Review Of Suite Française

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 8/9/09


  It is difficult to review a work that one not only knows is unfinished, but also one that reads that way. Such has never been a stronger case than with Irene Nemirovsky’s ‘novel’ Suite Française. The book has been marketed as a novel when really it is two unfinished novellas, and according to the appendix in the back of the book, Nemirovsky was intending to make the final book contain five parts but unfortunately she was sent to die in the Auschwitz death camp in 1942 before she was able to finish it. Her daughter, Denise Epstein, then kept the manuscript for 64 years, not really reading it and assuming the notebook was only scribblings of everyday observations. When she finally opened it, however, she found it was something of a narrative structure, albeit one that was in desperate need of revision and never got it.

  Because Suite Française is an unfinished work, I can only judge it as how it appears to me, as is. Overall, I can’t really tell from this book if Nemirovsky herself was a great writer or not, because as is, this book is not good. The narrative is all over the place, the characters are never really developed, and nor do we really care about them. In fact, when reading the reviews about this book, there is more said about Nemirovsky’s life than the actual work. I have a hard time believing, for example, that if this were written by someone alive today and not by someone who died at Auschwitz, that readers would be so praising. Most moments and scenes do not stick in the mind, (with few exceptions) and for the most part, what readers are presented with is nothing more than just description of the Germans invading Paris, people packing up and leaving, hiding from the falling bombs, etcetera. The only difference between this book and any other book set in wartime (setting aside that this is unfinished) is that the book was written while the events were taking place.

  So what? When one critiques anything, ultimately what remains is that which is on the page. There are so many characters in these two novellas, for example, that you don’t remember a single one with any depth because none are really fleshed out. Just to give a bit of contrast, Terrence Malick’s great film The Thin Red Line applied voiceover to many different characters in his film, but because the film is driven by the universal ideas of war, loneliness, separation, and isolation, the fact that the viewers do not know which character is speaking doesn’t really matter because the characters are more used as tools in unison with the imagery to drive those ideas. In Suite Française we don’t have that, and instead are given a mish mash of characters and events piled together that were this not set during this important moment in history, the book would be like any other with characters that aren’t really worth remembering. And nor does the book rank among a classic all time great war novel like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, or even the lesser but still good The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, both whose books had memorable characters and scenes one can recount years later. Suite Française is more about people and how the war affects them. The only problem is that as a reader, no one will remember the people who are affected because they aren’t well developed enough.

  Is this a bad book? No. In fact, I think this could have been a very good book had it just had the time for proper revision and editing. As is, the two novellas together finish at 367 pages, which is far too long. There is also an appendix at the end that talks a bit about the history of this book, the author’s life, as well as some of her letters. It is unfortunate that the appendix is far more interesting than the work itself. But again, this isn’t a bad book, and it’s not one that goes without some nice moments. For example, here is some great description that describes the death of a priest named Philippe. Unfortunately though, I remember this scene far more than I remember how Philippe really was as a character.

  They were throwing stones at him. He held on at first, clinging with all his might to the branch that was swaying, cracking, giving way. He tried to get to the other shore but he was being bombarded. Finally he raised both arms, put them in front of his face, and the boys saw him sink straight down, in his black cassock. He hadn’t drowned: he’d got trapped in the mud. And that was how he died, in water up to his waist, head thrown back, one eye gouged out by a stone.”

  Rather than be overly sentimental, the author deals with the death of this man very matter of factly, allowing the image to speak for itself. Just reading this put me in mind of the great poem “The Killer” by Judith Wright, where the speaker ends the poem by describing a dead snake that then has an ant come out and “drink at its shallow eye.”

It is scenes like the above that leads me to believe the author was not without talent, and that the book’s flaws are those that are due to its incompletion. In the second novella (The first one called “Storm in June” and the second “Dolce”) there are some nice observations made by that of a French woman as she is greeted by German soldiers, and how she interprets them as being some other ‘species’. Here is what the narrator says:

  It was strange: she didn’t hate the Germans- she didn’t hate anyone- but the site of that uniform seemed to change her from a free and proud person into a sort of slave, full of cunning, caution, and fear…”

  And then Nemirovsky goes on to describe the German soldier as such:

  He was cruel, but it was the cruelty of adolescence, cruelty that results from a lively and subtle imagination, focused entirely inward, towards his own soul. He didn’t pity the suffering of others, he simply didn’t see them: he saw only himself.”

  Here the German soldier is described almost like a child, one who lacks empathy not because he is incapable of it, but because he has not grown into maturity yet to acquire it. These are some insightful comments on characters, and had there been more of these drops of insight throughout, the characters would have been far more memorable than what they were.

  I would recommend this book, actually, to anyone curious about reading it. It is a work that just for the history alone, in addition to the author’s life and death, that makes it something worth exploring. But don’t be surprised to find yourself disappointed from the abrupt end, or even in the middle, where the narrative sags. If looking for a great war novel, this would not be the book to read. Unfortunately, Suite Française, while having some insights and moments of nice description, reads more like a good first draft of a narrative that was never brought to fruition. For more information, one should visit the website about the author, as well as checking out some of her finished works, to assess a better ranking of her talent, and not rely on this work alone.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]


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