Friday, November 16, 2007


The New York Times calls it a tour de force!
by Charlie Leck

Suite Français is a very good book and certainly worth reading, especially if you are (1) a history buff who is interested in the Second World War occupation of Paris and France, or (2) one who is interested in serious literature. This novel is more an event than a literary achievement. The work was sprung unexpectedly upon the literary community nearly 70 years after its author’s death. Irène Némirovsky was known to serious readers of literature for her novels from the 30s and 40s: David Golder; The Ball, The Flies of Autumn; Dogs and Wolves; and The Courilof Affair. I read the last two of those mentioned here and they were terribly good and riveting stories beautifully written. Little did anyone know that one of Némirovsky’s daughters was carrying around, in a suitcase, two more complete novels that her mother gave her in 1942.

The discovery of these two works is a huge story and one you might enjoy pursuing.For now, though, let me tell you that Suite Français is not a great novel. It is a very good book. The Nation Magazine compared it in importance to The Diary of Anne Frank and The First Man by Albert Camus. Non! The Sunday Times of London called it “a masterwork of literary accomplishment.” Mais non! Perhaps Newsweek Magazine came closest to getting it right: “The author of Suite Français is one of the most fascinating literary figures you’ve never heard of – and her own tragic story only deepens the impact of the book.” The book does have impact even though it gets tedious from time to time. Némirovsky does make one feel the pain, shame and fear of the people of France who had to live through the Nazi occupation of their country.

One friend of mine who is an awfully good reader pointed out that there are not a lot of really likeable characters in the book. Mais oui! Only Madame Lucile Angellier manages to work her way into the reader’s heart because of the extraordinary power of self control she possesses and her passion for her nation and its people. Némirovsky handles beautifully the gallant and proud love that Lucile discovers for the German officer who oversees the occupation of her small village. It’s a touching development even if it comes very late in the story.

Overall, the translation appears to be excellent; though Sandra Smith does make a couple of grammatical mistakes that are getting more and more common in American English. Both had to do with the use of the personal pronoun – “us” rather than “we” and “me” rather than “I.” I hear it all the time these days and even came upon the error in Richard Russo’s latest novel. Has it become acceptable to speak and now write that way? “He knows how to do it better than us.” The sound of the word grates on my mind and I want to scream at folks who misuse it: “He knows how to do it better than we.” It is a form of “we do” and not “us do.” Get it? 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10! Okay, I can handle it from some poor slob of a sports commentator on the air; but I can’t take it in a Némirovsky or a Russo novel. Come on!

I had the nagging feeling as I read through the novel that Némirovsky was not finished with this work. I believe she was going to return to it, to proof and edit it. The handwritten manuscript, which was turned over to the translator, had a large amount of margin notes and many strike-outs and insertion notes. If you want to feel the agony of the French at the opening of the Second Great War, go to your library and check out Suite Français. Patience will be required of you as you work your way through this story. Frankly, I don’t recommend you pay for it until you can find it on sale at your dollar bookshop. It’s already available from ABE Books (American Book Exchange) for $4. It’ll go down further pretty soon. [If I haven’t told you before about this wonderful way to buy books, I’m telling you now that it is just great!]

One final comment about the reviews. Oprah Magazine claimed that “Némirovsky’s scope is like that of Tolstoy.” The magazine then calls it a “lost masterpiece.” I think all these reviewers were caught up in the story about the survival of these manuscripts and about the way the daughter handled these works over the last 65 years. Indeed, it’s a great story and, perhaps, finer indeed than the book itself.

If you’d like to read a level-headed review of the book, go to this one in Britain’s Guardian. It says that the book “demands to be read” and that may well be true. The review also summarizes the entire story of how the book was saved from destruction and you’ll find that account fascinating.

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