The Unfinished Masterpiece

Nearly everyone casually dismissed the astronomic rise of the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, in German politics. Everyone was none the wiser that this was a precursor to what would be one of the grimmest phases of history. Surely, this stoic man is not scheming a grand picture while he inched towards the pinnacle of the German leadership. In a couple of years, he managed to singlehandedly alter the landscape of Europe, and of history. Hitler’s relentless drive to cleanse the continent of Jews ignited a war that has left many on its wake. Many were forced to flee and hide from the tentacles of Hitler’s army.

Among those forced to go incognito was Irène Némirovsky who, along with her family, fled to the French countryside when Hitler’s army invaded France. They managed to stay hidden for some time, but as fate would have it, she and her husband was captured as a “stateless person of Jewish descent” and was sent to Auschwitz where she passed away in August 17, 1942. While incognito, Irène Némirovsky commenced work on what many literary pundit would consider to be her most defining work. In earnest, she started working on the first two parts of what she planned to be a five novel series, Suite Française. Unfortunately, she was captured before she could complete her novel, leaving the unfinished draft to her daughter.

Even before the invasion of the Germans, Némirovsky was already a established writer. However, it took several decades for her magnum opus to finally see the light of day. For fear of reliving painful memories of the past, Denise, Irene’s eldest daughter, refused to read the leatherbound notebook handed over to her by her mother. It did take her nearly seven decades to muster the courage to open the notebook and what she discovered surprised her confounded her beyond imagination. Instead of a diary, what she discovered were the complete drafts of two novellas. She immediately sent it to a publisher. In 2004, Suite Française was finally published, and the rest, they say, is history.

“An enemy soldier never seemed to be alone – one human being like any other – but followed, crushed from all directions by innumerable ghosts, the missing and the dead. Speaking to him wasn’t like speaking to a solitary man but to an invisible multitude; nothing that was said was either spoken or heard with simplicity: there was always that strange sensation of being no more than lips that spoke for so many others, others who had been silenced.”

~ Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française

The novel’s prepublication history already provided it with a springboard. However, it has its own merits distinct from the heartbreaking fate of the author; it was already palpable in the first of two completed novellas comprising the critically-acclaimed masterpiece, Storm in June. Némirovsky walked the readers through the pandemonium that reigned in Paris during the earlier days of the German invasion of France. As the German artillery made its way to the French capital, the denizens realized that there was virtually nothing separating them from the invaders. This eureka moment ushered in a unified agreement to move out of the buzzling metropolis. In a rush, Parisians fled to the safety of the countryside.

Through the experiences of a select set of characters, Némirovsky vividly captured the widespread chaos that ensued. Their stories and experiences project the pandemonium hovering above the Parisian air during this grim phase. With each character – the Péricands, Gabriel Corte and the middle-aged couple Maurice and Jeanne Michaud – the fear, the tension and the desperation that hovered above the French capital were vividly captured in varying tones and levels. As the roads and the train stations started overflowing with individuals wanting to flee from the inevitable, fear and desperation started to permeate the air. As an aside, the social disparities was also subtly portrayed in the narrative.

In its Images of desperation and pandemonium, Storm in June was a triumph of literature. Némirovsky was masterful in her projection of the realities of the of general reality through the experiences of a few. It was frenzied and emotions were flying high. To a point, it can even be called melodramatic. The second novella, Dolce, was the antithesis of its predecessor. The war still pervaded the atmosphere but the narrative’s focus pivoted from the French capital towards the French countryside. The shifts were apparent in the changes in voice, tone, and pace. Némirovsky also introduced a new set of characters. On the outskirts of the countryside village of Bussy, the German soldiers took up residence in a garrison. The village is bereft of men deemed capable to fight as they left to serve the frontlines. Left to deal with the conquerors were the children, women and old men.

At this point in history, it was apparent that the gallant French army have virtually lost the battle to the Germans. However, there was a new battle that was brewing over the horizon. As the conquered adjust to the new normal of living alongside their conquerors, the tension shifted from the overt to the covert. With the shift in narrative, so did the perspective. From following multiple loosely related characters in the first novella, Dolce shifted towards a singular point-of-view, that of Lucile Angellier. In the village’s most elegant house, Lucile lived with her widowed mother-in-law; her husband, Gaston was in a German prison camp.

