When it’s not maiming and killing, warfare takes people’s ordinary anxieties to extraordinary heights. The Russian-born Jewish novelist Irène Némirovsky focused on the egotism and social bigotry inflamed by a national crisis in the unfinished five-part series Suite Française. Written in the midst of the German invasion and occupation of her adopted country from the summer of 1940 until her abduction in 1942, it’s a grand example of artistic accomplishment in the midst of a personal nightmare. The first in this two-novella book is a comedy of manners about civilians’ flight from Paris; the second relates the consequences of billeting a German regiment in a village that has lost its young men to the war. Though sexual frustration, selfishness, and class-based loathing reign, love and ordinary hospitality salve humanity’s chapped soul.
Némirovsky died at Auschwitz; her children have brought this book to publication. Their mother sensed France would cooperate with the Nazis in what became known as the Holocaust. Instead of giving up, she sharpened her outrage against the stone of her talent and carved out a satire of lasting literary and historic value.
Suite Française By Irène Némirovsky; translated by Sandra Smith Knopf, 2007, Paperback, 395 pages, $14.95
Review by Adam Hyla