Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, France/London, 2004


Although Suite Française was not published until 2004, it was actually written in 1940/1941, which makes it, like the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, extremely valuable. While many other novels based on the horror of World War II have been written in the years after the war, either as memoirs by people who experienced it or after extensive research by people who did not, Irène Némirovsky wrote Suite Française while the war was raging around her. It was intended as a suite of five novels – she only managed the first two before she was arrested for her Jewish connections (even though she and her family were Catholics) and was taken to Auschwitz where she perished.

Photo of  Irène Némirovsky from
She did leave some notes on how she was intending to write the remaining three novels; however, while the notes for book three are fairly detailed, the notes for books four and five are extremely sketchy. The first of the two books, Storm in June, was most probably edited at some stage by Némirovsky, whereas the second book, Dolce, reads in many parts as a first draft. Given Némirovsky's situation, it is more than likely that she did not have the time to edit her second book.

While I do not agree with those who hail Irène Némirovsky as France's greatest author, I feel that her Suite Française is a valuable portrait of a time most of us living today have only read about. The characters in Storm in June, though occasionally bordering on caricatures, are well described. Her powers of observation are amazing, and parallel to the tragedy of France's invasion and occupation there is a lot of humour: at no point does her writing become sentimental or maudlin. 

Although the relationship between the French woman Lucile and the German officer Bruno (in Dolce) never really makes lift-off, it is obvious from the notes she left that Némirovsky had thought to develop their story (and their relationship) in the successive books. 

When Bruno says to Lucile “Ah! Madame, this is the principal problem of our times: what is more important, the individual or society? War is the collaborative act par excellence, is it not?… “, he is perhaps summing up one of main themes in Suite Française – a story about a tragedy, which became a tragedy in itself.

In 2015, Suite Française was made into a film by Saul Dibb. The photo above (from the film) is from