THE LIFE OF IRENE NEMIROVSKY by Olivier Philipponat and Patrick Leonhardt.

by John Boland

Prior to his arrest by the French authorities in 1942 and his subsequent murder by the Nazis, Michael Epstein left a piece of luggage with his two small daughters. “Never part from this suitcase,” he told them, “it contains your mother’s manuscript.” Their mother had already been deported to Auschwitz, where she died within a few weeks.

The manuscript in question was an unfinished novel which more than sixty years later the eldest daughter, Denise, finally got round to reading before sending it to a publisher. Entitled Suite Francaise and detailing life under Nazi occupation, it became a bestseller on its publication in France in 2004 and went on to become an international phenomenon in translation.

That’s a remarkable story in itself, but no more so than Irene Nemirovsky’s entire life. Born into privilege in the Ukraine in 1903 and spending many of her childhood summers in fashionable Mediterranean resorts, she and her parents had to flee anti-Jewish pogroms in St Petersburg before finally settling in Paris in 1919.

In that city her father easily resumed his financial career, while her mother, an unloving and selfish monster, entertained lovers and brutally neglected her daughter, of whose youth she was pathologically jealous. Irene for her part felt exhilarated to be living in France – “the most beautiful country in the world,” as she saw this embodiment of liberty, equality and fraternity.

This naïve trust in her adopted country was ultimately, and fatally, to be proved wrong, though in the intervening years she became a celebrity. Her first novel, David Golder (1929), though criticised by some as anti-semitic in its portrait of a lonely, wealth-obsessed Jewish financier, met with general acclaim (Cocteau described a subsequent novel, Le Bal, as a “masterpiece”) and for many years she was feted in Parisian literary, social and political circles.

Such renown, though, didn’t save her when the Nazis invaded, even though she and her husband had spent years trying to secure French citizenship (her personal pleas to Petain fell on deaf ears) and had even gone so far as to renounce their religion and convert to Catholicism. Belated flight to the rural retreat of Issy-L’Eveque in Burgundy only delayed the inevitable.

Jonathan Weiss has already written an account of Nemirovsky’s life and works for Stanford University Press, but this new biography, translated by Euan Cameron, easily supplants it in length, range and the amount of detail uncovered by its French authors, though its arrangement of the narrative is fussy and its stylistic intrusions and flourishes are occasionally irritating.

Fortunately, the story it has to tell is biographer-proof, while the recent translations of such novels as Fire in the Blood, All Our Worldly Goods and The Dogs and the Wolves prove that Suite Francaise wasn’t a one-book wonder. Quite simply, Nemirovsky is now revealed as one of the finest novelists of an age that didn’t deserve either her hard-won insights or her compassion for humanity.

Previous post:

Next post: