Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Book Review - Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

I had picked up this novel at a library book sale several years ago and finally got to reading it. I am not a huge fan of WWII novels. This particular novel attracted my attention mainly due to the fact that the author had lived through the war in France.

The novel consists of the first two parts of a planned five-part epic, which the author was never able to finish as she was arrested shortly after completing those two parts and taken to Auschwitz to be executed.

Part One (The Storm) is a chronicling of events that took place during the German invasion of Paris in the summer of 1940. We meet a spectrum of French nationals ranging from an aristocratic family headed by a museum curator, a famous writer and his mistress, a wealthy hedonist, a banker, to a working class couple and their soldier son, a priest and a whore. The author presents her piercing observation of their differing mentalities and worldviews, mostly dictated by their social status and possessions. In their individual struggle to survive, they are collectively forced to endure physical and emotional upheavals that the war inflicts on them.

Part Two (Dolce) tells the narratives of three families in the village of Bussy during the German occupation from spring to July 1, 1941. The three families represent three different social classes: the aristocrats, the middle-class and the peasant class, and each holds its own values and attitude towards the enemy – the Germans. Through depicting their interaction with the Germans, the author shows us the aristocrats’ pomposity and hypocrisy, the middle-class’s down-to-earth pragmatism and the peasants’ self-righteous effrontery. Woven into this are two thwarted love affairs.

Perhaps this quote captures what in essence was the author’s view on human nature:

Important events – whether serious, happy or unfortunate – do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves.

Overall, Part One was episodic in style, while Part Two was slow-moving and overly descriptive. The two parts read like two separate novellas. Nonetheless the author has keen insights into the human psyche. It’s unsettling to think of the author facing death herself shortly after the writing ends. I’m giving it 3.4 stars. 

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