Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky is one of the many books which Jack placed on one of my many book piles, saying I would enjoy reading it. You can see his review of it here.
I did enjoy it, it’s about the German occupation of France and the effects on the inhabitants of a small rural area. As I was reading it I thought to myself that parts of it reminded me of War and Peace, which I really enjoyed, so I was pleased to read in Nemirovsky’s notes at the back of the book that it had indeed been her intention to write a sort of War and Peace, after all, she was Russian.
The notes are fascinating as well as heartbreaking as we know that she didn’t survive to complete her masterpiece. She only finished two sections – Storm in June and Dolce, when she had planned five sections, the third one was to be Captivity and she hadn’t decided on what to call the last two sections.
Of course she didn’t live to complete this book because she had that terrifying knock on the door and was taken away by the police on 13th July 1942. A flurry of increasingly frantic letters from her husband follow, to just about anyone he could think of who might be able to help him find out what was happening to Irene. He knew that as she shuffered from asthma she wouldn’t be able to stand up to bad living conditions for long. Sadly the letters continue for far longer than poor Irene did, unknown to him she had died in Auschwitz on 17th August 1942.
I always find myself appalled that people didn’t see the way the wind was blowing and get themselves out. I suppose for a lot of poor people they had no option but to sit at home and hope for the best, but Irene and her husband Michel Epstein were wealthy. She was a successful author with nine books under her belt and he was a banker, they lived a very comfortable life and would have been able to get themselves to Switzerland easily.
I was left wondering if she decided to stay in France so that she could experience the German occupation and chronicle it in her fiction. As a Jew and a Russian she had two big strikes against her. Were they naive enough to think – we aren’t religious Jews so we don’t count and nobody could complain about us, possibly they thought that their wealth would insulate them from what was going on. Eventually her husband lost his job at the bank and they seemed to be living off charity as her publisher was sending them money.
Irene’s husband only survived her by a few months, he was sent to Auschwitz on 2nd November 1942 and immediately sent to the gas shamber, still not knowing what had happened to his wife.
Their two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth were saved by a trusty servant who took the yellow triangles off their clothes and managed to dodge the French police who were determinedly hunting them down. Denise had shoved her mother’s notes into a suitcase when they first had to hide and it was only 64 years later, and sadly after the death of Elisabeth, that Denise decided to try and decipher her mother’s teeny writing, she was amazed to discover that they were actually a book and not just notes as she had assumed.