Suite Française is remarkable on a number of levels. Many have commented on the tragic circumstances under which it was written, the fact that the novellas feel so complete and tautly drawn despite being years from what the author would have considered finished, and how the ensemble cast is so clearly conceived.
But it is also remarkable for what is missing. There is no hindsight omniscience due to historical distance and perspective. There is no organized French resistance. There are no Jews being humiliated, deported and slaughtered, not even a rumor of mass atrocities. This is a novel about everyday people, not grand men and women whom history tells us were the heroes or villains of their day. This novel is about the backdrop against which the heroes’ and villains’ acts played out and the people who served as their foils.
Nemirovsky introduces us to people whose actions—whether ultimately judged cowardly, collaborative, treacherous, heroic, reckless, or indifferent—would simply have been noted without benefit of an understanding of the personal lives or circumstances that shaped their actions. There is greater insight here to human passions than in any number of scholarly historical works based on the analysis of decisions made by politicians or field generals.
Though Nemirovsky largely allows her characters to speak for themselves, she cannot help but insert her feelings about them. The reader frequently gets the impression she did not like the French very much. The upper classes, the social snobs, and the pseudo intellectuals least of all. Her characterizations lambaste the philandering banker, the collaborating Viscounts, the egomaniacal writer, and the effete collector of porcelain. There is scathing social commentary here but the work is done by one skilled in the handling of a stiletto rather than a black jack. A single word or gesture communicates volumes of venom, as well as equal amounts of empathy for and insightful understanding of the human psyche. Who will run, who will stand, who will defend, who will denounce, who will acquiesce, who will collaborate, who will resist...no one knows for certain until they are confronted by evil and, as Nemirovsky writes, like the plane trees stripped of their leaves by a mighty wind, our true shape is revealed.
I love how she accurately predicted that people would change their stories after all was set right – how they would say they were never afraid, how they stood up to the occupiers, how they never once believed all was lost. They remembered things differently, but history has another account, because history has Nemirovsky.