marginalia || Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky; translated by Sandra Smith

Oh, my God, so this is war . . . 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.

It took a fourteen-hour power outage for me to finish reading Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky [translated from the French by Sandra Smith]. It’s not that I struggled with the novel. It’s just that I wanted to take it slow. Or rather, it told me to take it slow. The novel’s just so lush and detailed and vibrant — and all those words that denote yumminess — that it kept telling me to just chill with it, to savor. With sentences like He had kissed her as if he were bringing a glass of cool water to his lips and The tender June day persisted, refusing to die — this is language you are compelled to bask in [many thanks to the translator!]. I was; I’d been reading this one for weeks now, until a storm had me sit down with it until I was compelled to finish it.

I loved it. [You saw that one coming.] And, well, quite speechless about it — how to talk about this book? In my notebook, I mostly wrote down passages, wrote down my Oohs and Aahs. I’m not very confident re my abilities to do justice to this novel. For one, it’s too complex. For another, it still overwhelms in my head. I think that beyond the sheer awesomeness of the novel, I’m quite humbled by the story behind it. So. This post shall be for, well, posterity’s sake. So. Here are some of my notes — with edits: I’ve elaborated on several points, I’ve omitted some of the many excerpts I’ve pulled. As usual, with a few incoherencies:

We are in German-occupied France, Némirovsky taking us through the lives of its citizens, and its conquerors. There are two books: The author only got to finish writing two of the five she’d planned before she was persecuted and sent to Auschwitz, where she died. [That story!] In Storm in June, the exodus from Paris, a survey of families, personalities, representative of social classes. There are no textbook-heroes. There are a lot of people I want to hit. The encompassing mood, however:

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.

♦ What’s great is Némirovsky manages to put forward that it’s not just the threat of the Germans provoking people, there’s no sudden change in personalities and ideologies: Some people are just horrid, some people are just selfish, some people just love. I keep flinching. What’s strange is that I looked upon the smallest hint of heroism — dammit, of hope — with a cynical eye, having seen the nitty-gritty of the rest of the French. I like my heroes, but there’s only so much heartbreak they — and the reader — can take. Am I making sense?

“My certainty that deep down I’m a free man,” he said, after thinking for a moment. “It’s a constant, precious possession, and whether I keep it or lose it is up to me and no one else. I desperately want the insanity we’re living through to end. I desperately want what has begun to finish. In a word, I desperately want this tragedy to be over and for us to try to survive it, that’s all. What’s important is to live: Primum vivere. One day at a time. To survive, to wait, to hope.”

♦ Oh, the language. So dense and lush. Unafraid of images, of utterance. Part of the reason why I need to take my time with this — the story, the characters, the events, of course, but the language demands your attention. It demands you to go back to the beginning of the paragraph and read it all over again because it deserves all the focus you can give it.

♦ For Dolce, the second book — a slightly different tune to this, though the same rhythms. Human nature in a Petri dish, in villages with bunking German soldiers, the inevitable resentments and rapports. Ooh, conflict. Ooh, cinematic conflict.

This friendship between herself and the German, this dark secret, an entire universe hidden in the heart of the hostile house, my God, how sweet it was.

♦ My favorite story arc, definitely Lucile and Bruno. It’s almost cliché, and I suppose it would be if a less-capable writer had written it. But the author makes it work. Mostly because she captured that tension, how forbidden it all is, how welcome. Especially Lucile’s inner conflict re being one of many Frenchwomen who look upon the German men as “replacements” for their imprisoned Frenchmen. And how Lucile and Bruno’s relationship struggle to exist, but just barely. Ach! I can’t help it. It makes me giddy.

They were alone — they felt they were alone — in the great sleeping house. Not a word of their true feelings was spoken; they didn’t kiss. There was simply silence. Silence followed by feverish, passionate conversations about their own countries, their families, music, books… 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?” But up until now, not a single word of love. What was the point? Words are pointless when your voices falter, when your mouths are trembling, amid such long silences. Slowly, gently, Lucile touched the books on the table. The Gothic lettering looked so bizarre, so ugly. The Germans, the Germans . . . A Frenchman wouldn’t have let me leave with no gesture of love other than kissing my hand and the hem of my dress . . .

♦ With the two books, there are a lot of characters to keep track of — more so since I read this with nary a pause between them. The narrative takes on a vignette-ish quality, and many recalling of those vignettes, a revisiting of the characters introduced. I think — I risk saying this — I think the author was conscious of this communal feel. As much as there are so many rich stories, so many people with their own lives and responses to the events around them — we eventually see them as a collective. Those vignettes taken together are so dizzying and all-encompassing, I eventually resorted to taking them as a whole. As I should, I suppose. [But what about Lucile and Bruno?]

♦ The circumstances surrounding the creation and the creator of Suite Française are as fascinating and as gripping as the novel itself. How difficult it is to separate the novel from the circumstances that produced it, and preserved it. The edition comes with the author’s notes and correspondences — Basically, how she created two novels [with plans to do three more] that sought to preserve the time it was made in. And Némirovsky’s fate, my goodness. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s a novel in itself, really. I guess that’s why this novel has affected me more than I thought it would: Seeing Némirovsky fleeing, being persecuted, eventually being caught. How this novel survived, how it was discovered. Gahk. I have to wonder how the three other books read: In this edition’s Appendix, there are notes about them. I can only speculate how great they would be if they’d been written. If the author had survived and continued to write. Man.

