An Unfinished Writer

The Life of Irene Némirovsky, 1903-1942

By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt

Translated from the French by Euan Cameron

Alfred A. Knopf

New York, 2010, pp. 448

Published in Moment Magazine (Nov.-Dec 2010) 

Is it possible that one of the most talented Jewish writers of the twentieth century, a victim of the Holocaust no less, was also an anti-Semite? Could it be that such a writer was somehow in league with the forces that would single her out and eventually kill her, that she would share their demeaning images of Jews and lean on their personal support, even as her livelihood, her freedom, her very life hung in the balance? Critics have argued that this was precisely the case with Irene Némirovsky, whose background was Russian and Jewish but who published prolifically in France between the wars before being deported to Auschwitz in 1942.

Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903. Her mother, the vain and selfish Anna, was from an affluent, cultivated Jewish family. Her father Leonid’s background was humble, but he made his fortune as an industrialist, an international deal-maker, and finally a banker. This fortune was large enough to support his wife’s appetite for luxury, including jewelry and furs, a French nanny for Irene, and annual visits to fashionable French watering holes like Nice and Biarritz. French became Irne’s first language, as France was the country of her dreams. As their wealth grew, the family moved to St. Petersburg when Irne was ten, then fled the country during the Russian revolution, first to Finland, then to Sweden and France when life in Russia became impossible for bankers.

In the Paris of the 1920s, Irene lived the high times of a flapper before settling down to study literature. She married another Russian Jew, Michel Epstein, a banker’s son, in 1926, and took up writing, for which she showed an early, fluent gift. Her first published works were satirical sketches but she also worked for four years on a serious novel, David Golder, that channeled a nightmare version of her family triangle. Set in the wealthy émigré world of Biarritz and Paris, it centered on a narcissistic, promiscuous mother; a father, the title character, who lives to make money; and their grasping daughter, the apple of her father’s eye, who turns out to be the daughter of one of her mother’s lovers. Though Golder eventually discovers this, he works himself to death to insure the girl an inheritance. Focusing on the mother’s vanity, the father’s materialism, and the daughter’s ingratitude, David Golder could serve as a melodrama for the Yiddish stage, yet its Dostoevskyan intensity makes it difficult to put down. When it came out in 1929 it made Némirovsky famous. The book was translated into several languages, adapted as a play, and turned into a successful film.

Némirovsky’s fame, if not her large sales, continued through the decade, but a shadow fell over her work. Some took note that the novel’s hook-nosed, money-grubbing characters, etched in the author’s disgust, read like anti-Semitic stereotypes. Others welcomed the book for the same reason. France between the wars, though it gave grudging shelter to poor and rich refugees from Eastern Europe, was also a hotbed of anti-Semitism, especially after the exposure and suicide of a con man named Stavisky – the Madoff of his day – in 1934. Even before this affair brought down the government, right-wing nationalists felt their country was being overrun by aliens, and they filled the pages of their newspapers and magazines with invective against Jews, especially the kinds of “foreign” Jews, poor and unassimilated, who populated the Marais quarter of Paris. The same journals and publishers were bringing out Némirovsky’s work; the same reactionary editors and writers became her closest literary friends. It seemed as though a talented Jew, an “exceptional” Jew, was confirming their worst prejudices against her own people.

Némirovsky’s own defense was that her work was personal, not political. Jews were her material, and “this was how I saw them.” Besides, she asked disingenuously, “why would a people refuse to be seen as they are, with their good qualities and faults?” The same hollow arguments ring even less true in the hands of her biographers, Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, whose diligent but often tone-deaf work, awkwardly translated by Euan Cameron, is marred by special pleading on this issue. As Hitler came to power, with Jews as his designated victims, these chroniclers insist that she could not let this affect her work: “She was not going to fall into the trap of commiseration.” On “her own indifference to her Jewish roots,” which led to her conversion to Catholicism in 1939, they approvingly cite Virginia Woolf’s “freedom from unreal loyalties,” such as tribe, nation, or religion. Yet Némirovsky remained unswervingly loyal to France even as it isolated and abandoned her, rejecting her bid for citizenship well before the war. 

 Thanks to their assiduous research, Némirovsky’s biographers supply helpful contexts for understanding her work: her Russian and family background, her copious working notes for each book, the reactions of contemporaries to her work, and the shifting political tides that finally swamped her life. But they offer little literary sense of her books except to troll them for biographical detail. Their own writing too often aims for the lyrical and rhetorical, in a barely translatable French style, when it should be novelistic and direct. Above all they have a faulty sense of Jewish issues, as when they describe the three classic Yiddish writers as “Sforim, Peretz, and Aleichem,” as if these were their last names, or explain that “in receiving unction, Irène Némirovsky was displaying a Jewish awareness. For nothing was preventing her, after all, from remaining irreligious.” Elsewhere they describe her Jewish stereotypes as her way of exposing such stereotypes.

Némirovsky’s only loyalty to Jews was as subjects. They were, she insisted, her “guinea pigs,” the people whose lives she knew. Except for her devoted nanny, who eventually took her own life, her childhood was cold and she felt deprived of affection She quotes Oscar Wilde: “Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” In book after book she returns to the monstrous, self-absorbed mother, the distracted father, wheeling and dealing, and the bright, castaway daughter, starved for affection. She is obsessed by the “child who has not been loved, and who, later, never has enough love,” and she writes with feeling about “the little girl who loathes her mother.” The paradox of Némirovsky’s work is that she hated the rich Jews who surrounded her as she grew up and took her revenge on them in her fiction, yet she shared their prejudice against the poor Jews with whom they hated to be identified.

Her reliance on personal history comes to end with the war, and especially the German occupation that began in 1940. As Némirovsky discovers that neither her conversion, her literary fame, nor her right-wing friends can protect her family, she turns into a different kind of writer. Still too trusting, too fatalistic to flee occupied France, she takes refuge in a village in Burgundy and conceives a vast historical novel, modeled on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, that would convey the intimate experience of the French defeat, the desperate and chaotic exodus from Paris, and the occupation itself, as observed within a town very much like the one where she was living. Working anxiously under ominous conditions, cut off from her income and suspecting that this would be a posthumous work, she managed to complete two of the five novellas that would have composed her Suite Française. But she was arrested by French police on July 13, 1942 and, within two days, shipped to Auschwitz, where she died, probably of typhus, a month later. Discovered by her daughter among her papers and published more than sixty years later, the book brought her far greater fame than David Golder, yet it also revived the old controversies about her work and her unsavory political associations.

In this last work Jews are hardly mentioned; instead it’s ordinary French and Germans, strange, suspicious bedfellows, who intrigue her. Némirovsky is writing history as it unfolds, rooted not in her own family but in the rural French society around her, with its ingrained folkways, class conflicts, and thwarted youthful passions. She had always been a gifted storyteller, poised between a cool irony that undercuts her characters’ self-deceptions and a detached empathy for their dreams and disappointments. Yet in some ways it is her story, for it depicts individual lives nearly helpless in the grip of large historical forces. In revealing passages she shows what it is like to live in the lion’s mouth, simply from day to day, “constantly in fear of death,” and described the urge to write stories, as if “something inside . . . was knocking on an invisible door.” In this remarkable work, addressed to posterity, a writer who had long traded in vivid caricatures, founded on personal grievance, taps into a clear spring of humanity that would not have embarrassed Tolstoy or Chekhov.