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“While they may seem remarkably polished and complete, “Storm in June” and “Dolce” were actually part of a work-in-progress.  Had she survived, Irene Nemirovsky would certainly have made corrections to the two books and completed the cycle she envisioned as her literary equivalent to a musical composition.”

– Sandra Smith, English translator of Suite Francaise

In the translator’s note, Smith reveals information about the author that alters the way the book must be read and analyzed.  Most negative critiques I have for the novel, a combination of two works, “Storm in June” and “Dolce,” do not seem as important when more is known about the author’s intentions. It becomes difficult to mention the problems I had reading the story of the German invasion of Paris in June, 1940 and the aftermath. Portions of the text are difficult to read, because the pacing of the writing is very slow. Characters playing a large role in “Storm in June” are almost nonexistent in “Dolce.” Regardless of Nemirovsky’s inability to edit and complete her collection of books, she gives an emotional first-hand account of what it means for a country to be attacked and later occupied by invading soldiers.  Her characters display a range of human traits including love, hatred, confusion, fear, and hypocrisy. The text explains the inevitable reactions and alterations made during times of war; her writing exemplifies what extreme circumstances do to a city, culture, and most importantly, people.

In order for the reader to comprehend the emotions and sense of time crawling citizens experienced during and after the invasion of Paris and other villages in France, Nemirovsky creates a deliberate and gradual effect.  Although it makes the novel difficult to read at times, it is easy to see why the author chose to carefully craft even the minutest details of events.  The characters consider and react accordingly to the knowledge their homes, possessions, and loved ones will be destroyed. They can only wait in fear, ridden with anxiety that all will be lost. The reader, too, becomes absorbed in these emotions.

Most of us cannot imagine how we would act or feel in similar circumstances. Nemirovsky explores the experiences of people from all walks of life for the reader to compare and contrast.  The alternating perspectives of the Pericand’s, a large and wealthy family, Gabriel Corte and Florence, a famous author and his mistress, Charles Langlet, a man with family money only concerned with the preservation of art and beauty, the Benoits, farmers in a small village, the Michaud’s a poor couple employed by Corbin Bank in Paris, and the Angelliers, middle-class women, are shown.  Although the characters are all afraid, their fear is illustrated in different ways.

More fortunate citizens, such as the Pericad’s, Corte, and Langlet, show concern for the country and lives of people only when it involves them.  As the thought processes of the fleeing are revealed, it becomes obvious that despite danger of death, these particular people cannot stop obsessing about their possessions, money, and class.  Langlet, for example, constantly observes ways that he can see the societal status of others at a glance.  Even worse, after the hotel the Pericad’s are staying in is burning, Madame Pericad looks at her three young children happy to have saved them, but she is also content that she has managed to salvage valuable items in her jacket.  The woman is so concerned with losing her house, car, and precious linens, that she flees the village, leaving her elderly father-in-law to die alone. On the other hand, the Michaud’s, who are forced to flee Paris on foot, are most concerned with the health of their only son, Jean-Marie, and how they will survive. Nemirovsky makes an effort to ensure that many characters cross paths by chance during or after the chaos ensues. In “Dolce,” the focus becomes less on immediate danger and turns to relations between German soldiers and French citizens.

Through the blossoming relationship of the beautiful Lucile Angellier, whose husband Gaston is a prisoner of war, and Bruno von Falk, a young German soldier staying in her home, the tensions and reservations each French family feels toward the German man living in their home is demonstrated. There is an impression of the German soldier as the enemy, a faceless invader evoking fear and shame. In opposition, the German’s are humanized by sharing living quarters with the French citizens; they develop names, faces, and personal histories. Still, the French keep their guards up, because in war one cannot trust anyone. Nemirovsky writes in her notes that she intends to give an “impression of ironic contrast.” She does so by exhibiting that in war circumstances and relationships occur that would not otherwise have taken place. At the same time, it is because of the war that people must choose between emotions and loyalty to their country. Questions of selfishness, disloyalty, and hypocrisy surround each person.

“Dolce” ends when the German’s leave French homes to fight in Russia. The story is incomplete, but knowing the reason is because Nemirovsky did not survive the war alters the overall impact on the reader. The characters from “Storm in June” do not appear much in “Dolce,” but the author planned to combine her texts into a whole that involved all characters having a more cohesive experience.  Regardless of the finality of the work, it masterfully portrays human instinct and emotion under exceptional circumstances. The book is not a page-turner, but it will remain relevant.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

For more information:

Website Dedicated to Irene Nemirovsky

Museum of Jewish Heritage Exhibition

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