Suite Française and my father

Bridge over Moselle River, Metz, France

The Moselle River in Metz, France. My father was wounded on November 14, 1944 in the weeks-long Battle of Metz. After the city was liberated, the Allies went on to break through to Germany in the Battle of the Bulge.

Storm in June and Dolce, by Irène Némirovsky

I brought Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky with me when we travelled to France just before V-E Day to visit our son, who had a work coop in Paris, and to explore the region near Metz in northern France, where my father was wounded in World War II.

Suite Française consists of two novels set during the early days of the French Occupation, with exquisitely drawn French and German characters that dramatize the complicated relationship between France and Germany at that time.

Suite Française book coverI don’t know how Némirovsky could write during the terrible days of the French Occupation. An acclaimed novelist from a wealthy Russian family and a member of the highest social circles in France, she was also Jewish. Némirovsky knew at any moment she could be deported to a concentration camp, separated from her husband and her two young daughters.

But write she did, and superbly. She was driven and disciplined, and the writing must have given structure to her days and helped her cope. She finished two of the five novels she’d intended for Suite FrançaiseStorm in June and Dolce–before she was, indeed, arrested and deported in July, 1942. Némirovsky died a month later of typhus in a concentration camp. Her husband, Michel, was deported that fall and died in the gas chambers.

The family’s devoted nanny hid the two young daughters, Élisabeth and Denise, who were being hunted by Vichy officials, and they managed to survive the war. Fifty years later, Denise discovered that the papers left behind in one of her mother’s suitcases were two novels–she had thought they were diaries and had been reluctant to read them. Storm in June and Dolce were finally published in 2004 as Suite Française, which became an international literary sensation.

Included in my edition of Suite Française are the journal Némirovsky kept as she wrote the novels, and the desperate correspondence of Irène and Michel with Némirovksy’s publisher and French officials as they tried to avoid deportation.

On fleeing Paris:

“…groups of people appeared outside their houses–women, old people and children, gesticulating to one another, trying, at first calmly and then with increasing agitation and a mad, dizzy excitement, to get the family and all the baggage into a Renault, a saloon, a sports car…Not a single light shone through the windows. The stars were coming out, springtime stars with a silvery glow. Paris had its sweetest smell, the smell of chestnut trees in bloom and of petrol with a few grains of dust that crack under your teeth like pepper.”

On being a young, married French woman with a German soldier billeted in her home:

“She felt a very feminine pleasure, an almost sensual, sweet sensation at seeing this childish look on a face that was, after all, the face of an implacable enemy, a hardened warrior. For we can’t pretend, she thought, that we aren’t all in his hands. We’re defenseless. If we still have our lives and our possessions, it’s only because of his goodwill. She was almost afraid of the feelings growing within her. It was like stroking a wild animal–an exquisitely intense sensation, a mixture of tenderness and terror.”

On the French villagers and the Germans:

“Little by little, darkness spread across the lawns; they could still make out the gold decorations on the uniforms, the Germans’ blond hair, the musicians’ brass instruments on the terrace…All the light of the day, fleeing the earth, seemed for one brief moment to take refuge in the sky: pink clouds spiraled round the full moon that was as green as pistachio sorbet and as clear as glass; it was reflected in the lake. Exquisite perfumes filled the air: grass, fresh hay, wild strawberries. The music kept playing. Suddenly, the torches were lit…There was the lively, happy sound of champagne corks popping.

“Oh, those bastards! And to think it’s our wine they’re drinking, the Frenchmen said, but without real bitterness, because all happiness is contagious and disarms the spirit of hatred.

And of course, the Germans seemed to like the champagne so much (and had paid so much for it!) that the Frenchmen were vaguely flattered by their good taste.”

From Némirovsky’s journal:

“I must create something great and stop wondering if there is any point. Have no illusions: this is not for now. So mustn’t hold back, must strike with a vengeance wherever I want.”

