Suite française is a novel by Irene Nemirovsky published in 2004, a long time after her death in a Nazi camp. She was born in Russia, had to emigrate with her family and finally settled in France. She wrote in French and was first published in the 1930’s; she became successful very quickly.
The novel was discovered in her papers by her daugher. It was written during the Nazi occupation in French and remained unfinished, as she was arrested in 1942. The passage translated here belongs to the second “movement” of this suite (which is to be understood here in its musical sense), “Dolce”. The main character, Lucile Angellier, lives in a small village occupied by the Nazis. Her husband is a prisoner of war and she has to lodge a German officer in her own house.
Irène Nemirovsky is the only francophone author who received a prize after her death; it was in 2004, for this novel.
With a book and some work, Lucile Angellier had sat herself down in the cherry trees’ shade. This was the only corner of the garden where trees and plants had been allowed to grow without any concern for the material yield that they could provide, since these cherry trees only ever gave a little fruit. But this was the flowers’ season. On a sky of pure and unalterable azure, that Sèvres blue at once rich and brilliant, the blue of certain types of precious porcelain, there floated branches seemingly covered with snow; the breeze which shook them was, on this May morning, still cold; the petals were softly defending themselves, huddling up with a sort of sensitive grace, turning the yellows pistils of their hearts towards the earth. The sunlight passed through some of them and revealed a tracery of tiny delicate veins, visible against the white of the petals; it added something to the fragility of the flowers, to their immateriality, something alive, almost human in that particular sense of the word when it signifies both weakness and resistance; you could understand how the wind might shake those ravishing creatures without destroying them, without even ruffling them; they swayed dreamily with the movement of the tree, seemed ready to fall but were still solidly attached to their thin branches, shining and hard, branches which had something metallic to them, just like the trunk itself, svelte, smooth, a single stroke with glints of purple and grey. Between the white blooms small, reclining leaves peeked out; in the shadow they were of a tender green; in the sun they seemed rosy.
The garden ran along the edge of a narrow road, a country lane where a few small houses rose up; the Germans had set up their ammunition store there; a sentinel was walking back and forth under a large red poster, which bore in thick red letters the word:
and, further down, in little characters, in French:
It is forbidden to enter here, on pain of death.
Translated by James Harriman-Smith