Posted by: Matt | July 20, 2007

Review of Suite Francaise

Suite FrancaiseSuite Francaise
Irene Nemirovsky
2004

Reason for reading: I had read great things about this book, it seemed to be universally adored. Also, my wife and I read this for our book club.

Quote
: “The glass roof shattered and exploded outwards, wounding and killing the people in the square. Panic-stricken, some of the women threw down their babies as if they were cumbersome packages and ran. Others grabbed their children and held them so tightly they seemed to want to force them back into the womb, as if that were the only truly safe place.”

*******

Suite Francaise is the first two parts of what was to be a longer novel about the people of France during World War II. The author, Irene Nemirovsky, was arrested for being of Jewish decent before she could finish the book. She died a month later in Auschwitz.

This is a strange novel. The tone the author took seemed at times almost light-hearted. That’s a strange way to approach a book about war. I never really felt a sense of danger or heartache in the book. Even at the death of a particular character it was almost comical. The tone was not what I expected at all.

It was even more interesting to note this knowing Nemirovsky’s fate. She surely must have known the German’s way of dealing with Jews, yet she never sounded bitter in the book, even as she discussed their occupation of her adopted country.

One of the things that did strike me throughout the book was the tension between classes. Everyone seemed to look down upon others according to their situation in life. I was surprised by how much class affected peoples opinions of others. I’m not sure if it was because of the time period in which the novel took place or the country in which it occurred or if it was because I am mostly blind to what goes on around me in the U.S. I don’t see this kind of class struggle where I live, maybe I’m oblivious or maybe I’m surrounded by people in a similar class as me.

This book was a surprise to me, I did not expect to find the things I have discussed above. It was a bit of a disappointment for me as well after reading so many good things. It was a struggle for me to get into the book and I had to force myself to pick it up in the beginning. It did get better and proved to be an involving read, but never reached my expectations.

Rating: 3.0

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Responses

  1. Interesting review, Matt. I picked this one up a few weeks ago and placed it in the TBR stack where it still sits. I have to be in a certain frame of mind to read this kind of thing, and so far it hasn’t attracted me. I’ve seen mixed reviews on the book, although most of them have been positive.

    Maybe what we are dealing with is an “unpolished gem” that would have read differently if the author had had the time to properly prepare it for publication? Is it mentioned anywhere how much work was done on the manuscript by an editor?

    Thanks for the review.

  2. I haven’t read this book yet but I’ve read quite a bit about it. Your review has interested me in getting a hold of it. Two thoughts on your thoughts written from the perspective of someone whose family is from germany and secular but Jewish enough for Hitler. (I hope this doesn’t sound preachy because I don’t mean it to). Some of my family emigrated early – 1933, others waited till 1939-40 and of course had a much harder time. Others committed suicide or were murdered.
    We have very culturally well known names for the things that happened in this period in history – the Holocaust, World War II – but these people were in the middle of their lives. It’s a “book about war” for us – but was it for Nemirovsky? It may have just been a chronicle of her life and the events surrounding it. When I read my grandparents letters of 1939 they are amazingly based in the ordinary events of daily life.
    Nemirovsky was actually Russian born, so she had already left one country for a country that was supposed to guarantee her freedoms – France – and she made a new life for herself there. So it was probably hard for her to believe that Germany would invade France, and that France would allow it, and then actually adopt the anti-Jewish laws and finally enforce them. She considered herself a French citizen and had reason to believe her rights would be protected. But those laws rendered her a “stateless Jew” and her countrymen enforced them – resulting in her being put to death. There are many interesting books about France during the war – both the amazing resistance movement and the collaborators in the Vichy government make intersting reading. Anyway, my mother and uncle and grandparents, etc. lived in Germany and watched as their rights were stripped away one by one – they had to give away their business, change their address, not go out at night, not hold bank accounts and yet, some of them could not believe “it” would ever happen because Germany was a cultured and educated society and because they considered themselves Germans. Anyway my point is that many people could not understand or believed “Germany’s way of dealing with the Jews.” I think our perspective of these periods of history after the fact is a good deal different than what it was like to live in it.
    If you’re interested in an amazing chronicle of daily life in Germany at that time – Victor Klemperer wrote a two-volume journal that is truly incredible.

  3. For me a big part of the attraction to this book is actually Irene Nemirovsky’s own story.

  4. I don’t regularly leave comments here, but thought I should try to for Matt’s reviews of books we read for our “family” book club. Like Matt, I had a hard time getting into this book. It’s very different from every other book I’ve read about WWII, and there didn’t seem to be much closure to most parts of it. It was an interesting read because it’s so different, but I don’t think I’ll be recommending it to people, at least not without a couple disclaimers.

  5. What a great review, Matt!! I have read a few reviews of this book, and haven’t gotten this perspective about it! I still have it on my list to read, but I may put it off for a while longer!