“Then a dark shape would glide across the star-covered sky, everyone would look up and the laughter would stop. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call fear, rather a strange sadness–a sadness that had nothing human about it any more, for it lacked both courage and hope. This was how animals waited to die. It was the way fish caught in a net watch the shadow of the fisherman moving back and forth above them.”

~ Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française

In contrast to the pandemonium and panic palpably displayed in Storm in June, Dolce captured challenges of the countryside as it adapted to the presence of the German soldiers. There was a stark dichotomy to the attitude adapted by the two parties: the conquered were apprehensive of their new neighbors while the conquerors greeted the locals with an air of obliviousness characteristic of the victor. Dolce fascinated in its account of the daily lives in the French countryside during the war. The Germans also started to take a firmer form that was lacking in the first novella. Whilst they had a spectral presence in Storm in June, their presence in the narrative became more pronounced in Dolce.

Tension still ran high in the second novella as the villagers had to contend with the scarcity in resources. Greed and jealousy reigned above the hubbub. Apart from this, the members of the upper class were also forced to house a Nazi officer. For the Angelliers, Bruno von Falk was assigned to live with them. Lucile foolhardily tried to adapt a cold demeanor towards their new housemate, similar to how her mother-in-law treated their intruder. However, Lucile slowly found herself being reeled in. What followed is one of the moral intersections in the narrative. Lucile had to weigh which is more important during a period of uncertainty, love or loyalty. Unfortunately, just as the narrative was inching towards a climax, Némirovsky found herself incarcerated in the feared Auschwitz concentration camp.

Amongst the notes she left to her daughter was the rough outline of how she intended the story to progress. It is through this that the contemporary readers learn about a planned five-novel series. Before her incarceration, Némirovsky already begun the works on a third book. The plotline to a third story, titled Captivité was uncovered by her daughter. The success of the narrative can easily be dismissed because of the backstory behind its publication. Notwithstanding the fate of the author, Suite Française holds its ground for its own literary merits. Storm in June alone is a literary tour de force with its projection of the realities of war through the stories of a few.

What made Suite Française an even more astonishing and powerful literary piece was that Némirovsky wrote it while she was caught up in the whirlwind of the tumult that ultimately led to her passing. The breathtaking portrayal of the war’s reverberations all over France, from the cities to the countryside, was undoubtedly a triumph of literature. Némirovsky’s firsthand experience greatly contributed to the breathtaking quality of the depictions captured in Suite Française. Her keen sense of observation came through as she painted a lush tapestry that astonishes in its study of humanity living through a grim phase of history.

“They felt a strange happiness, an urgent need to reveal their hearts to each other- the urgency of lovers, which is already a gift, the very first one, the gift of the soul before the body surrenders. ‘Know me, look at me. This is who I am. This is how I have lived, this is what I have loved. And you? What about you, my darling?”

~ Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française

Némirovsky gave hints of how she was going to orchestrate the story. It was never fully realized, sadly, because fate intervened at the wrong time. The first two novellas of Suite Française were masterpieces in their own right and despite their stark dichotomies. Storm in June was frenzied and vivid, juxtaposed on the pandemonium that ensued the inevitable entry of the Nazis in France. Dolce was a deviation from the first novella yet it never fully digressed from the grandeur of Némirovsky’s vision. Rather, it planted the seeds to what she planned to cultivate in the succeeding parts of her work. She had a grand picture in mind.

The full potential of Suite Française will never be fully realized; it is the unfinished masterpiece we will never have. Nonetheless, in its incompleteness we find the gaping hole that the war left in its wake. It is a grim reminder to the evils that surround us on a daily basis. Suite Française was equally raw and powerful in its portrayal of the early days of the Second World War. Whilst the novel’s legacy will always be intertwined with the fate of the author, it is a tour de force on its own. The vivid images scenes, the evocative storytelling, the shifts in pace, voice and tone, and the atmospheric environment all converged in a literary powerhouse. Suite Française is not just another Second World War novel, but rather, it is a reminder for us never to walk the same path that once altered the landscape of history.

