My choice for the category “Classic in Translation” for the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate was Suite Française by Irene Némirovsky. This is one of those books that meets the Challenge’s bylaws in that it was first published in 2007 but actually written in 1942. The story of the author’s life and how the book came to be published is worthy of a novel itself. Némirovsky was originally from the Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire) but had immigrated to France with her family as a teenager. She was a popular and well-known author in France. Her debut novel David Golder was a best seller and published when she was only 26 years old.
However, when France surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940, Némirovsky, as a woman of Jewish ancestry and denied French citizenship, began to feel the pressure put upon Jews by the French government under the occupation. Ultimately, she was deported to Auschwitz and murdered (she died actually of typhus but let’s call a spade a spade. There was never any intent that she should survive her deportation). Her daughters survived the war hidden by friends of the family. Némirovsky’s oldest daughter, Denise Epstein, had kept the manuscript but not read it thinking it was her mother's journal and fearing the experience would be too painful. When she later discovered it to be an unfinished manuscript she approached a publisher and the rest is history.
The novel Suite Française is the first two sections of what the author envisioned as a five-part chronicle of life during wartime under the occupation. Némirovsky was writing as the actual events were unfolding. The first section is titled “Storm in June” and it depicts an ensemble of characters as they flee Paris at the onset of the invasion in 1939. It reminded me a bit of The Grapes of Wrath in how the best and the worst in people will come out in desperation as people traveled on foot or in vehicles with as much of their worldly possessions as they could carry with the situation becoming more and more dire the further they went. It was very vivid.
The second section titled “Dolce” is a little less tense and definitely more romantic. It takes place in a village located in Vichy France where German troops are sequestered and the characters are only tangentially related to those introduced in the first section. The story’s focus is an unrequited love affair between a French woman and a German officer with other characters showing some of the initial signs of underground resistance by the French and the burden of collaboration.
The edition I read had notes from the author at the back which give hints as to where the final volumes were headed plot wise. I think the final version would have been epic and an instant classic had the author lived to write it.