Since 2004, the name Irene Nemirovsky has been primarily associated with her bestselling and haunting novel, Suite Francaise. Entrusted to her daughters in a suitcase in 1942, the manuscript remained untouched until 1998 when Nemirovsky’s daughter, Denise, resolved to type out the handwritten novel with the aid of a magnifying glass. Published to worldwide acclaim in September 2004, Nemirovsky’s interrupted—not unfinished—novel has defined her literary celebrity, at least in the United States. Until now. With The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, coauthors Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt provide readers will an insightful and illuminating account of a vibrant, talented, and complex woman whose life was cut all too short when she perished in Auschwitz at Nazi hands in 1942.
Celebrated as primarily a French writer, Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, a Jewish Ukrainian, the only daughter of a successful businessman and narcissistic mother. Her bourgeois childhood led to extended vacations in France—where she became proficient in the language—which proved extraordinarily useful later in her life. In January 1918, the Nemirovsky family, fearing further ramifications of the Bolshevik Revolution from their current home in Moscow, fled their home country and emigrated first to Finland, then later to France. It was during this time, that “because of boredom, purer and more all encompassing than in Kiev or Petersburg, that she started to tell herself stories, ‘all kinds of stories, which gave me great pleasure and which I returned to day after day.’”
This comprehensive biography of Irene Nemirovsky’s is the first of its kind to explore the details and nuances of both her complicated personal life, and her successful literary life. Originally written in French and published in France in 2007, where it achieved bestselling status, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky is available in English for the first time. Part biography, part literary analysis, and part history, coauthors Philipponnat and Lienhardt have endeavored to familiarize readers with the life of this extraordinary writer, and contextualize her short stories and novels within the backdrop of the tumultuous period of history in which she lived and wrote.
“’And so, I regret nothing. I have been happy. I have been loved. I am still loved, I know that’s true, in spite of the distance between us, in spite of the separation.’ She leaves behind a husband and two dearly beloved little girls. As well as an unfinished novel, Suite Francaise.”
With these concluding sentences of the prologue, coauthors Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt summarize Irene Nemirovsky’s life in her own words. While she enjoyed immense success during her lifetime, today Nemirovsky is best known for her tragic death and the incomplete manuscript she left behind, largely untouched and read by only ten people in fifty-plus years. By narrating Nemirovsky’s arrest, deportation to Auschwitz, and subsequent death, the authors cleverly establish a foundation from which to build their narrative upon. By knowing what tragedy surrounded the end of her life, readers can better appreciate the success and critical acclaim that she possessed during her most prolific literary years. Having established the end of the story, so to speak, the authors then turn their attention to chronologically narrating Nemirovsky’s life for the remainder of the biography.
_The Life of Irene Nemirovsky_’s organization into three parts establishes a strong frame from which to support a woman’s life story which is filled with a myriad of personal blows and professional knockouts. Nemirovsky was a prolific writer, and happily she left behind a veritable treasure trove of primary sources such as handwritten notebooks containing entire manuscripts and outlines for stories, hundreds of letters, and newspaper clippings containing reviews of her work. Philipponnat and Lienhardt pieced these puzzle pieces together to create a portrait of Nemirovsky’s literary processes and personal feelings. It is in brilliant passages such as this that readers gained unparalleled insight into Nemirovsky’s identity as a writer:
I never make a plan. I begin by describing for my own purposes the physical appearance and a full biography of all the characters, even the less important ones. In this way, even before getting down to the actual writing itself, I know my characters perfectly, even, it seems to me, down to the way they speak; I know how they will behave, not just in the book but throughout their lives. When this is done, I begin to write.
The earlier part of the biography focuses upon Nemirovsky’s personal life, childhood, and how the dark wave of history charted her life on a course that no one foresaw, but the majority of the narrative contextualizes Nemirovsky’s literary life. All autobiographical references become ancillary to the primary plot chronicling her writing process, and the success she received by way of sales and critical reception. Even her confused relationship with her national and religious identity—though by heritage Jewish and Ukrainian—Nemirovsky considered herself French first and foremost, are tangential to the prolonged analyses of Nemirovsky’s short stories and novels. The problem in these chapters is that an overabundance of literary criticism bogs down an otherwise seamless narrative, and is lost upon those not intimately associated with the stories and novels that Philipponnat and Lienhardt chose to highlight; some are not even available in English, such as an intriguing-sounding novel The Wine of Solitude, whose themes and critical reception dominate a portion of this biography.
The last few chapters will contain themes and historical narrative that most readers familiar with Suite Francaise will recognize: the German invasion of France in 1940, the subsequent flight of thousands of French citizens in June of the same year, and subsequently Nemirovsky’s inspiration to pen what she referred to as her magnum opus, and we know as Suite Francaise. Planned in three parts, only two were completed at the time of her arrest and deportation in July 1942. She knew it was coming. The Life of Irene Nemirovsky shines and moves in its final pages with such passages:
On 11th July, Irene Nemirovsky walked up to the Male woods to enjoy the last remaining pleasures that were not forbidden to her. She was feeling cheerful, too cheerful, as if all her anxiety had ebbed back to distant shores. It was a very peaceful, almost miraculous morning . . . These were her last words as a writer. “I’ve written a great deal lately [referring to Suite Francaise] I suppose they will be posthumous books but it still makes the time go by.”