Ratings

83%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 25%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Suite Française was one of my random purchases, a book I bought during a book sale despite having no iota on what the book was about. From what I can see, it was about the Second World War, a subject that has been occupying my reading journeys back then. After purchasing the book, I was surprised to learn that it was listed as one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I also learned about the sad fate of the writer; all the while, I thought it was a contemporary work. However, reading Suite Française was an entirely different experience. At first, I had a challenge reconciling the two novellas because of the stark dichotomies in tone, voice, and pace. The appendix did give me a better understanding of the story and how it was supposed to develop. Nonetheless, Némirovsky was breathtaking in her portrayal of her experiences. Knowing that she was in the midst of this pandemonium when she was writing the novel was even more astonishing. It was just too unfortunate that she lost her life in Auschwitz and that her masterpiece was left unfinished.

Book Specs

Author:  Irène Némirovsky
Translator: Sandra Smith
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2006
Number of Pages: 338
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

By the early 1940s, when Ukrainian-born Irène Némirovsky began working on what would become Suite Française – the first two parts of a planned five-part novel – she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz: a month later she was dead at the age of thirty-nine. Two years earlier, living in a small village in central France – where she, her husband, and their two small daughters had fled in a vain attempt to elude the Nazis – she’d begun her novel, a luminous portrayal of human drama in which she herself would become a victim. When she was arrested, she had completed two parts of the epic; her daughters took the manuscript with them into hiding. Sixty-four years later, at long last, we can read Némirovsky’s masterpiece.

The first part, “A Storm in June.” opens in the chaos of the massive 1940s exodus from Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion, during which several families and individuals are thrown together under circumstances beyond their control. They share nothing but the harsh demands of survival – some trying to maintain lives of privilege, others struggling simply to preserve their lives – but soon, all together, they will be forced to face the awful exigencies of physical and emotional displacement, and the annihilation of the world they know. In the second part, “Dolce,” we enter the increasingly complex life of a German-occupied provincial village. Coexisting uneasily with the soldiers billeted among them. the villagers – from aristocrats to shopkeepers to peasants – cope as best as they can. Some choose resistance, others collaboration, and as their community is transformed by these acts, the lives of these men and women reveal nothing less than the very essence of humanity.

Suite Française is a singularly piercing evocation – at once subtle and severe, deeply compassionate and fiercely ironic – of life and death in occupied France, and a brilliant, profoundly moving work of art.

About the Author

Irina Lvivna Nemirovska was born on February 24, 1903 in Kiev, Ukraine which was then part of the Russian Empire. She was of an affluent background but when the Russian Revolution ignited in 1917, her family moved to Finland before ultimately settling in Paris, France.

Némirovsky attended the Sorbonne and started writing at the age of 18. At the age of twenty-six, Némirovsky published her first novel, David Golder (1929). Her early success was sustained by her succeeding works, The Ball (Le Bal, 1930), The Files of Autumn (Les Mouches d’automne, 1931), Dogs and Wolves (Les Chiens et les Loups, 1940) and The Courilof Affair (L’Affaire Courilof, 1933). Whilst she was an established writer during her time, it was with the publication of Suite Française in 2004 that her popularity soared. It was both a critical and commercial success, even awarded the Renaudot Prize in 2004. It was the first time that the literary prize has been awarded posthumously. Some of her works were also adapted into films, TV series, and plays.

Némirovsky married Michel Epstein, a banker, in 1926. The couple had two daughters. With the inevitable approach of the Nazis to Paris, the couple and their children fed to the village of Issy-l’Evêque. On July 13, 1942, Némirovsky was captured as a “stateless person of Jewish descent” despite converting to Catholicism in 1939. Together with nearly a thousand fellow Jewish deportees, she was transported on July 17, 1942 to Auschwitz. A month exactly after arriving in Auschwitz, Némirovsky passed away.