Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky – Review.

Suite FrancaiseThe novel Suite-Francaise has received critical literary acclaim as a masterpiece. The author gently captures the tragedy of war-time France, the conquered and the conquerors, and exposes the inner hearts and minds of the people in a way that is totally convincing. Suite Francaise describes daily emotional life in detail.

How Suite Francaise deals with social upheaval

The social upheaval of war is made worse by the sudden invasion and escape from  bombing. The plight of the refugees, their panicky exodus from Paris – villages invaded by exhausted hungry women and children battling to find a place to sleep, cars abandoned after running out of petrol. In the midst of this horror and turmoil of disorder, we see simple dignity of a modest couple searching for their lost son as well as greedy people trying to save their valuables and the murderous evil of the mob.

How Suite Francaise reveals the psychology of the conquered

The author’s notes for the book reveal her thoughts regarding the school playground tyrant who bullies the loser but won’t allow anyone else to steal his marbles. She claims that the French were scared and concerned about who will harm them the least – the Germans, the English or the Russians. The Germans won but the beating can be forgotten and the Germans can now protect them.

At the same time the mere presence of occupying forces is felt as a violation of home. The occupation takes everything that is owned and the people feel they have become slaves. The author vividly captures the inner selfishness of some concerned with preserving their pre-war wealth and status and the innocence of others struggling to stay loyal to their values and ideals.

Suite Francaise as an unfinished work

Suite Francaise is unfinished. As a Jew the author was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942 and she was only able to complete the first two parts of what was planned. As a result the book I feel is unbalanced with unresolved issues and limited plot development. The first part describes various families whereas the second part focuses on the Angellier family.

Despite this in my opinion the reader is given a profound insight into the inner minds of people who vary enormously as individuals but who share a common predicament. The Germans assume the necessity of maintaining their prestige as the victorious army yet fail to understand why most French don’t want anything to do with them.

How Suite Francaise reveals ethical dilemmas of occupation

We gain some insight into the hidden paradoxes of a society that is occupied by a foreign power. The men folk were gone and the enemy took their place. This state of affairs presented huge ethical dilemmas for those who need to somehow physically and emotionally survive.

The official policy of collaboration with the invader was of course embraced by some and quietly subverted by others, but what I found astonishing about the book is the inner spirit of individuals laid bare. The courage and the cowardice, the spirituality of some religious people and the hypocrisy of others.

For all, there is a tension between on the one hand hatred towards an enemy who had been killing and imprisoning one’s compatriots and robbing one’s country and on the other hand the experience of common humanity arising from rubbing shoulders with some of its representatives despite a distrust and suspicion of each side’s inner feelings.

How Suite Francaise deals with personal relationship

Does the reader want Lucile to refuse the German soldier lodging with her family who loves her and to whom she feels affection or stay loyal to an unfaithful husband who she may never again see.  Around her she would be aware of the treachery of some of the women who are having a good time with the Germans whilst their men-folk are imprisoned in Germany. Should she deceive the German she feels for by secretly harbouring a violent French fugitive thus exposing herself and her household to punishment by death if discovered.

The challenge to the reader of Suite Francaise

I do wonder if I were a living character in the book what choices would I have made? What would the author reveal about my inner state of heart and mind?  Would I rise above my self-orientated concerns and prove myself to rank amongst the heroes of the novel showing courage in the face of adversity, nobility of spirit amongst the petty concerns of  neighbours and compassion while being exposed to hate?

I have never been challenged by circumstances of war and invasion. Whatever our outward circumstances we are free to think and desire as we please. The truth is I have no idea how I would react to such a predicament. I just know in my heart that the right thing to do is not always the more pleasant. It is not always to conform to what others expect of you. I do have confidence in my spiritual principles – the importance of acting from a charitable heart, trusting in divine providence, and faithfulness to one’s loved ones — but that is a very different matter from having any confidence in my moral strength to carry them out.

Reading Suite Française is indeed a humbling experience.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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