“Never forget that the war will be over and that the entire historical side will fade away. Try to create as much as possible things, debates…that will interest people in 1952 or 2052.”

“What lives on:

1. Our humble day-to-day lives

2. Art

3. God”

Suite Française has just been made into a movie but, as far as I can tell, a US release date is not yet known. I can’t vouch for its quality. A writer I know who lives in France told me many reviews have not been favorable. Usually, I don’t see movies adapted from books that I like unless I know the production is a good one. Nonetheless, below is the UK trailer. I do like Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas.

A personal connection

Cemetery with white crosses

The Lorraine American Cemetery in France, where many soldiers from the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Metz are buried.

White cross, gravesite

This soldier was in my father’s battalion. Perhaps they knew each other.

Cathedral and buildings, Metz

Cathedral of St. Etienne, Metz. My father was wounded before the Allies took Metz, so he never got to see the cathedral or this beautiful city.

I imagine the bells of St. Etienne rang on VE Day:

Moselle River, swans

16 responses

    • I head that the movie wasn’t that great, but actually I would love to see it, because I love the trailer. But I’m not sure it’s available here. Now that you’ve reminded me again, I’ll have to check. Weren’t the books great? Her story is so heartbreaking.

  1. This book interests me both because I am drawn to this period in history but also because Judy and I have been to France twice and would love to go back. I have also become very enamored of the spy novels of Alan Furst, which are set in France (and occasionally other parts of Europe) in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They have a great deal of fascinating historical detail.

    • I’m intrigued by that time in history, too. I did love France, was surprised at how comfortable I felt in Paris – th ought it would be intimidating, but I did live in NYC for several years. I will have to try Alan Furst, I’m sure I’d like his books. Do you have your next big trip planned?

  2. this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I wasn’t sure I would like it, it was a present so not my choice but I’m so glad I was given it.

  3. Lovely piece – I’ve just recently become a real Nemirovsky convert and finally read Suite Francaise – it’s just wonderful and I have to say I won’t be seeing the film…..

  4. How wonderful you were able to combine reading this book with your visit, she is a wonderful writer, I’ve enjoyed every one of her books I’ve read, Suit Francaise a ‘tour de force’. Love your pictures too, a great trip!

    • Hi, Claire. Yes, I just love her writing. I want to thank you for your recommendation of Le Marais as a neighborhood to stay in. It was the perfect location for us – my family loved it there, too. I certainly fell in love with Paris, and France! I’m curious to know if you’ve read David Golder and if you have any thoughts about the controversy over her depiction of Jews in that book. (I haven’t read it.)

      • Hi Valorie, oh you did stay in Le Marais, isn’t it wonderful, a quartier that is loved by the locals is exactly my idea of where to stay in any big city.

        No I haven’t read David Golder, I’ve read Fire in the Blood, which I reader just after Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and found them to be really interesting co,panions that I’d recommend reading together, they take a similar situation of youthful infaturation and you see it treated through two very different cultural lenses.

        I also read All Our Wordly Goods which is a prelude to Suite Francaise and equally enjoyable, they’re both more like novellas.

        I don’t know that I’ve heard about the controversy over David Golder, I guess controversy can be interesting when it raises the profile of different perspectives and opinions, I recall reading something recently about this in relation to Gertrude Stein. But I noticed n wikipedia ithat there was something written in the introduction of the French version of Suite Francaise in relation to this controversy, that was deleted from the English version.

        I have a little book of stories still to read by Irène Némirovsky, written in French called Ida which I am looking forward to.

      • It had to do with that David Golden was extremely anti Jewish which upset a lot of people. The original intro to SF (in French) said she was a self hating Jew and that was taken out. Apparently she was criticized a lot for her portrayal of Jews and for her willingness to work for right wing publishers etc. and her attempts to assimilate and disown her Jewish roots. her daughter tried to come to terms with this in her fictional bio of her mother.

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