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Suite Française: A Warfare Society Portrayal

Irene Némirovsky's Suite Française (2004) is a well-known novel about the German Occupation of France during World War II. The events of this period left a lasting impact on the French consciousness and Némirovsky succeeded in providing an insightful outlook that shows how all characters, regardless of their allegiances, have flaws and weaknesses. By creating an atmosphere devoid of political and social prejudices, she allows readers to identify with different characters in the novel. This nuanced view made Suite Française a standout book in the genre of warfare literature, and it is the focus of this article's analysis.

Némirovsky, a Russian Jewish émigré, reached literary stardom during the decades of 1920 and 1930 in France, where she settled with her family and lived through the early years of the Second World War. Suite Française was written between 1940 and 1942, the first years of the German Occupation. During that time, the German government and the Vichy regime forbade Jews to publish or move elsewhere. In July 1942, she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she finally died. Nevertheless, her daughters managed to escape and brought some of her personal belongings with them. Given that they thought the manuscript was a personal diary, they never looked at it to avoid painful memories. Finally, in 2004, sixty years after the author's death, it was rediscovered by her older daughter who realised it was a novel. It was published the same year, producing an overwhelming success among the public and critics. Némirovsky’s recently discovered journey and death brought attention again to the years of France’s defeat and occupation during the Second World War (Brancher, 2010).

Figure 1. The original manuscript. (The New York Times, n.d.).

Suite Française is structured as a kaleidoscopic story in which the reader witnesses the degeneration of modern civilisation. The public is a bystander of the moral decomposition of French society, forced to leave the big cities and hide in the countryside. The novel evidences how the sense of collectivity is lost and people become survivors of the warfare tragedy. The structure is divided into five parts: Tempête en Juin, Dolce, and the last three, which have been left unfinished. The first part narrates the early moments of German occupation in France and describes how the Parisians fled from the city (Brito Díaz, 2016). The author focuses on bourgeois characters that must get used to living with their privileges: a banker and his lover, a famous writer and his love interest, etc. According to the author, all these characters consider the war as a distant and inopportune problem, unaware of its devastating consequences:

“There would be new rich men, just as there always were after great disasters — men prepared to pay dearly for their pleasures because their money had come easily and so would love. But please, dear God, let all this chaos end quickly!...” (Némirovsky, 2014, p. 25).

Figure 2. Dedham from Langham. (Constable, 1813).

The fact that the author and the extraordinary events narrated coincide in time offers a non-judgemental view of the Occupation of France. Némirovsky clearly reflects on the uncertainty of the war's early phase, since her outlook on the events was not determined by subsequent works of fiction or papers. In addition, the novel raised some doubts regarding the treatment of some events from the Occupation, such as migrations and wartime collaboration (Brancher, 2010). Literary scholar David Carroll (2012) argues that generally speaking postwar memories from the first months or years are not seriously considered to be reliable sources from a historical standpoint. Nevertheless, in literary and philosophical terms, these stories are highly acclaimed since they allow the reader a way into the witnesses' hearts. For example, Némirovksy does not present a biased narrative and shapes all her characters independently of their side. In the novel, the German soldiers are "not the cruel, inhuman monsters the villagers expected the conquerors of France to be" (Carroll, 2012, p. 88), and nations are presented as abstract concepts rather than historical realities. Likewise, German and French soldiers are similar since they are young men away from their families and fighting against each other.

Notably, silence is also a narrative resource that allows the author to present a non-prejudiced viewpoint:

“The streets were empty. People were closing their shops. The metallic shudder of falling iron shutters was the only sound to break the silence, a sound familiar to anyone who has woken in a city threatened by riot or war.” (Némirovsky, 2014, p. 25)

The silence is an intimate need caused by the situation but also a narrative resource since characters reflect their desires through their acts and behaviour. Silence shows the banality of evil since it is the source of oblivion and criminal actions can only be deemed acceptable if they are forgotten. Carroll (2012. p. 94) claims that "most French, no matter their politics, simply resigned themselves to living according to German time and passively accepted the occupiers' dictates and restrictions". The French people had various reasons for accepting the rules imposed by the occupiers, and this resulted in different levels of accommodation. Némirovsky's characters in the novel accurately reflect this complex landscape of motives and interests. The reader clearly perceives the characters are not simply good or bad, but rather, they are nuanced and have different shades of grey. The author successfully conveyed this nuance by focusing on the personal and intimate issues of the characters rather than politics, intermingling it with the strategic use of silence in the story. The characters are afraid of acknowledging their true interests openly because they fear social rejection. Even though the motivation to prioritise personal lives over public welfare is implicitly shared by all in a military regime, it is not considered sympathetic by society. Therefore, the characters act based on their motivations rather than express them openly. In contrast, the presence of the radio in the novel breaks the silence and creates a general speech that voices patriotic will instead of personal issues (Camarero, 2015):

“Nowhere else would it have been as easy to forget the outside world. Without letters and newspapers, the only link with the rest of the universe was the radio...” (Némirovsky, 2014, p. 181).

