There is so much to say about this astonishing book, but I’ll try to reign myself in. For those who have not heard of it, here’s a brief synopsis: Irene Nemirovsky’s family moved from Russia to France when she was small and she grew up to become a respected author. Suite Francaise contains the first two of her planned tranche of five books reflecting on World War Two from within occupied France. She never got to write the last three because she died in Auschwitz in 1942. As you read her book, this fact never leaves you: that this sensitive, witty, talented person was loaded into a cattle-truck and murdered. The brutality of it presages every word you read.
It also means that on every page you turn, you expect horror. I kept waiting, with sickly bated breath, for the really bad thing to happen. And it doesn’t. Obviously, since it is a war story, there are the odd violent moments, but, with my twenty-first century knowledge of the events of World War Two, I was expecting far worse. Instead, I found compassion, empathy for both occupier and occupied, beauty, poetry, wit and a good story really well told. Which makes Nemirovsky’s death in the camps even more resonantly tragic.
The first book, Storm in June, describes people fleeing Paris as the Germans approach. There is panic: the panic of the wealthy trying to decide which possessions to load into their cars and which to leave behind, the panic of people trying to get tickets on already over-crowded trains, the panic of those who have no choice but to walk. The book describes the various journeys, moments of terror when towns are bombed, and moments of comedy, such as when a rich family realise they have left their wheelchair-bound grandfather in the last town. When things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, and the notions of civilisation disappear. People steal and manipulate in order to survive.
I love the way Nemirovsky takes different strands of her story, following different families as they make their escapes and then tentatively return to Paris. Some strands intertwine and others don’t. I like the open-endedness of this, because in life nothing is neat, but I think from reading her notes at the end of my edition of the book, she was saving some of the characters for the later novels. I imagine she was planning to follow them until the end of the war.
In Storm in June there are no Germans, just faceless, bombing planes and shadows of green uniforms amongst trees. In the second book, Dolce, the Germans appear. They are the occupiers, sometimes in anonymous formation, sometimes as individuals. She regards these individuals with as much compassion and empathy as she does the occupied French. She talks of soldiers missing their mothers and their wives, desperate for the flavours of home cooking. She is very funny about the slippages in communication between German and French.
Dolce focuses on soldiers occupying one small town, and the various characters who people it: a vainglorious mayor, a recalcitrant farmer, the petit bourgeoisie, the workers. Each has a different relationship with the enemy – the mayor wants privileges, the farmer wants to murder, the bourgeoisie turn their backs on the Germans but are tempted to be friends, the townspeople are fearfully admiring. When a bad thing does happen, the French band together, despite friendships and relationships with the Germans, to protect the perpetrator.
But the event turns everything upside-down:
The Frenchmen, meanwhile were wondering, ‘That Willy who asked permission to kiss my kid, saying he had one the same age in Bavaria, that Fritz who helped me take care of my sick husband, that Erwald who thinks France is such a beautiful country … if tomorrow he was given the order, he’d arrest me, he’d kill me with his own hands without thinking twice? War … yes, everyone knows what war is like. But occupation is more terrible in a way, because people get used to each other. We tell ourselves, “They’re just like us, after all,” but they’re not at all the same. We’re two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever.
That is the tragedy of war: enemies become a different species so that it is easy to objectify them. By believing the Jews were animals, the Germans gave themselves permission to wipe them out, Irene Nemirovsky amongst them. If we see Arabs or Muslims or vegans or cloud-worshippers as a different species, we are giving ourselves permission to war with them. And in so doing, wipe out the talents of artists like Nemirovsky.