philippe doesn’t understand how to manage these hostile young savages; they beat him up, gouge out one of his eyes, and drown him in a pond. Almost every person on the march is horrible and selfish—not selfish beyond belief, though, because it’s not difficult to believe people behave badly when they are threatened; and that seems to be a point Némirovsky is keen to make. Hopeless, helpless Father Philippe is an exception.
The only really good people on the road are a loving, unassuming, middle-aged couple called Michaud. They belong to the petite bourgeoisie, and were both employed in Corbin’s Paris bank, which is now being relocated to its branch in Tours. Corbin offers them a lift; but when they turn up as arranged he ditches them because Arlette objects to sharing the car with them. Corbin shouts at them to make it to Tours in two days, or else be fired. They arrive at the train station just in time to see a bomb fall on the tracks. Mothers and children run around screaming. The Michauds try to help them and reunite them—but without success. So they drag themselves back to their Paris flat. Their dismissal notice arrives together with a very small check. It is not enough for them to live on even for a few days. Madame Michaud summons up her courage and complains to Corbin’s partner, the Count de Furières, who has escaped from the front and returned to Paris. He writes them a check worth six months’ pay for each of them. “They were very happy with the outcome but sensed that now their money worries were off their minds, at least for the immediate future, they would be completely overwhelmed by their anguish over their son.” Jean-Marie Michaud is at the front, and they have not heard from him for a long time. His mother is so disturbed that she keeps recognizing him among returning soldiers on the road—only it always turns out to be some other young man.
Jean-Marie is in fact alive and recovering from a serious injury. A farming family, the Sabaries, have taken him in, and he cannot communicate with his parents because there is no mail and no telephone. Meanwhile the Sabaries’ adopted daughter Madeleine has fallen in love with him. Then the armistice is declared. Communications are restored, and Jean-Marie is better and able to leave for Paris. He drops Madeleine—very gently (there has been no sex). His departure coincides with the return from the front of the Sabaries’ son, Benoît. He is a crude fellow. Still, faute de mieux, Madeleine renews her past relationship with him (again, there has been no sex so far), and by the beginning of Dolce, they are married with a baby.
Insensitive though he is, Benoît is nagged by the thought that his wife’s origins may be superior to his own. “People shouldn’t take in foster-children, you never know where they come from” he thinks to himself. Because of her manners, her tastes, “what he imagined, what he was afraid of, wasn’t that Madeleine might come from a family of alcoholics or thieves, but from the middle classes.” Then a very young German officer with beautiful manners is billeted with the Sabaries. Benoît turns unreasonably and uncontrollably jealous, and takes it out on Madeleine. When the German discovers that he owns an illegal gun and tries to confiscate it, Benoît shoots him dead.
Madeleine rushes to a neighboring family, the Angelliers, and begs them to hide her husband. Unfortunately the Angelliers are the kind of people Benoît resents: i.e., a class or two above the Sabaries. Madame Angellier is a rich widow. Her son Gaston is a prisoner in Germany, and his gentle, beautiful wife Lucile lives with her mother-in-law, who is a passionate German-hater and nasty to the younger woman, particularly because she speaks politely to the German officer billeted with them. “I can’t bear the sight of that officer,” screams the elder Madame Angellier. “I want to rip his eyes out, I want to see him dead. It may not be fair, or humane, or Christian, but I am a mother. Being without my son is torture. I hate the people who have taken him away from me, and if you were a real wife, you wouldn’t have been able to bear that German being near you. You wouldn’t have been afraid of appearing uncouth, rude, or ridiculous.”
Lucile was pushed into her marriage when she was very young, and has had to put up with her husband’s infidelity. Now she falls in love with a second German lodger, Bruno von Falk, an aristocrat, again with beautiful manners; he is twenty-four years old and has a wife and baby in Germany. He wants to be a musician, and with Madame’s grudging permission plays the Angelliers’ piano with feeling and skill. He also goes for dreamy walks with Lucile, but when he tries to make love to her and she pushes him away, he lets her go—leaving her to bitterly regret her virtuous refusal. Mixed together as they are, the melancholy stories of the two unconsummated relationships, Madeleine’s with Jean-Marie and Lucile’s with Bruno, are a little too similar not to get slightly tangled up in one’s memory.
