Bittersweet Française

Suite Francaise is my first book completed for the WWII Reading Challenge.  Listening to the audiobook with the French accents made the book more present, more authentic.  I was so captured by this story that when bedtime came and I had one disc left, I went to bed with headphones on.  (“Has it come to this?” my husband wondered.)

Irène Némirovsky’s tragic story makes this a bittersweet read.  She lived through the German invasion and occupation of France, writing these two novellas as the events were current. She died in Auschwitz in 1942.  Her daughters rescued her manuscript and left it, untouched,  in a suitcase for 60+ years.  The English translation was published in 2006.  This is very likely the first WWII fiction written.  I am eager to read Némirovsky’s story in the appendix of the print edition.  Her words from the story give us a glimpse of what her life must have been like:

Living constantly in fear of death like this was only bearable if you took one day at a time.  If you said to yourself each evening, “Another twenty-four hours where nothing really bad has happened, thank God.  Let’s see what tomorrow brings.”

The first novella, Storm in June, follows several Parisians scurrying to the country to avoid the Nazis. Némirovsky chronicles the confusion, the chaos, the denial that exasperated the lack of preparedness. This isn’t a happy story of people banding together, displaying sacrifice and courage. She paints realistic pictures of art dealers who care more about porcelain than people, a mother who sees herself as generous until she realizes her family may suffer want, an author who pulls strings to get favorable treatment.  Some of the characters don’t survive.

The second novella, Dolce, set in the countryside, examines life under German occupation.  Most able-bodied French men are gone, leaving the women to manage then daily challenges and adjust to having Germans live with them in their homes.  Némirovsky’s watercolor of French country life was my favorite part of the Suite.

I am not sure how/if this book was edited. There were places where editing would have improved the writing.  But as a first draft (if that is what it is) this book is magnificent.   

A few more quotes:

They didn’t speak.  Between these two women every topic of conversation was a thornbush they only approached with caution.  Reaching out a hand might result in injury.

~   ~   ~

Jean-Marie never got tired of watching them.  He wanted to write a story about these charming little horses, a story that would evoke this day in July, this land, this farm, these people, the war, and himself. He wrote with a chewed up pencil stub in a little notebook which he hid against his heart.  He felt he had to hurry; something inside him was making him anxious, was knocking on an invisible door.  By writing he opened that door.  He gave life to something he wished to be born.

~   ~   ~

Her upbringing had been strict and Puritanical, but she had not been unhappy.  The garden, the housework, a library–an enormous, damp room where the books grew mouldy and where she would secretly rummage around–were all enough to amuse her.



6 thoughts on “Bittersweet Française

  1. This sounds like something I would love to read. I will have to write it down and put it on a list. No, I haven’t resorted to making myself lists of books I want to buy/read, yet. Usually I just get them or order them on if I want them. I don’t like having so many waiting in the wings that I can’t decide which one to start! You amaze me, girl 

  2. I loved the historical background of the book almost more than the book, but also liked that it was slice of life, and that all her characters weren’t sympathetic.And, I agree, the evacuation of Paris scene was amazing in detail and the little stories, wasn’t it?I loved the photos of the grandbabies in the post below mine, I hope you get to see them soon!

  3. I hopped over from the War Through the Generations page b/c I had to read your review.  I found this book fascinating, more so for the backstory of the author than for the book itself though.  But I never considered listening to it on audio (even though I listen to lots of books that way) – it must have been fantastic to hear the accents and the (correct) pronunciation of the names. Here’s my review if you want to check it out:

Comments are cinnamon on my oatmeal!

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