Title: Suite Francaise
Author: Irène Némirovsky
Page Count: 395 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, War Stories
Tone: Bleak, Moving, Dramatic
Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.
1. Did you find it difficult to distinguish characters during the flight from Paris? Which ones made an impression? What scenes stood out?
2. A few characters are formed to represent the multitudes. Is this effective? How is human nature represented?
3. In what ways are different classes depicted? Do the rich, poor, and middle classes help or hinder one another?
4. Charles Langelet thought the common people were vile, vulgar creatures. When someone didn’t loan him a can of petrol, he said, “well that’s the human race for you egotistical and mean.” Then he stole gas from a young couple and got of bit of a thrill from it. How do you think he can reconcile his words and actions?
5. Who was the least redeeming character and why?
6. The Michauds are said to epitomize people who “always pay the price and [are] the only ones who are truly noble.” How do they represent those members of society who maintain their humanity throughout the war? What is the significance of these two, who sincerely cherish life and not its fortunes, being the ones who are left in the dust as others run past?
7. Why did Arlette Corail help Hubert and what was the point of the seduction?
8. Madame Pericand escaped and forgot her father in law? Any thoughts
9. Storm in June and Dolce were written in different styles. Why those titles? Which did you prefer? Why?
10. What are the differences in how the rich and the poor react as the Germans approach the village?
11. How would you describe Madame Angellier? Is she truly awful, or just overcome with sadness? Were you surprised by her reaction to hiding Benoit?
12. Should Madeleine have married Benoit? Why did she?
13. What is the strategic advantage of having German officers stay in resident homes rather than in barracks? How did attitudes toward the Germans change as they stayed in the village?
14. What do you think of this statement: “All the characters are collaborators in one form or another. They all have compromised to make their lives more bearable” (pg 49)?
15. Did Lucille make the right decision in regards to Bruno, the German soldier? Should she have allowed their relationship to go deeper? Was she wrong to use him to help Benoit?
16. Kurt Bonnet has been described as “the universal sacrificial soldier.” How might this be true? Is this a fair characterization?
It takes a long time for historians and writers to come objectively to terms with a catastrophic historical event, yet Némirovsky presents just that – an on-the-spot description of how the French behaved in the years between 1940 and 1942. She knew she had no time. She wrote her story just as it happened; she wrote as she experienced it, and she interpreted and made judgments even as she observed them.
17. Has Némirovsky presented a fair picture?
18. Has she written a journalistic account of the time or a story of fiction?
19. How have her own personal experiences biased her writing?
20. Do you think Némirovsky would have recalled and written about the occupation differently if she had written years after the war ended?
21. Is this book effective as a fictional account of France under German occupation? What can be said about the power of fiction to relate to the times?
22. On Corte’s desk is engraved, “to lift such a heavy weight, Sisyphus, you will need all your courage,” the same quotation that Némirovsky had claimed as her own motto. What is the significance?
23. Since the war, the French have lived with the myth of a valiant French Resistance movement in the face of a devastating German attack and occupation. This myth exploded in the late twentieth century and was shown to be false. However, the Resistance movement grew better organized after 1941, and there were many positive actions performed by the French. Némirovsky has been criticized for being too hard on the French and too easy on the Germans. What is your reaction to this comment?
24. Though unfinished as the author intended, does this book stand on its own? Has Némirovsky written a tragically classic story, or is she merely a tragic figure in her own story? How did knowing her fate change how you read the book?
Lit Lovers’ discussion questions
Mel Menzie’s book discussion summary
The story behind Irene Némirovsky
Kershwa discusses her book on Némirovsky and inter-war France (video)
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