Here is the daunting but worthwhile task: Assess a half-finished novel of Tolstoyan ambition that sat unpublished for over 60 years but that has now been hailed a modern classic. Remind yourself that the author wrote these pages in France under Nazi occupation before she was shipped off to the death camp at Auschwitz. Review in the book's appendix the author's vision of a thousand-page symphonic novel, and then pore through her husband's frantic letters appealing for his wife's rescue before he, too was killed at Auschwitz.
Finally, read in the preface how the author's young daughters survived with the help of a governess and how, after the war, they stood in a Paris train station wearing their names on signs, hoping to be spotted by a liberated parent. And consider that the only reason you even have the novel is that one of those daughters held onto her mother's manuscript for decades, believing it was a journal.
It seems inevitable to view "Suite Francaise" by Irene Nemirovsky as a courageous human achievement rather than a typically literary one. Yet, a novel it remains, not an older Anne Frank's diary. It works as novels must, not by denouncing injustice but by exploring ambiguity and unpredictability -- even here where right and wrong, good and bad, might seem so obvious. In Nemirovsky's hands, the Nazi occupation of France is not only a historical tragedy but also a literary occasion that allows her to explore human nature under the ultimate pressure of war.
"Suite Francaise" ties together two stories, two novellas of what Nemirovksy intended would become five. Part One, "Storm in June," the richer of the two, charts the civilian exodus that followed Germany's invasion of France in 1940. Millions retreated from the Wehrmacht's advance, abandoning cars for lack of gasoline, hoarding and sharing resources with arbitrary abandon. Nemirovsky's story does not rely on a central hero but a cast of characters including a prominent and irritable writer, a respectable middle class family, a married couple, a dancer, a 16-year-old boy ashamed of the cowardice surrounding him and determined to join the army and an aesthete who is more concerned about rescuing his porcelain than the suffering around him.
While the Nazis advance, this unorganized cast retreats amidst an intense pressure that that exposes raw aspects of human character. This seems like an obvious direction for a war novel to pursue, but Nemirovsky is careful to shade her revelations. We may not know ourselves, the novel suggests, until we're under almost unbearable strain. What we find then is not an essential purity or vileness at all. We're not heroes or animals but creatures of abiding contradictions, as Nemirovsky reminds herself in her notes for the novel: "Yes! It must be done by showing contrasts."
And so, mid-exodus, people are both generous and mean, expansive and narrow. In one instance, Nemirovsky observes a deep humaneness: "Rare was that person who cared about their possessions; everyone wrapped their arms tightly round their wife or child and nothing else mattered; the rest could go up in flames." But this same spiritualizing effect hardens elsewhere, as when Madam Pericand rebukes her children for sharing their chocolate on the street: "Christian charity, the compression of centuries of civilization, fell from her like useless ornaments, revealing her bare, arid soul. She needed to feed and protect her own children."
These contrasts between charity and selfishness, loyalty and betrayal, give the novel a kind of pendular momentum. We see courage and we see shame. The characters are cynical, and yet somehow they still assert that human freedom will win out in the end. Nemirovsky deliberately avoids the long discursive interludes of "War and Peace" (one of this book's obvious influences), but we are grateful for the snippets of wisdom when they come, most memorably this meditation toward the end of "Storm in June": "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 off all its leaves."
The second novella, "Dolce," dramatizes the tension and attraction between German soldiers and the French women with whom they are quartered. From this distance perhaps nothing seems more obvious than that men and women sharing a roof will succumb to romance, but we should recall how bitter and controversial fraternization was in wartime France. Afterwards, thousands of women accused of "horizontal collaboration" were stripped, shaved and adorned in public with large swastikas.
All the more remarkable, then, is Nemirovsky's nuanced account of women loving but also doubting their love, especially the noble Lucile, who won't deny her feelings for a German but who remains steadfastly patriotic -- courageously so under the circumstances. It is Lucile who sees that the larger problem in 1940 is not National Socialism or the shadow of World War One (which reaches everywhere in the novel) but the glorification of mystical community in any form: "The Germans, the French, the Gaullists, they all agree on one thing: you have to love, think, live with other people as part of a state, a country, a political party. Oh, my God! I don't want to! I'm just a poor useless woman; I don't know anything but I want to be free!" "Suite Francaise" does here what the novel form does best: defending individuals against all systems that try to neatly define or restrict them.
"Dolce" ends with German troops leaving France for the new Russian front. Nemirovsky set to work making notes for part three, "Captivity." She never got to write it. However magnificent this unfinished novel remains, the human story of the author overwhelms it. Ukrainian and Jewish by birth, neither Nemirovsky's success as a writer in pre-war France nor her conversion to Catholicism could save her from the Final Solution. In August, 1942, she arrived at Auschwitz ill, and died a few days after. The freedom her characters eloquently defend -- inner freedom, freedom of the soul -- can mature when it is nudged by external pressures, but it can also, of course, be crushed without mercy.