Book Club Discussion Summary: Suite Francaise

Posted at 01:16am on 30th May 2011

Suite Française
by Irène Némirovsky

 

Born in Kiev in 1903, Irène Némirovsky, was a Jewess who, with her family, fled the Russian Revolution.  She settled in France, married a Catholic, and became a best selling author.  Her novel, Suite Française is a keenly observed portrayal of French manners and morals during the Nazi occupation.  Sadly, it is an unfinished work.  Only two of the five parts she intended to write were completed and, though a highly skilled piece of writing, it is unedited.  She died in Auschwitz in 1942.

 

NOVEL STRUCTURE & STYLE 

The sadness of the author's demise did not make this a gloomy novel.  On the contrary, there were touches of humour, and a definite sense of tongue-in-cheek absurdity about some of the situations and the way the characters handled themselves.

Without exception, my somewhat depleted Book Club (some of our members are involved in putting together a production of The Hiding Place) agreed that the style, turn of phrase, and translation of Suite Française made for an excellent read.  One absent member wrote to me to say that she found the style "very much of the period: i.e. slower than modern books," and she made an amusing link between the book's observation of the French male's pre-occupation with sex and the recent real life scandal in respect of the leader of the IMF.

There were episodes that irritated some Book Club members, such as a particularly unlikely coincidence that occurred between two characters, when we felt that judicial editing might have improved the script (which, of course, had the author survived, she would probably have done).  Surprisingly, some of us preferred the first part of the book, some the second.  The short sentences and short chapters were agreeable to some members, though, as I pointed out, the small font and density of print made for a fairly lengthy book, at approximately 167,000 words.

 

CREATING FICTIONAL CHARACTERS

There were, in the beginning, rather too many characters which, we felt, became a little confusing.  Nevertheless, Némirovsky's skill in creating fictional characters was superb.  Charles Langelet, rich and miserly, was "fat and had a heart condition"; the writer, Gabriel Corte, "desired to be as brilliant, luxurious and disciplined as a ballet"; Mme Péricand, on hearing that France had lost the war "needed a voice of authority to tell her what to believe".  She also, having escaped Paris for Nimes, discovered that Nanny had lost her trunk and "We forgot my father-in-law."

 

INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS

Characters and conflict resolution are, of course, key to the structure of a novel because it's here that we, the readers, see human nature at its best and worst.  I was touched, recently, when a member of the Book Club expressed surprise at how intimate we have become in our discussions.  "We have excellent teaching in Church," he said, "first class Bible study in House Group, and real depth in what we share of ourselves and each other in Book Club."

To me, this is the most important aspect of the readers' group: not the study of literature nor the content of a book, but what we learn from it of human behaviour, and the way we can then apply that to our own lives and interpersonal relationships.

 

LEAVING A LEGACY

In the book, the elder M Péricand, finding himself forgotten, is much concerned with making his Will, some of which, though charitable, is a little manipulative and related to self-aggrandisement.  I linked this to someone known to me, a lady who has lost her independence and dignity.  In a situation in which her authority has been usurped, she perceives her Will, as did M Péricand, to be the only thing over which she has full control.

M Péricand wants to be remembered.  Is this what we all hope for, in the end?  To be thought well of when we die?  We spoke, in the Book Club, about wanting to feel that we had influenced people's lives for the better.  The ability to bring Grace – mercy, blessing, clemency and benevolence – to difficult situations was mentioned.

 

THEMES: Hypocrisy

The main theme in the book was identified as hypocrisy.  This manifested itself in several ways:

The way that charity was dispensed and withheld:

"They look so tired, so hot,' everyone kept saying" (of the refugees) "but not one of them thought to open their doors, to invite one of these wretches inside . . ."  Elsewhere, when an impoverished member of the aristocracy is trying to encourage generosity among the villagers, one of them states: "You'd be happy to do it as charity because you like humiliating poor people, but when it comes to doing a favour – as equals . . ." 

This aspect of charity prompted a lively discussion, in which we were all in agreement about the demeaning nature of charity – as in government benefits - and the merit of working to make a living.

Class hatred:

Class hatred was rife: the countrywoman's hatred for city people, the servant's for her mistress.  Also, the upper classes blamed the lower for France's defeat in both World Wars: "The way the Viscount saw it . . . it was the soldiers' lack of discipline, their lack of patriotism, their 'bad attitude' that had been responsible for the defeat."

In respect of my question about class differences, we concluded, as a group, that class, like family, community, town and nation, is merely another unit, and that whilst human beings are made to belong, they cannot belong to everyone.  What matters, we thought, was seeing people of all classes as different, but equal.

