Bearing Witness

Reviewed by Ruth Kluger
Sunday, May 14, 2006


A Novel

By Irène Némirovsky

Translated from the French by Sandra Smith

Knopf. 395 pp. $25

This extraordinary work of fiction about the German occupation of France is embedded in a real story as gripping and complex as the invented one. Composed in 1941-42 by an accomplished writer who had published several well-received novels, Suite Française , her last work, was written under the tremendous pressure of a constant danger that was to catch up with her and kill her before she had finished.

Irène Némirovsky was a Jewish, Russian immigrant from a wealthy family who had fled the Bolsheviks as a teenager. She spent her adult life in France, wrote in French but preserved the detachment and cool distance of the outsider. She and her husband were deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where he was gassed upon arrival and she died in the infirmary at the age of 39. Her manuscript, in minuscule and barely readable handwriting, was preserved by her daughters, who, ignorant of the fact that these notebooks contained a full-fledged masterpiece, left it unread until 60 years later. Once published, with an appendix that illuminates the circumstances of its origin and the author's plan for its completion, it quickly became a bestseller in France. It is hard to imagine a reader who will not be wholly engrossed and moved by this book.

Némirovsky's plan consisted of five parts. She completed only the first two before she was murdered. Yet they are not fragmentary; they read like polished novellas. The first, "Storm in June," gives us a cross section of the population during the initial exodus from the capital, when a battle for Paris was expected and people fled helter-skelter south, so that the roads were clogged with refugees of all classes. Némirovsky shows how much caste and money continued to matter, how the nation was not united in the face of danger and a common enemy. In her account, the well-to-do continue to be especially egotistical and petty. And yet a deep, unsentimental sympathy pervades this panorama. Looking up to the sky at enemy planes overhead, the refugees who have to sleep on the street or in their cars "lacked both courage and hope. This was how animals waited to die. It was the way fish caught in a net watch the shadow of the fisherman moving back and forth above them." I can't think of a more chilling and concise image to convey the helplessness of civilians in an air raid.

Not being French herself but steeped in French culture may have made it easier for Némirovsky to achieve her penetrating insights with Flaubertian objectivity. She gives us startling, steely etched sketches of both collaboration and resistance among people motivated by personal loyalties and grievances that date from before the war.

The second part, "Dolce" (the title -- Italian for "sweet" -- derives from Némirovsky's plan to give the work a musical structure), covers the occupation by the Germans of a small village, from the so-called armistice in June 1940 to the Soviet Union's entry into the war a year later. One can forget that there was a period after the defeat of France when World War II could be seen simply as a war between Germany and Britain. The villagers yearn for peace, and many are indifferent as to who wins, England or Germany, as long as their own men come home. Némirovsky is superb in describing how fraternization comes about, including French girls and women giving in to the attractions of the handsome German occupants -- there are no other men around, most of the French men having been taken prisoner. But the unnatural situation also breeds fierce feelings of resentment and humiliation. Némirovsky embodies this conflict in the story of a woman who falls in love with a German officer and at the same time hides a villager wanted for the murder of another German -- a murder motivated partly by patriotic hatred and partly by marital jealousy.

One puzzling omission from the spectrum of conquered and cowering French society is the Jews -- the one group that was more endangered than any other, as Némirovsky knew only too well. Perhaps she wanted to save the fate of the Jews for the next part, which was to be entitled "Captivity." Even so, when one thinks of the threat the Jewish population endured even at this early stage of persecution, one feels the significant gap here.

Still, this is an incomparable book, in some ways sui generis . While diaries give us a day-to-day record, their very inclusiveness can lead to tedium; memoirs, on the other hand, written at a later date, search for highlights and illuminate the past from the vantage point of the present. In Némirovsky's Suite Française we have the perfect mixture: a gifted novelist's account of a foreign occupation, written while it was taking place, with history and imagination jointly evoking a bitter time, correcting and enriching our memory. ·

Ruth Kluger is the author of the memoir "Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company