When the Russians enter the war, Bruno’s regiment is ordered to the Eastern Front. Lucile is left desolate, while the entire village turns out to see the Germans depart. “In these final hours, a kind of melancholy and human warmth bound them all together: the conquered and the conquerors.” The exodus takes place on
a wonderful night: clear, moonlit, without even a breath of wind…. A delicious, intoxicating perfume filled the air. How wonderful everything was, how peaceful. Children played and chased one another about; they climbed up on to the steps of the old stone cross and watched the road.
“Can you see them?” their mothers asked.
At last the regiment marches past. “The men began singing, a grave, slow song that drifted away into the night. Soon the road was empty. All that remained of the German regiment was a little cloud of dust.” That is the end of the book called Dolce—and it is very moving.
In view of the circumstances under which she wrote, it seems strange, but all the more appealing, that Némirovsky describes all the Germans she writes about as decent and well-behaved. The ordinary soldiers play with the village children, and the children love it. But although her novel is about the effects of war, class seems to engage her almost as much as it did Proust. She can’t keep the subject out of her story. She lacerates or ridicules every social class, with only a very few people left unscathed: Madeleine, Lucile, and the Michauds (including Jean-Marie). However, Madame Michaud understands and resents her position in society:
Why are we always the ones who have to suffer?… Us and people like us? Ordinary people, the lower middle classes. If war is declared, if the franc devalues, if there’s unemployment or a revolution, or any sort of crisis, the others manage to get through all right. We’re always the ones who are trampled!
“The others,” in her opinion, include the proletariat as well as the upper classes. But another woman, herself a proletarian, a servant until she married a Renault factory worker, makes more or less the same complaint from a position even lower down the social scale:
Deep in her heart were layer upon layer of hatred, overlapping yet distinct: the countrywoman’s hatred who instinctively detests city people, the servant’s hatred, weary and bitter at having lived in other people’s houses, the worker’s hatred.
This woman is part of a family that doesn’t come into the story at all, except for a moment when one of the men snatches the champagne bottle from Corte and Florence’s picnic as they pass them on the flight south. Each class hates and exploits the others.
The reader is certainly not supposed to admire the Count de Furières for supplementing Monsieur Corbin’s check for the Michauds with a fatter one. His comparative generosity is not to be taken as characteristic of a generous aristocracy: it is just another way of putting down his bourgeois partner, Corbin. The count is conceited, arrogant, and selfish, and treats people de haut en bas. In Dolce, another aristocrat, the Vicomtesse de Montmort, is a figure of pure comedy. In one of the book’s funniest passages—and there are many more than one might have expected—she gives a condescending, churchy lecture to the village women on how to practice charity under wartime conditions. It’s raining, so the lecture takes place in a shed, since the vicomtesse doesn’t want to have any peasants in her château. She and her husband are devoted to Pétain and dine with the German officers, who, she thinks, “were cultured men, after all! What separates or unites people is not their language, their laws, their customs, their principles, but the way they hold their knife and fork.”
A theme of Némirovsky’s book is that “life in the provinces of central France is affluent and primitive; everyone keeps to himself, rules over his own domain, reaps his own wheat and counts his own money.” But her account of a selfish world is superimposed on her descriptions of the beauty of the countryside in its different seasons and moods. Némirovsky describes nature with a mixture of lyricism and meticulousness, and always with an undercurrent of sadness, because nothing lasts:
The breath of wind that moved [the cherry trees] was still chilly on this day in May; the flowers gently resisted, curling up with a kind of trembling grace and turning their pale stamens towards the ground. The sun shone through them, revealing a pattern of interlacing delicate blue veins, visible through the opaque petals; this added something alive to the flower’s fragility, to its ethereal quality, something almost human, in a way that human can mean fragility and endurance both at the same time.
Human fragility and endurance are what Némirovsky seems to have intended to be her subject—but the obstinacy of human nastiness often pushes its way to the center of the stories she tells.
July 13, 2006
This is discussed in a short biography by Jonathan Weiss, Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works, to be published by Stanford University Press in October 2006. ↩