Friday, February 29, 2008

February Book Club Discussion: Suite Francaise

For our first Book Club selection, I chose Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.

Not only did I find Suite Francaise to be an interesting book, but the story behind how the book was finally brought to light was just as intriguing. After Nemirovsky and her husband, Michel Epstein, were arrested and sent to Auschwitz their two daughters escaped. The youngest of the two grabbed her mothers notebook in the escape, thinking it was her mother’s journal. Neither of the girls had the courage to read what was written within until they decided, 64 years later, to donate it to an organization collecting tidbits from holocaust survivors. Denise Epstein then chose to type the contents for her own records and in doing so discovered it was actually the beginnings of what was to be an epic novel.

Originally meant to be five books long, Suite Francaise has been reduced to two books, Storm in June and Dolce, because of the author’s untimely and tragic death. After reading these first two sections in their unedited form, I am convinced this surely would have been a masterpiece had it been finished.

Of the two books I preferred Storm in June, mostly because I fell in love with the Michauds and because there was more action. Also, because there were so many characters to hate, especially (for me) Madame Pericand. To me, the Pericands personify the French family I’ve been working for during the past seven months. Nemirovsky was able to describe this type of upper class family that feels entitled to everything. The description of her attitude toward her servants on pages 8 and 9 really struck home with me.

One thing I also really liked about this book was that Nemirovsky wasn’t afraid to kill off her characters. Some of them were pretty predictable (and even she questioned them in the notes they found about the book, calling one of the death’s “schmaltzy"), but all the same, I liked that she didn’t try to make everybody live through the war.

I felt like Dolce was too slow moving. But at the same time I think it was reflective of how things really were at that period of time. In Nemirovsky’s notes that followed the book, I could see that she herself was waiting, and during the war it seemed there was nothing to do besides wait and hope for something final.

I have read negative reviews of this book on Amazon. Most of them discuss a lack of solid characters, saying the characters come out very one-dimensional. I disagree. Throughout the book, I felt like I could really see these characters. Yes, perhaps she didn’t go to great lengths to describe each character, instead she allowed the characters’ actions to do the talking.

One thing I would have preferred though would have been to have seen more of the Michauds and other people like them. I felt like there were far too many upper class people in the book, which I think reflects Nemirovsky’s feeling about the way she was treated throughout the war.

One of my favorite quotes from the book comes from Mme Montmort (whose name gets misspelled several times in the book, changing from Montmort to Montfort) on Page 288: “If she drank or had lovers, you could understand her lack of religion, but just imagine, Amaury, the confusion that can be caused in people’s minds when they see virtue practiced by people who are not religious.” (Amaury is Montmort’s husband.)

Overall I found the translation to be good. There were a few mistakes in phrasing and tenses, which showed that the translator was obviously not a native English speaker. Those few errors could have easily been solved though by an editor (if they were a native English speaker). Still, I was amazed at the beauty of the prose, even through a translator. I commend her for doing such a wonderful job.

I highly recommend this book, especially if you’re at all interested in WWII or French history. This was the first time I’d ever read a book about WWII written from the French perspective and I learned a great deal. I also found it more realistic because it was actually written during the war.

One last note and then I’ll shut up. I found it interesting that Nemirovsky chose not to write in any Jewish characters. That was a huge part of the war, and something extremely close to home for her. I’m guessing she didn’t use any Jewish characters because she was worried she wouldn’t be able to write it objectively. Choosing arbitrary characters from other classes perhaps made it easier for her to deflect her own pain? What do you think?

Also, be sure to check out other blog reviews of this book:
ReadingAdventures
The Book Mine Set

6 comments:

Chason said...

I'll do a cursory response to your review because I have to go home soon and I don't have the book with me.
I found the words Nemirovsky chose to use to describe things very poetic.
Like you, I enjoyed "Storm in June" more than "Dolce" and I was sort of sad that the characters from "Storm in June" didn't reappear in "Dolce" because I started to get comfortable with them.
The most striking thing for me in "Dolce" was how Nemirovsky humanized the occupying Germans. Although she did make it clear that many of the French saw the Germans as a horrible enemy, Nemirovsky was able to show that not all the French people necessarily felt that way. Many of the young French girls found themselves taken in by the strong, blonde German soldiers who were living in their village. And Nemirovsky was able to embody the conflicting feelings towards the Germans that the French were feeling in Lucille. She falls in love with the German soldier that lives in her house, but when the moment comes when she has to make a choice between giving into her lustful impulses, her guilty conscience takes over and she is suddenly repulsed by the idea of having an affair with an enemy of her country.
I never considered the complexity of the relationships that must exist between the citizens of an occupied country and the occupiers. Nemirovsky shows that the Germans were just men who were doing what their country asked of them, just as the French were true to their homeland. She even showed how many of the Germans were homesick and had wives and children back home.
The story of how the book came to be is very fascinating. It's a unique perspective of World War II that I've never been exposed to. As you did, I thought it was interesting that there were no Jews in the book seeing as how Nemirovsky ended up being sent to Auschwitz. That is the true tragedy of this book, really. I kept thinking to myself as I was reading the book that the author was killed by the very people she obviously recognized as fellow human beings and not as monsters. But on the orders of Hitler, those individual German human men, dressed in their distinctive green uniforms that the young French women admired in her book, sent Nemirovsky to her death.
Something else that struck me about the book was how it showed how war really doesn't care who you are, how rich you are, what your name is, or how important you might be in a society without war. Everyone is vulnerable when the bombs are falling.

Becca said...

Yeah, I never really thought about the irony of that situation. Nemirovsky did her best to humanize the German soldiers who eventually had no mercy on her and her family.

Also, what a good observation about how war doesn't care who you are, whether rich or poor, the bombs drop where they drop. It's funny because sometimes I think we do believe war doesn't really effect the rich as much as the poor (which in some ways I still believe is true). When the front reaches your own country, things change for sure.

I'm glad you liked the book.

Next month I think we may meet in person as well as online. What do you think?

Heather Johnson said...

I just came across your reveiw of this book - I just finished reading it myself a few weeks ago. Although I disagree with some of your comments I did love this book. If you get a chance, check out my brief review (http://age30books.blogspot.com/2008/04/suite-francaise.html). The author's story has stuck with me since I first heard about her ... I think this is one of those books that really opens your eyes to some of the untold stories in our history.

John Mutford said...

I agree that the story of Nemirovsky herself added another dimension to the book. My review is here.

Seaside Book worm said...

To answer the question that you may not be aware of is that the author of course was Jewish. But she was a self hating Jew. She did not want anything to do with being a Jew. I am not sure if she converted to another religion.
I stumbled on your blog from a link to another blog. I would like to know if this is a online book club or a virtual book club that actually meets. If you are a online book club, do you have enough room for one more. I am interested. Thanks.

Becca said...

Seaside: This is an online book club and there's no official sign up. Just read the book of the month, write a review if you wish, and show up here with comments and discussion questions on the last day of the month to discuss the book.