The second and last part Dolce continues the several moral and ethical discussions but concentrates on cohabitation between civils and soldiers in Bussy. The story focuses on Lucile, a young woman who has an affair with a German officer while waiting for her husband to come back from the front. German officers are located in different houses belonging to the local bourgeoisie, and this element of the plot offers a nuanced outlook on warfare relationships between the winners and the defeated. While some maintain a solid attitude of resistance against the Germans, others reflect indifference towards the Occupation. Lucile develops a morally stigmatised relationship with the young German officer Bruno, while hiding a local farmer who murdered another officer. In the end, the German army leaves the town, and the young lovers separate, but they do not recognise each other as enemies since human relationships cannot be reduced to political warfare (Brito Díaz, 2016):

“‘What’s more,’ she said to herself, ‘there’s a world of difference between the young man I’m looking at now and the warrior of tomorrow. It’s a truism that people are complicated, multifaceted, contradictory, surprising, but it takes the advent of war or other momentous events to be able to see it. It is the most fascinating and the most dreadful of spectacles,’ she continued thinking, ‘the most dreadful because it’s so real; you can never pride yourself on truly knowing the sea unless you’ve seen it both calm and in a storm.” (Némirovsky, 2014, p. 341).

Figure 3. Suite Française. (ToscaSam, 2018).

The love between a French villager and a German officer is plausible in an environment where, eventually, all of them are human beings in spite of the political situation. Critics such as Carlos Brito Díaz (2016) and Jesús Camarero (2015) underline Nemirosky's original and debiased perspective on a fractured warfare situation: the characters show their insecurities and expectations despite being enemies. As had happened in the first part, Némirovksy does not introduce references to Hitler, Nazism and Vichy's Regime "as if political problems were of no importance for the villagers" (Carroll, 2012, p. 89). This continues with Némirovsky's introspective look already introduced in the first part. French villagers only openly reject German occupation when they are forced to live their private lives in German time, that is, one hour ahead of French schedule. This scene of the novel serves as an illustration of Némirovsky's point of view since it is completely symbolic and intimate. The French only resist the Germans when they try to alter their traditions, which reflects more "fidelity to traditional routines than to anti-Nazi political convictions" (Carroll, 2012, p. 90).

In conclusion, in Suite Française, the author is not carried away by a false sense of patriotism and exposes the different attitudes towards cohabitation between French and German people. From the beginning, the author reflects on the events and people’s attitudes without idealising them. For example, she criticises the passivity of French people during the Occupation. She clarifies that they are all interested in their business and prior life; therefore, they would not risk anything to oppose the Germans, often preferring silence to express their real thoughts and facing social rejection. Némirovsky’s perspective is pristine because it was not determined by later scholarly interpretations or works. She wrote her fiction stories during momentous times, giving her an insightful and fresh outlook on the matter. In this regard, she also exposes the double moral of some of them, those who judge Lucile for her relationship with Bruno but swiftly send letters to the officers denouncing their neighbours. Of course, the author lacks a historical conscience of the devastating consequences of the war and its toll on people, but she offers, in turn, a fresh and vivid portrayal of warfare times.

Bibliographical References

Bracher, N. (2010). After the fall: War and occupation in Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française. Catholic University of America Press.

Brito Díaz, C. (2017). Amores oblicuos sobre paisaje en guerra: el colaboracionismo en Suite Francesa de Irène Némirovsky. Revista de Filología Románica, 33, 59-68.

Camarero, J. (2015). La narrativité du silence, de l’oubli et de la banalité du mal dans Suite Française d’Irène Némirovsky. Çédille Revista de Estudios franceses, Monografías, 5, 97–115.

Carroll, D. (2012). Excavating the past: “Suite Française” and the German Occupation of France. Yale French Studies, 121(121), 69–98.

Némirovsky, I. (2014). Suite Française. London: Vintage Books.

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Author Photo

Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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