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 Irne’s first language, as France was the country of her dreams. As their wealth grew, the family moved to St. Petersburg when Irne 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.Continue reading →