Love in the Ruins
The most surprising aspect of Suite Française, especially given the emphasis on Némirovsky's life in the notes accompanying the text, is how little her particular situation seems to have influenced her story, at least in the obvious ways. She does not write about the condition of Jews in France, which must have been foremost in her mind. She writes about the most "pure-blooded" French, the people who went along with Pétain, people in her own circle--Catholic French bourgeois. And she does it with supreme lucidity. That's why, whatever one might say about her politics, her choices and her denial, the book, in its unsparing critique of the part of France she had once emulated, triumphs over her life.
Suite Française is divided into two parts. The first, "Storm in June," is a series of sketches showing different Parisians responding to the trauma known in French history as the exode, or "exodus"--the period between May and June 1940, when some 8 million French people fled their homes and took to the roads in anticipation of the German invasion. The government retreated to Bordeaux, then to Vichy. For thousands of more ordinary French people, this was a trauma we can only imagine by thinking of Hurricane Katrina and the thousands of desperate people trying to escape New Orleans. Némirovsky is merciless in depicting the banker, Monsieur Corbin, who orders his faithful assistants, the Michauds, to join him in Tours but refuses to lift a finger to help them get out of Paris. At the train station, they find the departure area blocked off by soldiers and a crowd of people crushed against the barriers, mumbling that they will have to walk out of the city: "Everyone spoke with a kind of devastated astonishment. They clearly didn't believe what they were saying. They looked around and expected some miracle: a car, a truck, anything that would take them. But nothing came."
In the Péricand household, Madame Péricand and her staff fuss over packing as many possessions as possible into the family car and nearly forget about their invalid father-in-law upstairs. On the road, a novelist, an egocentric member of the French Academy, begs a restaurant owner for dinner. "Look here, you know who I am, don't you? I'm Corte, Gabriel Corte." Only a bribe gets him food--a basket smelling of foie gras that is ripped from his hands by a thief before Corte has time to open it.
The second part of Suite Française is a novella called "Dolce." Here, a lonely woman finds her first sense of companionship and intimacy with the German officer billeted in her house--an architect and talented pianist in civilian life. Everything changes for Némirovsky's main character when she is asked by the local Resistance to hide a French peasant who has murdered another German officer in the countryside. Her house has many hidden recesses, so she agrees. Némirovsky prepares us for a long-delayed love scene between the French woman and the German officer, then takes it away from us in a way we understand perfectly: After having enjoyed a secret complicity with the officer, she is forced to keep a secret from him. "The love she had welcomed so willingly that she didn't believe it could be shameful, suddenly seemed to her disgraceful madness. She was lying; she was betraying him. How could you call that love?" So in the end, loyalty to her country makes this passion, which could have rescued her from a terrible life of loneliness, impossible. It's a tragedy of Russian proportions.
Némirovsky's description of French-German relations in "Dolce" is far more complicated than many of the allegorical heroic narratives from the years following World War II, such as Vercors's The Silence of the Sea, first published underground in 1942, which treats the same theme of fraternization in far less ambiguous terms. There are no heroics in Némirovsky's group portrait of the French bourgeoisie. Most of her stories turn around the central theme of finding shelter in wartime. For all of her characters, asylum fails in one way or another. Those who give shelter are unrewarded or punished; those who take it are disappointed or destroyed. Many others refuse to give asylum when it is needed most. So while her novel is not immediately autobiographical, in its constant attention to the host-guest relationship, Némirovsky expressed with great emotional precision her understanding of the country that betrayed her. Two days before her arrest she wrote her publisher: "I have done a lot of writing. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but it helps pass the time." A year earlier, she had written in her diary in a much different tone: "My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honor and its life." Was work on her novel a necessary dissociation from her reality--a way to pass the time--or a final coming to terms? Not knowing is part of what makes Suite Française, with its jigsaw of fiction and nonfiction, so gripping.
A few final puzzles within the puzzles: Who knows what might have happened if Némirovsky had survived the camps and had tried to publish Suite Française in 1946? It's quite possible she would have been censored by the Resistance for her contributions to Gringoire. Other writers were blacklisted for less. Even if she hadn't been included on an official Resistance blacklist, her vision of France in Suite Française was so critical, so dark, the novel would have been a slap in the face to Gaullist France, with its vision of an eternal French republic untouched by Vichy. The manuscript might have been refused publication, or at least poorly received. Anti-Semitism remained rife in the immediate postwar era, and Némirovsky might have been excoriated as an ungrateful Jew.
It is also tempting to ask what the fate of Suite Française might have been had Némirovsky died a natural death during the war. Would her daughter have found a publisher in 2004? How would Suite Française have been received without the tragic backstory? Are we capable of reading fiction anymore without being told something poignant, or sensational, or gratifying about the author? Némirovsky's novel, by itself, is so good that I'd like to answer yes. But I'm not sure.