♦ Affective, yes. If a book compels you to read it by candlelight in the middle of howling-winds storm, is that not affective enough? The language, the people and their individual heartaches and issues and specific dramas. The collective. The conflict. The Germans. I watched, with bated breath, a little pinch in the chest, with Lucile as she saw the Germans march off to meet the Soviet Union. Augh. I don’t want to dwell on what’s been lost to the world, with Némirovsky’s death, her murder. That is, what was never brought in. [A strange regret, this.]

__________

[Photo above: How I read the last half of Suite Française.] Also — Reading begets reading: Halfway through the novel, I bought Némirovsky’s Dimanche and Other Stories. Even then, she and I were clicking — and since short fiction’s more or less my favorite form, why not? Then again, I know I’ll read more Némirovsky in the future. Thank goodness the bookstores here carry a lot of her titles.

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36 comments

  1. This is on my list of books to read this year, but I’ve put it off as it seems like a book that requires more careful attention than I have the energy at the moment to give it. I did read Fire in the Blood which is also well worth a read and also shorter than SF. I have the Persephone Books edition of Dimanche and Other Stories–I had no idea it was also being published by Vintage and wonder if the stories are all the same? Thanks for stopping by my blog and I agree–Europa Editions and NYRB Books are lovely (to look at and read).

    1. I think that’s a wise choice, really, since the book took up a lot my time, and attention, but it was certainly well-deserved. I’m reading Fire in the Blood sooner or later. As for Dimanche, I don’t know abt Persephone Books, but the Vintage ed has ten stories, and I think it’ll be pretty even regardless of the publisher, since that’s the way it did come out as a book? That said, I’m grateful for the Vintage ed: I don’t have access to Persephone Books from where I’m from.

  2. What a review!

    This sounds like a terrific read. Don’t you just love the stillness first, and then wonder you feel when you read a great sentence?

    1. Thanks, Mayowa — and for dropping by the blog too. It is a terrific read, one of my best so far. And I love the writers that succeed at that stillness — One other memorable time was when I read my first Harold Brodkey story. It was a simple sentence that I read through, and then something kept telling me to go back, and reread. I did so, and it was just Whoa.

  3. I adored this book, as much for its integrity as for the author’s own personal narrative. I have another of her books waiting to be read. Le Bal. I will let you know what it’s like.

    1. The author’s tale is as gripping as the stories, really. And I’ve stopped trying to separate the two.

      As with Le Bal, I’m subscribed to your blog — I’ll definitely take a peek once you’ve read and written about it. Thanks!

  4. I have had this book for over a year now and keep meaning to read it and then… I don’t. I have no idea why! It just never seems like the right time! But I really do want to read some Nemirovsky, because I’m hoping I respond to her like you do!

    1. It took a lot of work, since the books that preceded hers was fast-paced and demanded an up-all-night reading. This one, however, just demanded stillness. It wanted me to soak it all in first before moving on, kind of like telling me, “Hey, you got that? Did you really get what I’m trying to make you feel?” It’s never conscious, mind you — and I think that’s the best part of it.

  5. What a glowing review. I’ve been meaning to read this book, but of course neglected to buy it. It is definitely at the top of my list now.

    And I love the picture of you reading by candlelight. It is very pretty and atmospheric.

    1. I hope you enjoy the book when you get around to it. :) As for the picture, it was really out of necessity, plus it gave me a headache the next day. I suppose it was pretty, but sometimes during the night, I would laugh at myself for how set-up it must’ve seemed, haha. But, thank you!

  6. What a beautifully romantic picture! I love the idea of reading by candlelight (preferably in a long white nightgown with chestnut tresses tumbling down my back) – and would do away with electricity altogether if I wasn’t convinced I’d go blind in about a month. This is one of the books that I’m convinced I’ll love and so have deliberately not read so that there’ll always be wonderful books still awaiting me in the world (kind of illogical, I know.)

    And thanks for visiting my blog – I really appreciate the feedback, particularly coming from a confirmed Charlotte Bronte fan!

    1. In this case, the migraine the day after was worth being up all night reading by candlelight. The problem was the heat, really. And the mosquitoes. And imagining things bumping in the night, haha.

  7. Suite Française is an extraordinary book, I’m really glad you talked about it and liked it. It never ceases to amaze me how long it took for Némirovsky to be fully discovered given her talent (I realize the historical implications didn’t help, but I’m still surprised).

    I’m also delighted that jsaidman mentioned ‘Le Bal’ and I warmly recommend it. It’s a short novella (and by short I mean extremely short) that analyzes so deeply human relationships. If you get a chance to get your hands on a copy don’t let it get away!

    1. So glad you feel the same way too. I’m really grateful to the blogging community for introducing me to the author — I think, otherwise, I’d be dithering about reading her. I’m excited to read more of her work, and given two votes for Le Bal, that’s high up on the list of Némirovsky Books to Hunt. Thank you!

