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The Surprise Literary Sensation Sweeping France

This year’s French literary sensation is quite a surprise, not least because she is a long-forgotten Jewish writer who died in Auschwitz.

Irène Némirovsky was born into a wealthy Ukrainian family in 1903 and grew up among Kiev, Saint Petersburg and Riviera palaces. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, her family joined the ranks of White Russian émigrés in France, where Némirovsky entered the Sorbonne. She began publishing short stories and soon joined Parisian literary circles. By 1934, however, she was voicing concern about antisemitic agitation; by 1938, she was petitioning (in vain) for French citizenship; by 1940, she and her family had abandoned Paris for a village in Burgundy.

When the police arrested Némirovsky two years later, she left behind two young daughters and a suitcase containing the manuscript of a novel about wartime France, “Suite française.” Both girls survived in hiding, but decades elapsed until they dared open the suitcase. The novel was published just a few months ago in France. To date, it has won a prestigious book prize and continues to dominate the French best-seller lists. More than 20 countries have bought translation rights, with Knopf releasing the work here next year.

During the 1940s and ’50s, most novels about Vichy France either glorified the resistance or criticized a cowardly population. Without absolving anyone of responsibility, Némirovsky proposes that between the poles of diehard resistance and collaboration, most French men and women sought to endure and recover some normalcy. Few could draw on coherent moral or ideological codes. Few, therefore, understood fully why they acted as they did or what their actions might mean to others. “Suite française” suggests that the dividing line between one path and another was often razor thin. In this respect, this is very much a novel of our time, in which nothing can be as simple as it appears and ideological boundaries are blurry. The novel’s success in France shows not only that the country’s “dark years” continue to fascinate, but also that there is a growing willingness to perceive this period in its full ambiguity.

The first part of “Suite française” recounts the exode of June 1940, the millions of French civilians and soldiers who fled south as the Germans advanced. Némirovsky depicts unsavory Parisian types: the “self-righteous” curator and his wife, the cantankerous writer and his mistress, the callous banker, the ballerina on the wane. All end up in the indifferent and “hostile” human magma that engulfs the roads of France. Few people look good in this France, but the capital’s elites are truly despicable in their sense of entitlement, their materialism and their disdain for a populace that clogs their escape route. This damning portrait was Némirovsky’s revenge against the literati, publishers and politicians who had abandoned her to her fate.

Such retribution does not, alas, make for great literature and, given its late publication, this section tells us little we do not already know about the exode. The second part of the book, however, is a nuanced account of daily life in an occupied village in Burgundy. Because she had no scores to settle here, Némirovsky captures with acuity and empathy the cycle of fear and complacency, the disputes over wheat and coal, the indignities large and small that imprinted everyday life. Most impressively, she conveys the population’s complex feelings toward the German troops. There was shame and repulsion, yes, but also an eerie fascination before this spectacle of youth and order, metal and leather. Tacit rules of behavior emerge (never discuss the war with soldiers!), but who could distinguish right from wrong when the enemy, a human being with a name and a family, lived in one’s own home?

To reflect this, her book features a relationship between a young French woman and an urbane German officer who is billeted in her house. The two develop a deep platonic friendship with an outcome that long remains uncertain. When an outside event eventually forces this woman to commit herself politically, her heroism seems accidental. At the liberation, her neighbors could have lionized her as a resister or they could have shaved her head for “horizontal collaboration.” Both outcomes were equally plausible.

One struggles to explain, however, why the novel sidesteps the fate of Jews. Maybe the chronicler in Némirovsky limited herself to what she observed; most villages, after all, had no Jewish residents. The Jewish question was important in early 1942, but so were food and coal shortages, rationing, requisitions, repression and 2 million prisoners of war. More relevant may be Némirovsky’s own tortured relationship with Judaism. As she saw it, cosmopolitan, money-hungry Jews from Eastern Europe shared little with those urbane, patriotic “Israelites” who had long assimilated into French society (and who represented the ideal to which she apparently aspired). As antisemitism grew during the 1930s, references to Judaism dwindled in her novels until they vanished altogether.

Finally, and most problematically, there is Némirovsky the novelist. Did she skirt her writerly responsibility to probe her social world in all its dimensions? Or did she conclude that grasping the complexity of human behavior at that moment required an outward rather than an inward gaze? It is difficult to tell. But on June 2, 1942, she wrote in her journal, “Reread Tolstoy.” A month later, she was deported.

Stéphane Gerson is assistant professor of French and French Studies at New York University. His book, “The Pride of Place: Local Memories and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century France”(Cornell University Press), won the 2003 Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History.

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