The Ukrainian-born French writer Irène Némirovsky
[Editor’s note: Irene Nemirovsky joins Aharon Appelfeld and Amos Oz as a writer with deep ties to Ukraine, but who is still largely unknown by the country’s citizens. 24 February 2019 marks the 116th anniversary of Nemirovska’s birth. We reprint an article from 2013 that appeared on Istorychna Pravda marking the 110th anniversary of the birth of this extraordinary writer.]
She was born 110 years ago in Kyiv, only to die in Auschwitz. She wrote a novel that was discovered sixty years after her death. It became a bestseller in France and has been translated into several dozen languages.
In 2005 international literary circles were stunned by the choice of winner of one of the most prestigious literary prizes in France, the Prix Théophraste-Renaudot. For the first time in nearly eighty years the prize was awarded posthumously.
Irène Némirovsky’s novel Suite Française, which was published sixty-two years after the author’s tragic demise, shocked some readers, leading them to reject it; others were compelled to talk about the “forgotten genius” of French literature.
Irène Némirovsky was born 110 years ago on 24 (11, according to the “old” Julian Calendar) February 1903 into a Jewish family in Kyiv.
Her father, Leonid (Aryeh) Nemirovsky was a wealthy bank official, who was born in Yelysavethrad. His family came from Nemyriv in the Podillia region, where a large Jewish community had existed since the time of the Rzeczpospolita [the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth].
Her mother, who insisted that she be called Fanny, in the French style, hated her daughter because she was living proof of her age, and she sought to keep the girl at a distance. Her relationship with her mother became a key subject in the works of the future writer.
Fanny also demanded that her daughter speak with her in French, and she was helped in this by a governess from France. Over the years, this helped Irène to make a seamless entry not only into life in Paris but also the literary world.
When the anti-Jewish pogroms and revolutionary events began, Irène and her parents moved to St. Petersburg in 1914, and in 1917 to Moscow, farther away from the political turbulence in the capital. However, after the Bolsheviks came to power, they were forced to flee to the West: in December 1918 to Finland, then Sweden and France, where they arrived in the summer of 1919.
In Paris, Irène’s father managed to regain his fortune (he was the head of the local branch of his bank), and the family resumed its wealthy bourgeois life. The young Irène adored dancing and the worldly life of dinner parties and balls, champagne, and resorts. She spent her time burning the candle at both ends in the finest traditions of Paris in the 1920s.
Nevertheless, she managed to find the time for literary activities. Irène began writing short stories and tales, as well as larger works, that were published in magazines.
In 1929 the editor Bernard Grasset received the manuscript of David Golder by post. After reading it, he was eager to publish the work. However, Irène, fearing failure, had not provided either her name or return address. In order to locate the author, an announcement had to be placed in various newspapers.
A sophisticated young lady (Irène was twenty-six years old at the time) replied, and for a long time the editor could not believe that she was the author of such a “mature,” strong, and substantial work. He was certain that Irène was a figurehead and that the real author, a famous and respected writer, had decided to remain in the shadows. But after several conversations his doubts were dispelled.
David Golder gained popularity, as did Irène Nemirovsky. In 1931 the work was filmed by the future classic figure of French cinematography Julien Duvivier. It is the story of an elderly, ailing, wealthy man despised by his wife, who lives openly with her lover. Along with his wife, his daughter sees him only as a source of cash flow.
That same year the French and German versions of Le Bal, based on Irène’s eponymous novel and directed by Wilhelm Thiele, came out. The work is a reflection of Irène’s relationship with her mother and their mutual hatred, which is expressed in a search for each other’s humiliating failures.
The young heroine of Le Bal takes revenge against her mother in a wise and adult way, and cruelly and cold-bloodedly in a childish way.
These and most of the subsequent works take place in a Jewish milieu, among émigrés from Odesa, Kyiv, and other Ukrainian as well as Russian cities. The heroes are often endowed with negative traits and characters.
This depiction of Jews fit well into the context of the rise of fascist sentiments. However, in Nemirovsky’s work, her critique of her own people has a somewhat different character—it is a “paternal” one, similar to Gogol’s in Dead Souls.
In 1926 Irène married Michel Epstein, himself a refugee from the Bolshevized Russian Republic and the son of a banker (not just a banker but the head of the Syndicate of Imperial Banks). They had two daughters, Denise and Élisabeth, born in 1929 and 1937, respectively.
Despite her literary recognition, Nemirovsky and her husband were denied French citizenship. With the rise of the fascist fever, on 2 February 1939 Irène converted to Catholicism and was baptized together with her two daughters.