Duplicity:

Charlie Langelet thought nothing of hoodwinking a couple of young lovers for his own ends, and elsewhere, young, impressionable Hubert observes: "young girls, who had diligently wept the day the Armistice was signed, being comforted in the arms of the Germans."

Superstition:

 The farmer's wife, who sheltered the wounded soldier Jean-Marie, had a "strange desire to make a deal with the Good Lord" in which her kindness to someone else's son might be traded off against the life of her own.

Love and Duty:

 Marriage seems to have been more a matter of expediency than affection and, with so many men away at war, what love there is, is snatched and unfulfilled.  Lucile, one of the main characters of the second part, realises that despite her husband's absence, "how very empty was her heart . . . empty of love, empty of jealous hatred."  Had the book been completed his theme may well have been developed.

Community v Individuality:

Described as "the spirit of the hive" in the book, the perceptions of freedom – community versus the individual - are examined.  Whilst the Frenchman, Maurice Michaud, maintains that the certainty of being a free man is a "constant, precious possession," a German officer describes war as " the collaborative act par excellence."  Lucile, meanwhile, hates the community spirit that everyone "goes on and on about" and decides that its adherents are simply slaves.

This led to some lively discussion in the group about the concept of the individual versus community.  Communism is, of course, the extreme community and absence of individuality.  But whilst God generally dealt with nations in Old Testament times, Christian salvation was very definitely an individual experience.  Nevertheless, Christian faith leads, inevitably, to the community of family and church.  The consensus was that both are vital to human well-being.

 

For anyone interested in looking further at French national traits, an American Facebook friend drew my attention to this wry look at: 112 Gripes About The French .

 

QUESTIONS FOR THIS DISCUSSION SUMMARY & FURTHER BOOK TITLES

This Book Review, Questions or Discussion Summary may be reproduced in printed format or on any non-commercial website or blog on condition that the following copyright line and bio are prominently displayed beneath it.

© Copyright Mel Menzies: USED BY PERMISSION

Author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies runs an Online Book Club and is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. This article, in its original form, can be found at http://www.melmenzies.co.uk

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28th July: A Time To Live, by George Pitcher
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Your Comments:

Kylee
6th February 2017
at 4:11pm
I'm reading the French version of this book, and English summaries are always super helpful! Although you guys hit the nail on the head with a lot of themes present in the story, you should probably be aware the French really weren't DEFEATED in either world war. They suffered great losses in both wars, no doubt about it, and the country was occupied in WWII. However the French were Allies in both wars, and when history is written retrospectively it is inaccurate to say they were defeated in such a general sense. This website popped up fairly near the top of my google search so I'm sure others have read this information! Maybe the upper class blamed the lower class for the death and destruction of the world wars. However, even that is somewhat untrue. The rich (as Nemirovsky explains) were often initially unaware of the seriousness of their situation, while those with less money were often far more aware. If anything the poor probably blamed the rich. The class hatred always existed in France, but it was amplified by the idea that in times of war, riches are irrelevant.

Anyways I just wanted
kylee
6th February 2017
at 4:39pm
I'm also very interested in how you related this novel to the church.

"But whilst God generally dealt with nations in Old Testament times, Christian salvation was very definitely an individual experience.  Nevertheless, Christian faith leads, inevitably, to the community of family and church.  The consensus was that both are vital to human well-being."


Although i'll admit the Jews use the Old Testament as well.....this whole book was about persecution on a religious and political level..... of the Jewish people. Nemirovsky was a Ukranian Jew who only converted to Christianity only because of a push from her husband and oppression [BY THE CHURCH] of the Jews. Her personal journals recovered in the late 90s show her disdain for the institution. It makes sense considering they did nothing when she was en route to Auschwitz, WHERE SHE DID NOT DIE SHE WAS MURDERED BY A FASCIST REGIME.

I respect your analysis of this book from a littoral perspective. However this is a wildly over simplified analysis, and on only one instance did you say the word "Jewess", and never once did I see the word Nazi. But somehow you managed to get Bible and Christian in there a few times.

I understand this is probably some church's book group, and actual intellect wasn't your focus. However, If you are going to post something like this on the internet, I would suggest you choose a book with religious overtones more suited to your ideologies. Because this is literally an abomination and the entire reason she wrote this novel has been forgotten. As a student I'm appalled, and the more I read the more I realized this should either be taken down so no one else is misled by your analysis, or maybe at least mention the slaughter of millions of Jews as a theme......

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