By Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith
Knopf, 395 pp., $25
It is not often that an almost totally forgotten novelist publishes a runaway bestseller 60 years after her death. But that is what happened to Irène Némirovsky, a Russian Jewish exile who lived and wrote in France, was feted in Paris literary circles in the 1930s, and died in Auschwitz in 1942. ''Suite Française," the novel she was working on until the day of her arrest by French police on July 13, 1942, did not see the light of day until September 2004; it quickly climbed the French bestseller lists and remained there for several months.
This is in many ways an astonishing work, not least because Némirovsky was writing about events that were unfolding almost simultaneously with her putting them into fictional form -- a kind of ''instant" ''War and Peace" (she was a great admirer of Tolstoy), covering the period from the fall of France in June 1940 to Hitler's declaration of war against the Soviet Union a year later. While complete in its own way, the book is less than half of what Némirovsky projected, as indicated by the notes she kept (which appear here in an appendix, along with excerpts from her correspondence). Undoubtedly, the appeal of ''Suite Française" lies partly in its author's tragic death and in its own dramatic back story. Written in a tiny script in a leatherbound notebook, the work was kept unopened for many years by Némirovsky's two daughters, who survived the war as young children and found it too painful to dwell on this reminder of their mother. Only decades later did they realize what the notebook contained. It was thanks to the efforts of her older daughter, Denise Epstein, that Némirovsky's work finally reached publication.
''Suite Française" consists of two quasi-independent parts, though they clearly belong to a single work. Part one, titled ''Storm in June," is a brilliant description of what the French call the ''exodus" of June 1940, when tens of thousands of civilians from Paris and the north took to the road -- in cars, on bicycles, on foot, carrying as much as they could of their household belongings -- to flee from the advancing Germans. Surprisingly few novelists have tried to represent the days of terror and confusion that followed the German invasion, before Marshal Pétain signed the armistice that initiated four years of German occupation as well as the Vichy regime. Némirovsky tells this story by following the movements of a dozen or so characters from various walks of life, who find themselves on the road as refugees. Her observations and insights are often stunning, delivered in a coolly objective or ironic tone. She is pitiless, for example, in relating the ''hardships" suffered by some members of the privileged classes, as they make their way in chauffeur-driven cars to country houses and luxury hotels; very soon after the armistice, she shows them back in Paris, ready to resume life as usual, even if it means collaborating with the occupiers. The only characters for whom she shows sympathy are a couple of poor but honest bank employees, who married for love many years ago and whose only son is in the army. He is seriously wounded but survives, and Némirovsky had grand plans for him in subsequent volumes that she never lived to write.
The second part, ''Dolce," set in a single village during the first year of the Occupation, focuses on a much smaller cast of characters; and here Némirovsky's insights are even more astonishing than in the exodus chapters. She seems to have understood right away what would be the sorest points for France during the years of occupation: how to behave with the enemy, how to behave with one's neighbors if they collaborated, or to the contrary if they resisted. Némirovsky spent several months with her family in a village near Paris before being arrested, so she based the story on personal observation. She shows the gamut of human interactions that inevitably occur between the occupiers and the occupied, ranging from seething hatred to tender but impossible love. As in the earlier section, her prose is spare, beautifully pointed, and it is well served in this translation. Describing the arrival of young, good-looking German soldiers in a town emptied of its able-bodied men, she writes: ''The mothers of prisoners or soldiers killed in the war looked at them and begged God to curse them, but the young women just looked at them."
Perhaps the best-known literary text to come out of the French Resistance was a novella published clandestinely in 1942 by a journalist writing under the pseudonym Vercors. ''Le Silence de la Mer" (''The Silence of the Sea") is a story about an elderly Frenchman and his young niece, who are forced to billet a German officer in their home. He is aristocratic, idealistic, courteous, and they treat him politely; but they don't address a single word to him -- that is their way of resisting, although there is a hint that the niece finds him very attractive. Némirovsky was dead by the time this story was published, but to a reader today her ''Dolce" seems like an uncanny variation on Vercors's tale. In her version, the young woman (who lives with her strict mother-in-law, not her uncle) converses and falls in love with the handsome, cultivated German officer, but in the end she too realizes that she cannot fraternize with the enemy: The war has created a conflict that is insurmountable, even between would-be lovers.
It is heartbreaking to read Némirovsky's notes for the sequels she had in mind. ''To sum up: struggle between personal destiny and collective destiny," she wrote to herself on July 1, two weeks before her deportation to Auschwitz. Her own personal destiny was crushed by the collective Jewish destiny, which appears all the more ironic given that she thought of herself as totally assimilated, Jewish in hardly more than name. There is not one word about Jews in ''Suite Française," although she wore the yellow star while she was writing it. She died in Auschwitz in August 1942. Her husband, after trying desperately to get her freed, was deported in November and also perished there.
Susan Rubin Suleiman is a professor of French and comparative literature at Harvard. Her new book is ''Crises of Memory and the Second World War."