With the outbreak of the Second World War and the invasion of France by German troops, Irène and her husband took their children to a rural locale in Burgundy and returned to Paris. But Michel, as a Jew and a foreigner, did not have the right work in a bank. In her turn, Irène was forbidden to publish her works, as all publishing houses were forced to monitor closely the Aryan background of their authors.
Irène and Michel returned to their daughters in the town of Issy-l’EvêqueІ, where they witnessed France’s sad complicity, and awaited their fate. They were the only ones in the entire town who wore gold stars.
In Burgundy, Nemirovsky wrote a biographical study, La Vie de Tchekhov [The Life of Chekhov], and a literary work entitled The Fires of Autumn, which would be published only after the end of the war, and began working on Suite Française, a work portraying her entire life, and if you include the circumstances, of her death as well.
Five parts were planned for the novel, but there was little time. Irène was calmly aware of the inevitability of the situation that had emerged. She managed to write two parts: “Storm in June,” about the flight of the population from Paris, and “Dolce,” about life under German occupation.
Irène wrote to her publisher: “Dear friend… I have written a lot. I think that these will be posthumous publications, but for this, time should pass.” She provided clear-cut instructions about who is to support her daughters and with what funds, in the event that they lose their parents.
On 3 July 1942 French gendarmes came for Nemirovsky. On the 16th she was brought to the Pithiviers transit camp, and six days later she was transported by echelon no. 6 to Auschwitz. There she fell ill with typhus, stayed in the camp hospital, where she finally received a death summons to Birkenau (linked to Auschwitz, it was a death camp equipped with a gas chamber).
On 17 August 1942, during the first days of the Battle of Stalingrad, Irène Némirovsky, a native of Kyiv, joined the list of those who perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Irène’s family did not know anything about her fate. Michel tried to learn where his wife was being held and about her state of health. He wrote a letter to the collaborationist Vichy government asking to switch places with Irène in the labor camp. He reminded the government that his and Irène’s family “do not have any sympathies either to Judaism or to Bolshevism,” and that it has always stood “apart from political groupings.”
But neither this request nor the intercession of people who remained their friends, despite the situation in France, produced any results. Michel was also arrested. On 6 November 1942 he arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau and was brought that very day to the gas chamber where, three months earlier, his beloved wife ended her life.
Gendarmes came for Nemirovsky’s daughters, but together with their nanny they fled across France, hiding at first in a monastery, then in some cellars not far from Bordeaux. Month after month they lugged a suitcase filled with family photographs and documents, including the manuscript of Suite Française.
It took several decades for Denise [Nemirovsky’s daughter visited Ukraine and even gave an interview to UP.Zhyttia] to pluck up her courage and read her mother’s last notes. She had thought they were diary entries, but inside the book jacket there turned out to be a “monumental cast” of time and people.
The “heroes” of this work were not Jews but French people, whose worst traits were revealed under extreme circumstances. In the first section, Parisians are grabbing their most valuable possessions and rushing down the narrow roads of the suburbs, where they have nothing to do with the misfortunes of others. They are prepared to do anything to save themselves as quickly as possible.
In her book Irène explained the main reason why she wrote it:
The people around him, his family, his friends, aroused a feeling of shame and rage within him. He had seen them on the road, them and people like them: he recalled the cars full of officers running away with their beautiful yellow trunks and their painted women, civil servants abandoning their posts, panic-stricken politicians dropping files of secret papers along the road, young girls, who had diligently wept the day the armistice was signed, being comforted in the arms of the Germans. “And to think that no one will know, that there will be such a conspiracy of lies that all this will be transformed into yet another glorious page in the history of France. We’ll do everything we can to find acts of devotion and heroism for the official records. Good God! To see what I’ve seen! Closed doors where you knock in vain to get a glass of water and refugees who pillaged houses; everywhere, everywhere you look, chaos, cowardice, vanity and ignorance! What a wonderful race we are!”
Suite Française was first published in 2004. After a sixty-year pause the novel hit a social nerve and achieved great popularity. The novel has been translated into 38 languages, including Ukrainian. The Russian version is also available online.
The work is about to be filmed in Hollywood by Saul Dibb, who directed The Duchess, starring Keira Knightly. Playing the lead female role will be three-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams.
Irène’s daughter, Denise, in an interview with the BBC, said, “The fact that Suite Française is being read is as though my mother is returning to life. The Nazis were unable to kill her. This is not revenge but victory.”
Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
Istorychna Pravda’s ‘Shalom!’ media project, which explores the Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue, is made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.