I started reading Suite Francaise right about the time when the end of reading War and Peace was in sight. Moreover, I started it right after finishing that month’s section. Hopefully this will explain why I chose to write about this novel for the War and Peace Carnival, besides the obvious, of course — the fact that it is consistently called Némirovsky’s War and Peace-like epos on the cover and the appendices.
Némirovsky’s Suite Francaise consists of two parts. The first, called Storm in June, follows a number of families and persons as they flee Paris on the eve of the German invasion. The second, ‘Dolce’, depicts live in a small village while it is occupied by Germans. Meant to be a novel of more parts, Némirovsky never got to finish it before she was transferred to a concentration camp by the Nazis. In published form, these two parts are followed by appendices containing her notes about the war and her ideas about Suite Francaise as well as her correspondence from 1936 until her deportation.
There is a certain feel to the novel that struck me as justifying the idea that Némirovsky was aiming to write a War and Peace of her time. I felt there were similarities in how Tolstoy and Némirovsky chose to depict the chaos and yet the familiarity of everyday life during war. How human natures will remain what they are, even if they are undergoing drastic changes at the same time. How people will make choices, one or the other, without knowing the outcome, but mostly trying to maintain a sense of normality. And how some might struggle to hold on to class and all that, even if that should hardly matter any more. (Btw, it certainly seemed that Némirovsky had more sympathy for the working classes than the richer persons she depicts, or was that just me?)
The difference perhaps being that whereas Tolstoy included a lot of battle scenes from the point of view of the army/soldiers, most of the fighting that we see in Suite Francaise is through regular characters. (with one scene with a boy who wants to join the army as an exception, perhaps?) I wonder if this is why I felt more instantly attached to the story and its characters in Suite Francaise compared to War and Peace. Or perhaps it was the length of the –unfinished– novel? Or maybe even the fact that the historical setting is more familiar to me? I do not mean to detract from either novel, it is simply that Suite Francaise was somehow easier to read for me.
There is one thing that frankly surprised me while reading Suite Francaise: the constant feeling that it was written as if the war was already over, as if the author already knew what things were going to happen. There was such a, I guess I could call it knowingness?, about the war. A familiarity combined with reflection that had me wondering repeatedly if perhaps I hadn’t gotten my facts straight, if perhaps Némirovsky did live until the end of the war and revised the novel afterwards. But alas, that was not the case, or we might have had a complete novel instead of a story in two parts. Either way, I think it was that tone that was part of the magic in Suite Francaise for me.
There is a lot more to say about Suite Francaise, but I am afraid that it has been a while since I read it, and that while I knew I was going to write about it in December — close to that time when I would have finished War and Peace – I forgot to make notes of all the other things I wished to say. This will have to do, until, perhaps, I reread it someday?
I read Suite Francaise as part of my Classics Club list. This post is part of the War and Peace Carnival.
Other opinions on Suite Francaise may be found here.