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Nemirovsky's 'Suite Francaise,' Newly Translated


Irene Nemirovsky was a best-selling novelist in France before World War II. Now two of her novels have been published in English. They're collected under the title Suite Francaise.

Our reviewer Alan Cheuse finds that her talent was quite considerable and her personal story tragic.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

Irene Nemirovsky was born in Russia in 1903 into a Jewish banking family and emigrated with them to France in the early 1920s. Ten years later she made a big splash with her novels and sold books to the movies.

After France fell to the Germans, she began writing what she outlined as a five-volume novel about this horrific event. She had finished the first two books when she was arrested by the Nazis. Shipped off to Auschwitz in 1942, she was never seen by her family again.

After the war, her two daughters found a suitcase containing the manuscripts of the first two books, Storm in June and Dolce and handwritten notes for the others.

Only recently they published the completed books in France. Now we have the English translation under the umbrella title, Suite Francaise. The result is a beautifully restrained pair of novels about the chaos and suffering immediately following the fall of Paris.

Storm in June focuses on the exodus of tens of thousands of Parisians from the capital. The picture Nemirovsky gives us of that scene is quietly disturbing. Cars filled all the roads, people jammed together like fish caught in a net.

In Dolce, the second volume, we get to see country life under the rough new order of the German army in which family and national loyalties get pushed against the wall.

This all seems in keeping with the final note Nemirovsky left behind about how to compose the subsequent volumes of this project. The most important and most interesting thing here, she wrote, is the following, the historical revolutionary facts, etc., must be only lightly touched upon while daily life, the emotional life, must be described in detail.

This she did rather splendidly in the first two books until history, with all of its murderous irony, hauled her up in its net and kept her from writing further.

BLOCK: The book is by Irene Nemirovsky, titled Suite Francaise. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alan Cheuse
Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.