Two days later Irene Nemirovsky was arrested and deported. Several months later her husband, Michel was arrested and led off to Le Creusot prison prior to his deportation to Drancy. His final words to his and Irene’s daughters: “Never part from this suitcase for it contains your mother’s manuscript.”
Despite several chapters heavy in literary criticism, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky is an accomplished work possessing keen insightfulness into the life and literature of an author famous and bestselling in France in her day, but in light of the war and her Jewish heritage, was largely forgotten by the literary world, until earlier this century. Nemirovsky’s body of work, as well as her life, deserves to be recognized, respected, and understood once again. So spoke a literary critic in 1946, “Irene Nemirovsky does not leave her admirers empty-handed. She worked up to the last moment. Her books do not stop with her. Some precious manuscripts, together with her published work, will reinforce her literary survival.” Thankfully, due to the diligence and creativity of these two authors, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky will contribute to her literary survival both in America, and abroad.
tags: biography, euan cameron, french literature, irene nemirovsky, jessica letourneur, knopf, olivier philipponnat, patrick lienhardt
Her mother, Fanny, was “the enemy” (and even inspired a novel with that title); a venal, lustful, spiteful woman with finely pencilled brows and a white-powdered face. Fanny resented her only child as a rival and refused to talk to her except as a little girl; even after Irène had daughters of her own Fanny would send her an enormous teddy bear. So the young Irène turned for affection to her French governess, “whom I loved as a mother”. From Marie, she learnt that France is “the most beautiful country in the world”, learnt to speak French before Russian, to read Stendhal before Tolstoy. When Fanny sacked Marie in revenge (after Irène alerted her father to one of Fanny’s numerous lovers), the distraught governess drowned herself in the icy waters of the Moika. With that vindictive act, Fanny’s transformation from corrupt to criminal was complete. Thereafter, Irène’s abiding resentment towards her mother – and watchful terror that she might turn into her – served as a force for self-exploration. “Only the blood of an old wound,”
she wrote, “can give colour to a work of art in the right way.” The theme of David Golder, as of L’Ennemie, The Wine of Solitude and Jezebel, was “the revenge of a girl on her mother”.
Advertised by Grasset as “the most captivating, most fascinating novel that we have published in 10 years”, David Golder sold 60,000 copies, was made into a bad stage play and a rather better film, and was pronounced a masterpiece by critics and readers. Admirers numbered Paul Morand and the former prime minister Joseph Caillaux. The authors have no truck with those who condemned the book as anti-Semitic, asking: “Had David Golder been written in 2009 by Bernard Madoff’s daughter, who would dream of accusing her of anti-Semitic views?” These opinions foamed around her as the pogroms she had fled in Kiev came lapping up the lizard-skin cobbles of her Paris boulevard. “Anti-Semitism is a French tradition,” brayed one of her fiercest critics, Robert Brasillach. Maybe this is why she wrote so fast, between 1935 and 1942 producing nine novels, a biography of Chekhov and 38 short stories. She was writing against the German clock.
From 1935, she also applied – repeatedly – for French citizenship, claiming: “I have done my best to make France known and loved.” She even became a Catholic. As one of her characters puts it: “What I wanted was your culture, your morality, your virtues, everything that was greater than me, different from me, different from the muck in which I was born!” And yet, for all her illustrious sponsors, nothing happened. France spurned her as brutally as her mother continued to do; years later, when approached by Irène’s youngest daughter Elizabeth, Fanny (who died in 1972, aged 97) shouted that she had never heard of Irène Némirovsky.
Then came May 1940. Suddenly, the French – 10 million of them streaming south – were themselves the rootless people of her books. Concerned more with literature than saving her skin, she turned her compassion on France. “Since it rejects me, let us consider it dispassionately, let us watch it lose its honour and its life blood.” Tolstoy had waited half a century to write War and Peace. “Whereas I, I work upon burning lava.”
In its respectfulness and its dense poetic asides, beautifully translated by Euan Cameron, this tremendous biography is also very French. Its final pages are unbearable. In Russia, she had been saved by her cook, who thrust her under a bed with an Orthodox cross; in France, she is taken away and packed, without water, on a truck bound for Auschwitz. Her husband, Michel Epstein, half-crazed with worry and insomnia, telephones Morand and Caillaux. They don’t return his calls. When he himself is arrested, a sympathetic German officer gives his daughters 48 hours to get away. Epstein tells them: “Never part from this suitcase, for it contains your mother’s manuscript.” The manuscript remains on a shelf for several decades until her oldest daughter, Denise, with the aid of a strong magnifying glass, types it out. The unfinished novel, published to world-wide acclaim in 2004, since when it has sold three million copies, is Suite Française.
The Life of Irène Némirovsky: 1903-1942
by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt
tr by Euan Cameron
466pp, Chatto & Windus, £25
Buy now for £23 (PLUS £1.25 p&p) 0844 871 1515 or from Telegraph Books