Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française is the best prose epic I’ve ever read, and it’s not even half-finished. She found a way to write sweeping vistas of a country at boiling and simmering points, exploding and settling with a cast of thousands, without sacrificing the personality of her characters. The two parts of the book that exist are written well enough to stand alone, but it’s frustrating to the point of tears that the other three she planned were never written.
Némirovsky’s composition of Suite Française was interrupted by her imprisonment and murder at Auschwitz. The manuscript survived her, and it was published some 50 years later, in 2004. It has received huge amounts of press since then because the instances of genius and poignancy combining in such a way are exceedingly rare.
Before Némirovsky’s career was cut off by France’s oppression of resident Jews, she had published several works of some success. But Suite Française, even in its unfinished form, was hailed on publication as evidence of a new talent and maturity. Certainly, it vastly surpasses her second most famous book, David Golder, a portrait of a merchant banker’s final days.
The excellence of the book is especially remarkable as the elements of her own situation as a stateless Jew in a country that had yielded to Nazism is never referred to in the narrative. In her notes for the book, she wrote of France: ‘My god! What is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us watch as it loses its honour and its life.’ We do watch, but we would never know that the narrator of the vision was one of the victims of France's deterioration, or indeed that there were any victims like her.
And while her portraits of the French and German characters are far from universally negative, she does show us a shocking yet wholly believable decline, after France's military defeat, of what is held to be 'honour'. She employs the trick of defining the unbearable and the horrid by juxtaposing it with the luxurious or the noble. The result, while sometimes deeply sarcastic and bitter, is crystal clear sketches of situations and people.
Each character, even the most secondary, is full enough to call an emotional response from the reader. This ranges across an epic spectrum, from sympathy to violent dislike. In one brief chapter, she can create more of an audience empathy for a prowling tomcat than writers like Paul Auster can manage for a lead character in 150 pages. And the pictures she conjures of French refugee landscapes, uneasy moods and uncertainty during the first years of the Second World War are eerily and amazingly real.
So much for the genius; from there, the poignancy. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt pointed out the monstrosity of loudly decrying how Nazism exiled Einstein while not acknowledging ‘it was a much greater crime to kill little Hans Cohn from around the corner, even though he was no genius.’
After one reads Suite Française, such moral holes don’t arise. While the pages are open, the writing precludes thinking of anything outside the book. When it’s closed, however, the deep frustration that Némirovsky was murdered before finishing it helps us understand some of the scope of what the world loses with every victim of war and ethnic violence. The book forces the reader to think of all the hopes, creativity and love that a population's casual evil and mindless genocidal bureaucracies can and do destroy, as though they were nothing at all – but we, the readers, know better; we have our hands on the proof.
Suite Française is published by Vintage Canada, and is available there through Random House Canada.