I just posted a short review of Suite Française on Goodreads. It is short because I wanted to digest the reading experience before committing anything final to the ether. First, here is an apologia. I studied French to A-level standard and can understand quite a bit of what I read but I never spoke French well and my days of writing criticism of French literature in French are well past. Having read Suite Française in English, I would feel daunted approaching it in its home language because it is a complex and intricate work full of description and characterization. Camus, which I read at school, is stark and simple in comparison.

Despite my linguistic failings, I would not dream of reading French poetry in English translation and I feel the French language has a gentler, altogether fluffier feel to it that can be lost in translation. When you read an author in translation, you are in danger of missing the music of their words. If the translator is worth their salt then the ideas will not be lost even if their execution is modified. This translation works well.

Suite Française was originally intended to be a five part novel of approximately 1000 pages. It was influenced by Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Nemirovsky also found inspiration in Chekhov and Flaubert. What we have therefore is very much an unfinished project. She was constantly planning changes and had sketched out the direction for the other other three books but this is as far as it got. What intervened was deportation and a month after this she was gassed at Auschwitz.

Bearing in mind that this is a draft of under one half of a novel, how do we fare as readers and does she achieve her goals? Reading the appendices was useful here. I particularly enjoyed this resource and the opportunity it gives to get inside the creative process of a talented writer. It set out her plans for the further development of story and characters; it set out the main purpose too and was really informative. I felt that the style was an impersonal one; Flaubert’s ideas were important to her, and she sets out ideas through the lives and actions of ordinary people. This is done with fine attention to detail, the preoccupations of a populace fleeing from a conquering army in all its sometimes banal detail. If anyone is killed there is a cold detachment that seems to say; “There you are, that’s all there is to it.” This flies in the face of the prior self importance of these characters, who are very much prisoners of the ego – as we all are from time to time. There is talk of the “hive community” of the Germans, but this comes through the French characters too perhaps.

Be prepared for some unorthodox punctuation. “Points de suspension” tend to be frowned upon by modern readers, as I know only too well. (I am fond of them in poetry and it has invited harsh criticism from some critics.) They are used extensively in the scene where Bruno plays the piano and emotions and ideas flow with a breathless and excited quality. It is a shame this way of using them is dying out…

Suite Française is not an easy read or a page turner, but it is a beautifully executed work of fiction based on real life and experience and as such I can highly recommend it. For those who prefer something more approachable, the film is also very enjoyable and much warmer than the fiction.

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