From Suitcase to ‘Suite Française’

The Tragic Life and Posthumous Fame of Irène Némirovsky

By the Waters of Biarritz: Nemirovsky (left) with her mother, Fanny, in 1912 or 1913.
IMEC
By the Waters of Biarritz: Nemirovsky (left) with her mother, Fanny, in 1912 or 1913.

By Steven G. Kellman

Published July 21, 2010, issue of July 30, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Life of Irène Némirovsky, 1903–1942
By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, translated by Euan Cameron
Alfred A. Knopf, 448 pages, $35

Many recently released novels have been written by authors who are unavailable for interviews, on account of their posthumous status. But even more thrilling than the publication of works by Roberto Bolaño, Ralph Ellison, Stieg Larsson, Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Roth was the recovery of “Suite Française,” an ambitious project that Irène Némirovsky was working on when deported to Auschwitz in 1942.

Prodigal Daughter: Némirovsky perished in the Holocaust, despite converting to Catholicism
COURTESY RANDOM HOUSE AUSTRALIA
Prodigal Daughter: Némirovsky perished in the Holocaust, despite converting to Catholicism

Retrieved from a suitcase by the author’s daughter, Denise, the manuscript contains two sections of an intended five-part epic about France under German occupation. Jonathan Weiss, Némirovsky’s first biographer, contends in “Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works” that “‘Suite Française’ would have been, in its final form, one of the most important works of literature produced in twentieth-century France.”

Even truncated, the brilliant novel, which appeared in French in 2004 and in English translation in 2006, evoked comparisons to Tolstoy and Balzac and enjoyed commercial and critical success. The enthusiastic reception of “Suite Française” in dozens of languages encouraged posthumous release of another of her unpublished texts, “Fire in the Blood” (2007), as well as an ongoing plan to restore earlier books to print. More than 60 years after perishing in the Holocaust despite her conversion to Catholicism, Némirovsky was world famous.

It was not the first time. Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt make clear in their book that Némirovsky was not discovered, but rather re-discovered, in 2004. She was a prolific and popular writer throughout the 1930s, but France’s discomfort over its complicity with genocide

resulted in her neglect after liberation. Working with a wider range of interviews and documents than Weiss used, Philipponnat and Lienhardt have produced a richly textured, dramatic account of being Russian, French, Jewish and Catholic during a barbarous time when none of those adjectives guaranteed survival.

Their biography opens with a chilling scene aboard Convoy No. 6 — densely packed cattle cars that for three days transported Némirovsky and 927 other Jews, who were in a holding camp in France, to a death camp in Poland. It concludes with the publication of “Suite Française” and with the question, “Who can have any doubts today that Irène Némirovsky is very much alive?”

The only, lonely child of mismatched parents, she was born in Kiev in 1903. Her father, Leonid, was a tenacious, avaricious Jew from an indigent background whose “sole preoccupation was to prosper, unfettered, and to erect a bulwark of gold between himself and his childhood.” Through banking, imports and mining, he amassed enough wealth to wed Anna “Fanny” Margoulis, a middle-class monster of vanity and self-indulgence who scorned her upstart husband and flaunted numerous lovers. She was, Philipponnat and Lienhardt write, “conceited, vain, pleasure-seeking and spiteful,” and she resented and ignored her impressionable daughter.

At age 2 1⁄2, Némirovsky barely survived a pogrom in Kiev. Leonid’s connections allowed the family to live beyond the Pale, in a splendid residence in St. Petersburg, but the Bolshevik Revolution, which left 300,000 Ukrainian Jews dead in its wake, forced them to flee to Finland and then to Sweden. In 1919, they settled in France, where they had been vacationing regularly, and which Némirovsky, tutored in French from an early age, deemed “the most beautiful country in the world. La Belle France, though, never quite reciprocated her affection, refusing repeated applications for citizenship and eventually packing Némirovsky off to slaughter.

Like Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Nathalie Sarraute and Andreï Makine, she was a gifted translingual writer, excelling in her adopted French. But in an atmosphere of toxic anti-Semitism, contributions to French culture were unable to neutralize Némirovsky’s Jewish origins. She grew up in an assimilationist household that celebrated Christmas and Easter, and with a mother who eschewed the sound of Yiddish and the smell of Jewish foods. When she converted to Catholicism, in 1939, it was, her biographers suggest, less out of Christian piety than out of a desire to secure the safety of her two daughters. They survived, but friendships with Catholic clergy and with influential fascists did not spare Némirovsky or her banker husband, Michel Epstein, from the fate reserved for Europe’s Jews.

The principal characters in “David Golder” (1929), the novel that established her reputation, are Jews, repulsive variations on racist stereotypes. Charged with being a self-hating Jew, Némirovsky responded, “I simply drew a portrait of papa and mama.” The biographers ask, “Had ‘David Golder’ been written in 2009 by Bernard Madoff’s daughter, who would dream of accusing her of anti-Semitic views?” (Since the French edition dates from 2007, pre-Madoff, the sentence must have been inserted in Euan Cameron’s translation). The grownup author wreaked her revenge for a miserable childhood by making the character of Mama abhorrent in “The Wine of Solitude” (1935) and other fictions.

When Leonid died, and Fanny denied her access to the family fortune, Némirovsky published prodigiously in order to maintain her affluent tastes. Though her stories appeared beside vicious anti-Semitic pieces in xenophobic magazines, Philipponnat and Lienhardt argue that “Irène Némirovsky was a writer, not a polemicist.” They present her as a serious artist whose theme is moral decline. That decline is nowhere more apparent than in the tribulations of her brief, productive life.

Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2005) and “The Translingual Imagination” (University of Nebraska Press, 2000).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.