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Book Clubbing

Introduction

Suite Française  
by Irène Némirovsky

Title

Author

Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky

About the Book

The first English publication of Suite Française will be a major event. Suite Française is an extraordinary novel of life under Nazi occupation - recently discovered and published 64 years after the author's death in Auschwitz. 

In the early 1940s, Irène Némirovsky was a successful writer living in Paris. But she was also Jewish, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Her two small daughters, aged 5 and 13, escaped, carrying with them, in a small suitcase, the manuscript - one of the great first-hand novelistic accounts of a way of life unravelling. 

Part One, "A Storm in June," is set in the chaos of the tumultuous exodus from Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion. As the German army approaches, Parisians seize what belongings they can and flee the city, the wealthy and the poor alike searching for means to escape. Thrown together under circumstances beyond their control, a group of families and individuals with nothing in common but the harsh demands of survival find themselves facing the annihilation of their world, and human nature is revealed for what it is - sometimes tender, sometimes terrifying. Part Two, "Dolce," is set in a German-occupied village near Paris, where, riven by jealousy and resentment, resistance and collaboration, the lives of the townspeople reveal nothing less than the essence of the French identity. The delicate, secret love affair between a German soldier and the French woman in whose house he has been billeted plays out dangerously against the background of Occupation.

Suite Française is both a piercing record of its time, and a humane, profoundly moving work of art. Riveting, impossible to put down, it makes us witnesses to life as it was in wartime France, and leaves us wondering how we too might behave in such a perilous situation.

An immediate #1 bestseller in France, Suite Française has captured readers' imaginations not only for the tragic story of its author, and the circumstances of its rediscovery, but for its brilliantly subtle and compelling portrait of France under Occupation. (From the publisher.)

 

About the Author

• Birth—February 11, 1903
• Where—Kiev, Ukraine
• Death—August 17, 1942 
• Where—Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi Germany 
• Education—Sorbonne

Irène Némirovsky was the daughter of a Jewish banker from Ukraine, Léon Némirovsky. Her mother was not interested in her, and often denied that she had a daughter, because it would make her "look old".

The Némirovskys lived in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where she was brought up by a French gouvernante, almost making French her native tongue. Irène also spoke Yiddish, Basque, Finnish, Polish, and English (probably learned while strolling the Rue des Rosiers in Paris, according to an interview).

The Némirovsky family lived for a year in Finland in 1918 following the Russian Revolution, and then, in 1919, moved to Paris, France, where Irène attended the Sorbonne and started writing when she was only 18 years old.

In 1926, Irène Némirovsky married Michel Epstein, a banker, and had two daughters: Denise, born in 1929; and Élisabeth, in 1937.
In 1929 she published David Golder, the story of a Jewish banker unable to please his troubled daughter, which was an immediate success, and was adapted to the big screen by Julien Duvivier in 1930, with Harry Baur as David Golder. In 1930 her novel Le Bal, the story of a mistreated daughter and the revenge of a teenager, became a play and a movie.

The David Golder manuscript was sent by post to the Grasset publisher with a Poste restante address and signed Epstein. H. Muller, a reader for Grasset immediately tried to find the author but couldn't get hold of him/her. Grasset put an ad in the newspapers hoping to find the author, but the author was "busy": she was having her first child, Denise. When Irène finally showed up as the author of David Golder, the unverified story is that the publisher was surprised that such a young woman was able to write such a powerful book.

Although she was widely recognized as a major author, by Jewish authors like Joseph Kessel and anti-semitic authors like Robert Brasillach alike, French citizenship was denied to the Némirovskys in 1938.

Irène Némirovsky was Jewish, but converted to Catholicism in 1939 and wrote in Candide and Gringoire, two anti-Semitic magazines—perhaps partly to hide the family's Jewish origins and thereby protect their children from growing anti-Semitic persecution.

By 1940, Némirovsky's husband was unable to continue working at the bank—and Irène's books could no longer be published—because of their Jewish ancestry. Upon the Nazis' approach to Paris, they fled with their two daughters to the village of Issy-l'Evêque (the Némirovskys initially sent them to live with their nanny's family in Burgundy while staying on in Paris themselves; they had already lost their Russian home and refused to lose their home in France), where Némirovsky was required to wear the Yellow badge. On July 13, 1942, Irène Némirovsky (then 39) was arrested as a "stateless person of Jewish descent" by French police under the regulations of the German occupation. As she was being taken away, she told her daughters, "I am going on a journey now." She was brought to a convoy assembly camp at Pithiviers and on July 17 together with 928 other Jewish deportees transported to Auschwitz. Upon her arrival there two days later, her forearm was marked with an identification number. According to official papers, she died a month later of typhus.

Her husband was sent to Auschwitz shortly thereafter, and was immediately put to death in a gas chamber.

Discussion Questions

  1. This guide is designed to enliven your group's discussion of Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky's masterpiece-a unique work of fiction about the chaotic exodus from Paris in June, 1940, as the invading German army approaches, and the complex life of an occupied village a year later.
  2. The novelist, who herself fled Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion, wrote the book virtually while the occupation was happening, most likely making Suite Française the first work of fiction about World War II. How do you think she managed to write while she herself was in jeopardy? Do you think it was easier for her to capture the day-to-day realities of life under occupation? In what ways might the book have been different if she had survived and been able to write Suite Française years after the war?
  3. Suite Française is a unique pair of novels. Which of the two parts of Suite Française do you prefer? Which structural organization did you find more effective: the short chapters and multiple focus of Storm in June, or the more restricted approach of Dolce?
  4. What is the significance of the title Dolce?
  5. How does Suite Française undermine the long-held view of French resistance to the German occupation?
  6. Discuss Irène Némirovsky's approach to class in Suite Française. How do the rich, poor, and the middle classes view one another? How do they help or hinder one another? Do the characters identify themselves by class or nationality? (You might consider the aristocratic Mme de Montmort's thought in Dolce: "What separates or unites people is nottheir language, their laws, their customs, but the way they hold their knife and fork.")
  7. In Dolce, we enter the increasingly complex life of a German-occupied provincial village. Coexisting uneasily with the soldiers billeted among them, the villagers-from aristocrats to shopkeepers to peasants-cope as best they can. Some choose resistance, others collaboration. Each relationship is distorted by the allegiances of war. What happens when someone-who might have been your friend-is now declared your enemy during a war?
  8. The lovers in the second novel question whether the needs of the individual or the community should take priority. Lucille imagines that "in five, or ten, or twenty years" this problem will have been replaced by others. To what extent, if at all, has this proved the case? Has Western society conclusively decided to privilege the individual over the group?
  9. How does Suite Française compare to other World War Two novels you have read? How would you compare it to the great personal documents of the war (for example, those written by Anne Frank and Victor Klemperer), or to fiction?
  10. "Important events-whether serious, happy or unfortunate-do not change a man's soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows of all its leaves." -Storm in June, p.203  Do you agree?
  11. Consider Irène Némirovsky's plan for the next part of Suite Française (in the appendix). What else do you think could happen to the characters? (Questions issued by publisher.)