Culture and Heritage, Review, Uncategorized

European Book Club at Alliance Française de Denver

By Barbara Hamilton

On a cozy December evening, I attended the European Book Club (EBC) at one of Denver’s great Tier III cultural treasures, Alliance Française de Denver, 571 Galapago Street. The Alliance hosts the European Book Club once each month, on the last Tuesday of each month, 6:30 p.m., and has previously discussed such illustrious tomes as I Curse the River of Time (Petterson), Vain Art of the Fugue (Tsepeneag), Never Any End to Paris (Vila-Matas). The EBC was founded in early 2011; previous authors have hailed from Iceland, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, and other European countries.

Recent books read by the European Book Club

Recent books read by the European Book Club

Discussions are in English, and are accompanied by discussion-inducing treats and of course, fine French wine. All for $5—a true intellectual bargain!

For those longing for a purely French experience, Alliance Française also hosts a French-speaking book club. Books are read in the original French and discussed in French. Find out more at

Discussions for the English-speaking European Book Club are moderated by the delightful Nan Campbell. Nan mentioned that only 3% of all foreign language books published in the USA are translated into English—an astoundingly small number considering the output of foreign writers! The EBC “aims to promote contemporary European literature in translation….thus increasing awareness and appreciation for other cultures”.  Campbell estimated that every third or fourth book on the EBC list was by a French speaking writer, a clear choice, with discussions happening at the Alliance Française.

The University of Rochester hosts a website called “Three Percent”, which is dedicated to modern international literature. Campbell mentioned this website, as well as website listings of European literary prizes such as the French Prix Renaudot, as good sources for finding international works in translation.

Nan Campbell, moderator for European Book Club, and two members

Nan Campbell, moderator for European Book Club, and two members

An unusual selection for this month’s book was Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky. Since the author died in 1942 at Auschwitz, her works would not be considered contemporary. Amazingly, it took 64 years for Suite Française to be published posthumously, as the manuscript sat in a dusty suitcase in her daughter’s basement.

The book has been adapted as a film with Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas, and was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival; it should arrive in Denver in winter 2015.

The novel was written by Némirovsky on the eve of the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940, while living a small French village near the border with the Free Zone. In spite of living half her life in France and writing in French, Némirovsky was rounded up by the Nazis as a Ukrainian Jew in 1942. She was 39 when she died at Auschwitz, leaving behind two young daughters.

Irène Némirovsky and daughters

Irène Némirovsky and daughters

Her daughters originally thought the manuscript was a diary, and could not face the pain of reliving the time of losing their parents. When they finally read the manuscript in 2004, they realized it was another novel, and immediately contacted a publisher. Suite Française was published posthumously in 2005. It may well be the first fictional account of World War Two as it occurred. 

Némirovsky sketched out the possibility of a work in five parts. Storm in June and Dolce, which were to be followed by: 3. Captivity 4. Battles? 5. Peace? She only completed the first two books before she was arrested. 64 years after her death, Suite Française won the prestigious French Prix Renaudot prize in 2004; this was the first time that the prize has been awarded posthumously. At 431 pages, it was a long, but rewarding read. The book hardly referred to Némirovsky’s Jewish ethnicity—it was more an observation of French life and social strata under German occupation.

The discussion of Suite Française was lively and passionate at the EBC. It was obvious that all those in attendance had not only read the book, but had done some reflection on their own about the subject matter.

As a veteran of several book groups in Denver, I appreciated the background, knowledge and dedication of the members of the European Book Club. There was very little chit-chat or gossip. Members were at the meeting to discuss the book, to share their insights, to spar intellectually, to find out the perspective of others in the group, and to learn about another wonderful author. Nan Campbell’s gentle leadership kept the discussion on track. I particularly appreciated the perspective of members who understood the complex conditions of the Nazi occupation of France, and the Franco-German relations over the last century.

The perspective of this wonderful group of readers was understandably more inclusive of European history, politics and culture, than in other book groups I am familiar with. It is inevitable that book groups delve into politics as part of their discussions, but usually it’s about American politics. How refreshing to hear a discussion of issues across the pond!

Future dates for the European Book Club in 2015 are listed below.  As with so many of the cultural offerings of the Alliance Française, the European Book Club is a treasure to be experienced, savored and enjoyed.

À vôtre santé!

Tuesday January 27th, 2015: Death With Interruption, J. Saramago (Portugal)

Tuesday February 24th, 2015: The Shadow of the Wind, C. Zafón (Spain)

Tuesday March 31st, 2015: Gourmet Rhapsody, M. Barberry (France)

April 28th, 2015: Trieste, D. Drndic (Croatia)

May 26th: The Hunger Angel, H. Müller (Germany)

June 30th: Tita, M. Houzelle (France)

Alliance Française de Denver


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