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

Packing for Paris

Books

I try to make my traveling adventures reading adventures, too. We’re headed to Paris to see our son, with a two-day stop in London, my first visit to both cities.

Then we’ll go to Metz, France for a couple of days, with a road trip to Luxembourg City. In World War II, my father fought in the battle of Metz, and we think we’ve figured out approximately where he was wounded (on November 14, 1944). So we’ll investigate and see what we find.

My father spent a weekend in Luxembourg City just before the battle and had an interesting story to tell about that, which I’ll share in an upcoming post.

Metz

Metz, France (Wikipedia)

Luxembourg City

Luxembourg City (Wikipedia)

Besides Gertrude Stein, Irene Nemirovsky and our trusty travel guides, I’m bringing Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway. (No books related to London because I won’t be able to contain myself in the bookstores.)

Tropic of Cancer book cover

One of the most banned books in history

A Movable Feast Book Cover

I’ll share my impressions, literary and otherwise, in upcoming posts.

Which books or authors would you recommend to a reader visiting France? Please comment!

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