  8. …And after what I wrote last time I went and bought a copy. I was browsing in my local secondhand bookshop, and there it was on the shelf in front of me. I took it as fate.

    1. Haha, that’s happened often to me ever since I began book blogging — I try not to grouse with the Universe when it does. I hope you enjoy it!

  9. I recently bought this in the original, and can’t wait to tackle it! Sounds gorgeous and sobering. I’m also intrigued by what you say about the tension between the stories of individuals and the impression of a collective.

    1. Yes — gorgeous and sobering are the best words to describe this, now that you mention it. Re the individual and the collective: that was my experience, that’s what really clung to me in the latter parts of the book. Now, I’m sure there are readers out there who he;d on to the individual stories, but I’m willing to bet Némirovsky was conscious of the effect.

  10. I am quite amused by the comments to this book. Because ugh, I was soooooooo bored with it! In fact, it was the first one I read since having a blog that I did NOT post about, because I couldn’t think of anything to say. It was just there for me, and now I can’t even remember anything significant in it except some man getting killed by school children (i think?) and bombs in the middle of French countryside. You praise so much the language, and I think that was precisely what bored me. She attempted to tell everything in some poetic prose, and I just wanted to yell, Enough with the flower-y adjectives and phrases..just TELL ME!!!

    But then again, I read this over a year ago, so I can’t recall too much.

    1. Kari, NOOOOO. Hahaha, I know this book can’t be for everyone (what book is?), and yes, it took a lot of shifting inside me to accommodate the demands of the book — but once I was in the zone, I was, hm, receptive to the boredom, haha. If you want to try again, tell me: I’ll campaign for it!

      (That schoolchildren bit was horrifying. Moreso because I couldn’t decide whether the guy who got killed deserved it or not, eek.)

  11. [...] read this on the heels of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. A change of pace, so to speak. Whereas it took me weeks to finish reading Némirovsky, [...]

  12. I just grabbed this book at a library book sale the other day. The cover always piqued my interest, and your discussion on it has me excited to start reading.

    1. Thanks, Jordan. I hope you enjoy it, when you get around to reading it.

  13. Sandra Smith · · Reply

    I am the translator of this book and wanted to thank you for your kind words. It is rare to find people who truly understand and appreciate a writer’s art, and you do! I am on currently working on my tenth Némirovsky translation and am loving them all. I am blessed. I would recommend ‘Fire in the Blood’, and several more are available on amazon.uk but not in the USA yet: All Our Worldly Goods ( a virtual ‘prequel’ to Suite Francaise) and Jezebel, which has just come out. Enjoy!

    1. Hello, Miss Smith, thank you so much for dropping by — and especially for translating Némirovsky for us. As you know from above, not once did I wonder if I was missing something from the original language. I can only imagine the work and dedication it took to deliver Némirovsky’s works to a larger population, and many many thanks. Good luck with the rest of your translations — Everyone, I am sure, is eagerly awaiting them. :]

  14. I agree that the Story-Behind-the-Story is fascinating in this case; I’d like to read the biography that’s been recently published, not only because I find writer’s lives interesting, but because I’d like to try to unravel the controversy surrounding her portrayal of Jewish characters. I think this is considered more of an issue in her other works than in Suite Francaise but perhaps that would require reading more widely and also in the original to truly understand.

    1. I think since that I’ve invested in the author now — I do want to read all of her work eventually — and have been hooked by her story from the get-go, I’ll eventually be led to that biography. And I never found an issue with her portrayal of Jewish characters in Suite. Come to think of it, there were very little [memorable] Jewish characters in this novel. When I’d just started reading it, and began noticing, well, I thought she’d focus more on them. But I was inevitably swayed by the story she actually told.

  15. [...] Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky. [...]

  16. I just got back from the library book sale and I got this! I’m so happy that it is so highly reviewed, I just bought in on a whim. :)

    1. I hope you enjoy it! Really loved this one — I like to believe whims pay off. :]

  17. [...] halfway through my read of Suite Française — which, now that I’ve stepped back from it, is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I just wanted to see how she wrote her short fiction. [Also, I reasoned then that 600 bucks for [...]

  18. Yeay! I found this at the thrift shop today — beautiful hardcover, with deckled pages — and I’d remembered that SOMEONE had loved it. Turns out it was your post. Interesting that I didn’t comment when I first read it though. Anyway, at some point I’ll read it, and I hope I can enjoy going slowly through it.

  19. [...] [either in whole, or partly] in the war — Irène Némirovsky immediately comes to mind, with Suite Française; and, a novel where the characters have pretty much eclipsed the factuality of the war raging [...]

  20. [...] [either in whole, or partly] in the war — Irène Némirovsky immediately comes to mind, with Suite Française; and, a novel where the characters have pretty much eclipsed the factuality of the war raging [...]

  21. [...] scope and concentration, this novel has a lot in common with Dolce, the second book of the author’s Suite Française: rural life, a community, a family—with high passions lurking and raging beneath seemingly placid [...]

  22. [...] Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky [...]

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