Irene Nemirovsky was an author of Ukrainian-Jewish descent who emigrated to Paris after the Russian Revolution. In Paris, Nemirovsky found great success and her voice as a writer. Though she converted to Catholicism, wrote in French, and was considered by many to be a French Nationalist, Nemirovsky remained an official outsider. Her petition for citizenship was denied, eventually her writing was no longer published, and in 1942, at the age of 39, Nemirovsky was captured and deported to Auschwitz, where she soon perished.
In the late 1990s family members discovered among Nemirovsky’s belongings manuscripts of an unfinished volume consisting of two novellas. These writings were eventually transcribed and published – first in French in 2004 and in English in 2006 – under the title “Suite Francaise” to world-wide acclaim.
With World War II as its frame (a subject touched by countless books with widely variant success), “Suite Francaise” sets itself apart. Here is sophisticated, well-developed fiction that is being written contemporaneously. Nemirovsky writes about the attitudes, happenings, and tragedies of 1940 and 1941 France with eerie remove and without the benefit of history or hindsight. Though her writings were ostensibly unfinished, the final product is fluid, polished, and poised in a way that belies the conditions in which it was written and, ultimately, abandoned.
“‘It’s so sad,’ said the Viscountess and added, ‘We’re going through such hard times.’ She said ‘we’ out of that sense of propriety which makes us pretend we share other people’s misfortunes when we’re with them (although egotism invariably distorts our best intentions so that in all innocence we say to someone dying of tuberculosis, ‘I do feel for you, I do understand, I’ve had a cold I can’t shake off for three weeks now.’).”
This passage is poignant on multiple levels. On the surface, it is a quiet truth-telling, a peeling back of a practice all-too-common. At a deeper level, Nemirovsky’s condemnatory statement is carried out in the tone of her piece. She, of all people, has earned the right to speak of ‘we’. But she refrains.
At the time “Suite Francaise” was originally penned, Nemirovsky was living through the chaos of war-torn Paris and the disenfranchisement of being considered inflammatory and dangerous by the government. Later she paid the ultimate price, dying in a concentration camp at the hands of brutal and inhuman forces. Yet Nemirovsky’s stories are told at a remove; their inhabitants are middle- and upper-class Christians struggling to adapt to occupation. Where most World War II stories, and particularly those written by sympathetic peoples, speak of austerity and atrocity, “Suite Francaise” deals more with common indignities, manageable hardships, and shifting ethics. Nemirovsky’s fiction is, quite frankly, the “mainstream” story so rarely told; her life and death, however, are the epitome of the tragedy we must never forget. I am left to wonder if her tone and subject were ironic, or if she so fully identified as a middle-class, Catholic, French woman that her oppression and murder for being Jewish was the darkest of ironies.
“She paused and nodded curtly to the teacher who had just come in: she was a woman who did not attend Mass and who had buried her husband in a civil ceremony; according to her pupils she hadn’t even been baptised, which seemed not so much scandalous as unbelievable, like saying someone had been born with the tail of a fish. As this person’s conduct was irreproachable, the Viscountess hated her all the more: ‘because,’ she explained to the Viscount, ‘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 practised by people who are not religious.'”