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Thursday, May 21, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: Suite Francaise

This past Monday the group got together for a great discussion of Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. First some background on the book. One reason Suite Francaise makes such a great book discussion book is that it has the powerful double pronged attack....the book itself (really 2 novellas) is a well crafted and entertaining work of literature, while the back story, Nemirovsky's life (and death) story add another dimension to the work. The two are so intertwined, it is impossible to separate her from her novellas.

Suite Francaise is the title Nemirovsky gave for her planned collection of 5 novels about France during WWII. Nemirovsky wrote the first 2 books and outlined the third while she and her family were trying to allude the Germans, who had occupied Paris and its suburbs. As stateless Jews (of Russian descent) Nemirovsky and her husband were subject to deportation. Ultimately, Nemirovsky and her husband were sent to concentration camps (separately) where they died. Their children were hidden and managed to save the manuscripts and notes, which published with her translated notes and correspondences with her husband and publisher once Nemirovsky was arrested by the Germans, make up the book Suite Francaise.

For more on Nemirovsky's story you can go here.

What is so intriguing about this work is that it is almost definitely the earliest work of fiction about WWII. Writing in 1942 about the 1940 fall of Paris and the German occupation of France, Nemirovsky was not even sure where the last 2 unwritten sections of her work would go. The war would have needed to progress further and her life would have needed to be extended for her to figure out where the book would go.

This led our group to discuss how different Suite Francaise was from the myriad of WWII books and novels we have read. This work is not a readalike for The Diary of Anne Frank or Night; these books would be readalikes for her biography, rather, this work is about the day to day aspects of living in a country controlled by the enemy. We marvelled in her descriptions of how the villagers coped with housing the German officers in their homes, while their own young, male family members were either fighting the Germans, prisoners of war, or already dead. One participant likened their arrangements and general friendliness to one and other as remarkably similar to the relationships between plantation owners and house slaves in the American South.

We spent most of our time talking about the second novella,"Dolce," which is set entirely in one village, as mentioned above, and goes into remarkable detail about the occupation and how the villagers lived. While the relationships between the Germans and French was important here, there was also quite a bit about the strict class distinctions among the French villagers. The situation was described multiple times as the "eye of he storm." It was a soft, sweet time as the novella's title suggests, but it was all the more powerful after reading her notes, knowing Nemirovsky planned to follow "Dolce," with a novel entitled "Captivity."

The characters in "Dolce" were sympathetic and fully realized. Many participants remarked on the detail in character descriptions and the lyrical language (how she could describe the weather so beautifully, for example). Even without the fact that she wrote this novella while literally on the run, we were amazed by the work's technical virtuosity.

We did talk about the first novella, "Storm in June," we just spent less time on it. A lot of this has to do with the style of the section. "Storm in June" follows a few characters who are frantically fleeing Paris as the Germans take over the city. We talked about how the style of this first section accurately reflects the plot. The narration jumps around to different people's points of view. It is scattered and incomplete; filled with violent and mean spirited acts. In short, is is as uncomfortable and unsettling to read as the evacuation itself.

We hit a few other topics such as the French resistance and where Nemirovsky might have gone with her book if she had lived.

I would highly suggest this title to groups who are looking for a different view on a popular topic, who are willing to mix fiction and nonfiction, and/or groups who do not mind an unfinished work.

In terms of readalikes, click here for a list of books on occupied France.

Fiction readers who enjoyed this book should also try Sebastian Faulks, most notably Charlotte Gray and Birdsong. I would also suggest Geraldine Brooks' most recent title People of the Book which I also wrote about here. This novel hits at the issues within Nemirovsky's novellas, living with the enemy and surviving through war, as well as addressing the author's life story, keeping a book safe despite terrible odds.

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