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  • Suite Française: A Novel
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Suite Française: A Novel By Irène Némirovsky Translated from the French by Sandra SmithAlfred A. Knopf, 2006, 416 pp., $25

Virtually every review I've seen of this exceptional, unfinished war novel sets it within the context of its writing—it was penned in tiny print on precious paper during the very war it describes—and also frames it with the story of its author's tragic death: Irène Némirovsky, a Russian-born writer of Jewish descent whose family fled the Bolsheviks in 1917 and settled in France two years later, was arrested in July 1942. Deported to Auschwitz, she died the following month, at the age of thirty-nine. Her husband was deported and killed shortly thereafter.

But their two French-born daughters survived, along with a valise containing family papers. For decades they didn't read these papers; they didn't know Suite Française existed. The book wasn't published in France until 2004; this year it became a best-seller in translation in the United States. [End Page 181]

Deservedly so. Comprised of two sections (Némirovsky apparently envisioned a massive five-part tome; an appendix of her notes provides some of her ideas for other volumes), the book is divided into "Storm in June," which focuses on the fall of France in June 1940, and "Dolce," set in a German-occupied French village the next spring.

Némirovsky was an experienced novelist by the time she was writing Suite Française; it's worth noting that she'd also written a biography of Chekhov (also published posthumously), and his influence shows in this work. It doesn't seem to be a novel in draft form; the prose is seamless and often gorgeous, as in this description of Paris under an air raid:

All the lights were out, but beneath the clear, golden June sky, every house, every street was visible. As for the Seine, the river seemed to absorb even the faintest glimmers of light and reflect them back a hundred times brighter, like some multifaceted mirror. Badly blacked-out windows, glistening rooftops, the metal hinges of doors all shone in the water. There were a few red lights that stayed on longer than the others, no one knew why, and the Seine drew them in, capturing them and bouncing them playfully on its waves.

On a more substantive level, this book's central accomplishment is its incisive and realistic fictional depiction of France and the French, first under encroaching German invasion and then under occupation. It's true that the portraits of various individuals, couples and families fleeing Paris in "Storm in June" won't surprise anyone familiar with the opening moments of René Clément's 1952 film, Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games), with its images of refugees clogging roads while bombs fall from above. Nor will the variety and degrees of moral challenges, and the ways in which people face them, shock anyone who already appreciates that not every French citizen during the war years could be categorized as either a collaborator or a resister (not to mention that "collaboration" and "resistance" themselves took an infinite variety of forms). But if this history is new to you, prepare to be impressed not only by how Némirovsky evokes this complex historical moment but by what she evokes, too.

Which leads to another point. While much of the press surrounding this book has focused on the circumstances of its author's death, far less attention has been given to her life. In this respect, neither readers nor reviewers have been particularly well served by the omissions [End Page 182] in the translation of the French version's preface. These omissions, including a mention of how much the famous collaborationist and anti-Semitic writer Robert Brasillach admired Némirovsky's early work, would have informed us of an uncomfortable yet significant aspect of her biography: her own apparent antipathy toward Jews and Judaism.

It's perfectly accurate and correct to describe (and promote) this book as the writing of a Holocaust victim, and there's no question that Némirovsky's...