By Irene Nemirovsky
Translated by Sandra Smith
To the far end with a hardened heart
Suite Francaise comprises the first two sections of Irene Nemirovsky's projected five-part, 1000-page novel. Unless one is an expert in twentieth-century French fiction, he or she probably won't have heard of Irene Nemirovsky, once a best-selling novelist before World War II. But the facts now available because of the publication of two of her novels, only recently brought out for the first time in France and now offered in English translation, reveal that her talent was quite considerable ...view middle of the document...
Now we have the English translation under the umbrella title Suite Francaise. The result is a beautifully restrained pair of novels about the chaos and suffering immediately following the fall of Paris and the subsequent exodus of tens of thousands from the capital (in Storm in June) as well as the tragicomic results of the Nazi occupation of the French country- side (in Dolce).
Storm chronicles the panicked evacuation from Paris as it becomes clear, in June 1940, that the Germans are overrunning French defenses and swiftly moving toward the capital. Through her deft portraits, Nemirovsky vividly captures the varied reactions of Parisians to the unimaginably rapid success of the German offensive. Her characters are deeply embedded in class, work, religious, and family networks. They include members of the elite, such as the self-centered aesthete Charlie Langelet, who is not above siphoning off gas from a young couple's car; the banker Corbin and his mistress, the dancer Arlette Corail, who bumps the Michauds, Corbin's loyal employees, from his car; the writer Gabriel Corte and his "official mistress" Florence, who manage with difficulty to use Corte' s connections to obtain food in a provincial town overwhelmed with refugees, only to have it immediately stolen. The Pericand family, headed by the iron-willed matriarch Charlotte, represent the solid French middle class: Catholic (one son, Philippe, is a priest), nationalist, distrustful of the government yet dependent on it. The working class characters, Hortense, Jules, and Aline, are the trio who steal Corte's food. Representatives of the lower middle class, especially the humble and conscientious bank workers Maurice and Jeanne Michaud, who take to the road on foot after losing their ride, are the most sympathetic characters in Storm. They pine for word of their son Jean-Marie, who has been wounded at the front and is being nursed in an isolated hamlet near the demarcation line between German-occupied France and collaborationist Vichy. Nemirovsky shows the battered national pride as well as the many divisions among the French. Although the war, and especially the carnage of the German air attacks, is omnipresent, French-on-French violence is responsible for the deaths of two of the main characters in this section. In Dolce, the scene shifts to the village of Bussy, in the German-occupied zone. Bussy resembles Issy-l'Eveque, the home village of Nemirovsky's daughters' nanny Cecile Michaud, where the author and her family evacuated after the German conquest. From this vantage point, Nemirovsky shows clearly the ambivalent reactions of the French to their occupation, which is quite different from the Gaullist myth of unified anti-German resistance. Many welcome the occupiers: young women flirt with them, families invite them into their homes, shopkeepers love fleecing them, village officials and landowners view them as saviors from the socialist menace. Some of the characters...