Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky
The book consists of two novellas set in France during the German invasion and occupation in 1940 and 1941, and was actually written in France in 1940 and 1941. It’s remarkable in its willingness to look at the humanity and the hypocrisy of both the conquered and the conquering, particularly in light of Némirovsky’s persecution by the German occupiers at the very time that she was writing the book.
Némirovsky had planned to write three more novellas in the suite, following events up to the end of the war. Sadly, she did not survive to finish the work. She was killed at Auschwitz in 1942.
There are excerpts from her notes and diaries in an appendix to the book. One of her diary entries is an insightful description of the powerless and powerful.
I know that I am more intelligent, superior, more valuable where goodness is concerned than those men. They are strong but their strength is temporary and an illusion. It will be drained from them by time, defeat, the hand of fate, illness (as was the case with Napoleon). And everyone will be dumbfounded. “But how?” people will say. “They were the ones we were afraid of!”
The descriptions of the interactions of locals and occupying forces made me think about American troops in Iraq today – the combination of hatred and a comfort bred by familiarity that foreign occupation brings. Knowing the personal history of the author makes the clear-eyed descriptions of her characters all the more remarkable. Highly recommended reading. Thanks to Jill for suggesting it.
UPDATE: An exhibition on Irène Némirovsky is ongoing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage through August, 2009.