Knowing the personal history of Irene Nemirovsky, the author of Suite Francaise, makes this compelling novel even more poignant than it already is. Nemirovsky was a Russian-born Jew who emigrated to France during the Russian Revolution. She attended La Sorbonne and successfully became an acclaimed writer. Suite Francaise is actually two books in one and was supposed to be two books of five when she completed her plans, but she was never able to finish the work in its entirety. She was writing it during World War II and in 1942 she was arrested and sent to Pithiviers and on to Auschwitz where she died.
Nemirovsky’s oldest daughter, Denise, kept the notebook Suite Francaise was written in for fifty years before reading it, believing it to be a personal journal of her mother’s and assumed it would be too heartbreaking to read. Denise made arrangements to give all of her mother’s papers to a French archive, but decided to go ahead and read them before doing so. When she realized what the manuscript actually was, she chose to have it published instead and it became a French bestseller in 2004. The translated English version has also become a bestseller and contains many of Nemirovsky’s notes in the appendices which are completely worth reading as well.
Suite Francaise begins in 1940 in Paris as Nazi occupation is just underway. It goes back and forth between different characters in different locales across France, from a well-to-do mother looking frivolously for dessert, a couple consumed with thoughts of being fired and unable to find other careers, to a village where the people must house Nazi officers in their own homes. It’s a story with many angles on life in occupied France and even though technically unfinished, it is a moving and important piece.
What strikes me so deeply is that Nemirovsky was writing this while experiencing exactly what she was writing about. How much more credible can a work like this be? For readers who are as enthralled with the people affected by the Nazi Regime as I am, this is absolutely a book for the reading list.