  6. I’ve had this book on my pile for quite some time, but I keep putting off reading it, partly because of the mixed reviews. I have the Victor Klemperer book that Ted mentions in his comment, and I’ve heard it’s really good, so I might read that first. Thanks for this review!

  7. Sam – It could very well be that the book was left unpolished. I am not sure how much work was done by an editor but there are extensive end notes in the book that I haven’t gotten to that might explain it.

    Ted – Thanks for the perspective. It makes me realize how difficult it is to review something when you don’t know the whole background. I could only base my review on what I read in the book and what little I know of Nemirovsky’s life. I will have to check out that jouranl by Victor Klemperer you mentioned.

    Marg – She certainly does have an interesting story herself though I’m not familiar with much of it.

    Stephanie – I’m glad I could offer up a perspective you hadn’t read before!

    gentle reader – It’s interesting you mention mixed reviews because the reviews I had seen where all very positive. Maybe I didn’t look closely enough.

  8. Matt, I read this one too, and like you I was surprised to find it a book about class. I was also taken aback about how little talk of the Jews there was. I read all the appendices at the end, and felt, like Marg said, much of the attraction was Irene Nemirovsky’s own story. Essentially, I thought she was the most interesting character in the book and I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not.

  9. John – It was just a strange read for me, not at all what I expected. That is good sometimes, but I’m not still sure how I feel about this book.

  10. Thanks for this review Matt. I guess I’m not surprised you didn’t care for this – I was the only person in my bookclub who really did – but I was also the only one who knew Nemirovsky’s fate ahead of time. I don’t think this is a book about war or WWII, to me it is a book about human nature, all sorts of people, thrown together in a life -altering situation – how do they respond? I think this book is an important document. Surely there are novels written more recently about when the Germans took Paris and German occupation, but I feel this novel is important because it was written during that time. I also wondered about what could be lost in translation, or if she meant to ‘polish’ the novel more. Perhaps, but I think she must have been fascinated by human nature to write like this. I also think about how the conditions under which she was writing this has affected the story, I am sure she knew her life was in peril. Just my 2 cents.

  11. tara – I think the book is more of a character study as well. Although I probably didn’t get that across in my review, sometimes it’s hard to summarize all of the thoughts I have on a book, maybe I should take notes. It seems that my expectations affected my review quite a bit.

  12. I, too, was struck by all the references to class distinctions in the book. If it wasn’t for the fact that this narrative is so firmly rooted in history, I would have found it hard to believe it took place in such a recent past. The relationships between peasant and farmer and landowner seemed actually feudal! As a Jew myself and someone who had ancestors killed by the Nazis, I was struck by the author’s evenhandedness in describing the Germans from, what I felt to be, a strange relativistic perspective. As I read about the sorrows of the French who’d lost family members I found myself fighting to accept the ordinariness of the occupiers; they, too, (at least the officers) loved music, literature and could distinguish between fine wines. But through it all I continued to feel something missing, some deep, perhaps violently human revulsion the author chose not to manifest through her characters. True, the figure of Benoit erupts with enough hostility to reflect the rage and frustration I would have assumed more French citizens would have felt. After thinking it over, I have to conclude the author’s point is that people always try their best to revert to whatever they consider to be ordinary and familiar and comforting. Maybe there’s a ‘truth’ to that, but I still feel an entire dimension of human emotions was somehow blurred into a wary acceptance of an omnipresent enemy. Was it because neither the author nor the French population in general did not know, as yet, about the concentration camps? Would even that knowledge have mattered? In the end, this book is still an amazing tapestry of humanity frozen en tableau forever.

  13. I just finished reading/listening to Suite Francaise, for a book group I will lead tomorrow (a little last minute, you think?). I found it difficult to get into and started several times. since i had a long car trip i decided to combine listening and actually found that much more satisfying. I definitely liked dolce better than part 1 which I thought was a slightly jumbled series of short stories joined by time. Knowing her history, i had assumed it would be a Jewish Holocause story which it is certainly not. In my mind, class issues figure much more prominently than religion and perhaps even more than nationality. Does this answer the question…were there good Germans? I would also suggest reading THE BOOK THIEF and THOSE WHO SAVE US.

  14. I have a different reaction to SUITE FRANCAISE from Matt and others. I am fascinated by the fact that Nemirovsky wrote this in real time, while the events she portrays were unfolding, and didn’t have the knowledge any reader today has of the later horrors of World War II in France or anywhere else. She wrote what she saw and experienced as a famous French author supposedly protected by her fame and conversion to Catholicism. While she & her husband undoubtedly had heard rumors about the the death camps, she didn’t think this could happen in France. To me, Nemirovsy’s book is fresh, immediate and ultimately eerie because she couldn’t know what would happen to her or her country.


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