In July 1942 a writer named Irène Némirovsky, a Russian-Jewish émigré living in the countryside of Burgundy, was arrested by French police and deported to Auschwitz. She died of typhus within a month. Her husband, Michel Epstein, was deported to Auschwitz four months later, and probably gassed. Only their two daughters survived the war, moving from one hiding place to another. One of those daughters, Denise Epstein, carried her mother’s last manuscript with her throughout the war and into her own adulthood. When she finally decided to transcribe the pages, she was astonished: She and her sister had always assumed they were notes or fragments of a novel. What she learned after months and months of work with the cramped handwriting–Némirovsky’s response to wartime paper shortages–was that Suite Française, the title her mother had given to her novel-in-progress, could stand alone as a finished work, a brilliant portrait of French society in 1940. The book was published in 2004 and became an international sensation. Sandra Smith’s sure-footed English translation has recently appeared in a volume that, like the original French edition, includes the fiction plus a “true story” chaser–the author’s diary notes from 1941 and 1942, related correspondence and an afterword by Myriam Anissimov.
Survivor stories are always compelling, and Némirovsky’s Suite Française is no exception, though the survivor here is the manuscript–not the author. It rivals the story of Anne Frank’s diary, or the story of Albert Camus’s novel The First Man, found in the wreck of the car where he died. The editorial apparatus of both the French and American editions insists that we read Suite Française through the lens of Némirovsky’s found manuscript and the tragedy of the Holocaust. It’s impossible not to think of the miracle of Némirovsky’s surviving last words when you’re reading, and this context gives the book an importance, a shimmering sense of surplus value. As for the author, she turns out to have had a morally complicated history only hinted at in the supplementary material to Suite Française.
In 1939 Irène Némirovsky was a successful novelist and socialite, living an affluent life in Paris with her banker husband, Epstein. She had just converted from Judaism to Catholicism. It’s hard to know whether she converted in order to obtain French citizenship or out of a deeply held faith–possibly for both reasons. Despite her connections and literary prestige, French citizenship was denied to her.
At age 36 Némirovsky had already published twelve books, which earned enough to provide her with a steady income in addition to what her husband made as a banker. She had been born in Kiev; her father was a wealthy businessman, and like many prominent Russian-Jewish families, hers had made the transition to French life seamlessly. Her French was perfect before she ever saw Paris. She was steeped in the rich Russian literary tradition, and even the discipline of the Russian novelists became hers. For each of her own stories, she wrote pages about the characters in detailed notebooks before she knew them well enough to start her novel.
Némirovsky’s mother was a cruel narcissist, and troubled parent-child relations dominate many of her books, such as her much-admired novella The Ball, about a badly mistreated daughter who takes revenge on her social-climbing parents by throwing all of their invitations to a party into the Seine. Her most successful novel, David Golder, also revolves around the troubled-family theme, in this case with the child in the cruel role: David Golder is a ruthless Jewish financier unable to please his heartless socialite daughter. That book became a well-known film in the 1930s, but it also made Némirovsky the darling of the anti-Semitic right, who celebrated her portrait of a Jewish profiteer and lauded her for her “pure” prose style (this detail, gleaned from an admiring review by the virulently anti-Semitic writer Robert Brasillach, is cut from the English-language version of Anissimov’s original French preface). Némirovsky seems to have traveled in the wrong circles, all of her own volition: Among her closest friends were right-wing Frenchmen who became notorious Nazi collaborators and champions of Vichy France.
History caught up with her. The defeat of France in 1940, the German occupation and the anti-Semitic legislation of Vichy made a mockery of Némirovsky’s happy assimilation and literary success. It didn’t matter who her friends were; they couldn’t or wouldn’t save her. Vichy legislation “Aryanized” publishing houses and prevented her from publishing new work or receiving royalties–the editorial correspondence reproduced at the back of Suite Française shows the arrangements she had to make from the countryside to get her royalties sent to a friend who could be trusted to transfer them to her. Meanwhile, she made choices that look to us today–easy for us to say–like acts of denial or delusion. She had the chance to leave for Switzerland, where she would have been safe from persecution. She didn’t take it. Nor did she flee to the nonoccupied zone, as did so many–for example, Nathalie Sarraute, a Russian-Jewish writer of Némirovsky’s generation. Némirovsky retreated from Paris to Issy-l’Evêque, in the occupied zone, where she and her family were required to wear the yellow star. And during this time, she published short stories under various pseudonyms in Gringoire, one of the most violently anti-Semitic newspapers of the occupation era. That the editor of the paper was loyal to her may say something good about him; that Némirovsky was willing to be published in its pages is troubling.
Némirovsky was arrested on July 13, 1942, and deported four days later. Epstein started a letter-writing campaign to save his wife. The most disturbing text reproduced in the appendix to Suite Française is a letter he addressed to Otto Abetz, the German ambassador in Paris, explaining that her writing was truly anti-Semitic and anti-Bolshevik and she ought to be saved as a friend of the regime. Epstein asked for help from his wife’s many friends with Vichy connections: Paul Morand and Madame Morand, both militant anti-Semites, and the Count of Chambrun, Pierre Laval’s son-in-law. Epstein was deported soon after.
Suite Française raises fascinating questions about what matters in the experience of reading: content or context. The context of Suite Française is endlessly fascinating–the recovered manuscript, the deported writer, the ambiguity of her choices and the cruelty of her fate. Then there is the novel itself. Is it a masterpiece or, as Anita Brookner argued last year in The Spectator, a “society novel,” less interesting than the writer’s notes? Brookner is half right: It is a society novel. But it’s also a great one, in the devastating tradition of Edith Wharton.
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.