A review of

Suite Française

by Irène Némirovsky

Central question: How do innocent victims of war behave?
Format: 416 pp., cloth; Size: 6-1/4" x 9-1/4" Price: $25; Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; Editor: Sonny Mehta; Print run: 102,000; Jacket designer: Chip Kidd; Typeface: Pierre Simon Fournier; Translator: Sandra Smith; Number of languages into which Suite Française has been translated: 25; Representative passage: “He wore the expression found on people who have died in an accident, in a matter of seconds, without having had time to be afraid or suffer. They would be reading a book or looking out of a car window, thinking about things, or making their way along a train to the restaurant car when, all of a sudden, they were in hell.”

Irène Némirovsky wanted Suite Française to be a five-book cycle about the occupation of France, but only completed a draft of two books before the Nazis sent her to Auschwitz, and to the gas chambers, in 1942. Her manuscript was lost in a basement for sixty years until her daughter, who had been pursued by Nazis through the French countryside as a child, discovered and published it. And now, impossibly, we can read the two books of Suite Française.

The first book, Storm in June, describes the exodus from Paris of every French social caste. Like Proust, another French Jew, Némirovsky explores the tension between the social and private selves, though war, not sexuality, is the fuel for her transformations. She writes in Storm in June that “Important events—whether serious, happy or unfortunate—do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves.” Thus does the paranoid aristocrat Langelet, who feels “scandalized” by the “real world full of unfortunate people,” transform into a thief, admitting he’d “never felt such exquisite pleasure” as he felt after stealing. A condescending priest, Father Péricand, is likewise revealed; the juvenile delinquents in his care turn out to hate him even more than he hates them. And Péricand’s bossy mother, whose family is collapsing, fights her vanity in the chaos of the exodus. Characters’ lives are changed, half by war, and half by energies germane to their own selves. They are both trapped by history and independent of it.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Adam Novy

Adam Novy teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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