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A recovered masterpiece

March 27, 2008 - Diane Speer
For those of you who are into good books, I just wanted to share today about a remarkable read my book club recently tackled and gathered together last night over dinner to discuss — “Suite Francaise” by Irene Nemirovsky. The book begins in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940, and tells the story of men and women thrown together in circumstances far beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way, which Nemirovsky captures in a fascinating blend of fiction and fact, history and storytelling.

That the book was ever published at all is an extraordinary story in itself. When the author began working on it, she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. Her two young daughters, Denise and Elizabeth, remembered their mother always writing in a large leather bound notebook. As they were fleeing to safety, they put their mother’s notebook in a suitcase that accompanied them from one precarious hiding place to another. After the war, they couldn’t bring themselves to read the notebook — just having it was enough. Once, daughter Denise tried to look inside to see what was there, but it was too painful.

For 64 years, the novel of “Suite Francaise” remained hidden and unknown. Eventually the sisters agreed to entrust their mother’s manuscript to an organization dedicated to documenting memories of the war. Before giving up the notebook, Denise decided to type it out. With the help of a large magnifying glass, she discovered that her mother’s writing was far more than just notes or a private diary as she had always believed. Instead, what she found was a masterpiece of a book that provided a vivid snapshot of France and the French defeated and occupied.

Nemirovsky’s manuscript was sent to a publisher and in 2004 published in France. Translated into English, in 2006 it was published in hardcover in the United States. Finally, readers were able to experience the last work, which Nemirovsky never had a chance to finish, of a writer who had held a mirror up to France at its darkest hour. The astonishing “Suite Francaise” stands on its own, but knowing the author’s own tragic story deepens the impact of her book.

As would be expected, my book club members usually have differing opinions on everything that we read. But last night, in what was surely an unusual occurrence for us, we all agreed — Suite Francaise” is truly a remarkable book.


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