In 2004, the Prix Renaudot, a major French literary award, went for the first time to a posthumous work, Suite Française. The author, Irène Némirovsky, had died at Auschwitz. Not only was she dead, she was virtually forgotten, but as a result of the prize the book’s popularity, both in France and around the world, repeated the success enjoyed by Némirovsky’s first novel, David Golder, published in 1929. It is a rare thing in literary history for the same writer to rise not once but twice from obscurity to universal renown, especially after an interlude of seventy years. But if Némirovsky’s career is a surprising one, her life—cut short so tragically—is every bit as much so.
Just who was Némirovsky? The daughter of a Jewish banker, she was born in Kiev in 1903, a city whose Jewish quarter was regularly ravaged by violent pogroms she was never to forget. The family left Ukraine for Saint Petersburg in 1914. Three years later, still very young, she witnessed the first riots and executions of the Russian Revolution. Her father decided it was time to get his family to safety and, in 1917, piled into a sleigh, they escaped to Finland, where civil war was raging, and from there to Sweden, finally reaching Paris in 1919.
Irène, who had been brought up by a French governess, found herself entirely at home in Paris and studied literature at the Sorbonne. She was carefree and lighthearted and loved to dance, but she was also eager to get out from under her mother’s authority and so, in 1926, she decided to marry Michel Epstein, “a small, brown-haired man” whom she found “attractive,”1 and who, like her father, was a Jewish banker. Up to this point, there was no reason to think that an exceptional fate awaited her. Within her, however, she carried an explosive book, ready to emerge.
In 1929, she sent a manuscript to the publisher Bernard Grasset. Captivated by her fierce, vigorous style and stunned by the implacably drawn portraits of her characters—a Jewish businessman in thrall to his wife’s greed and tormented by his daughter’s selfishness—Grasset wasted no time publishing the book. From one day to the next, Némirovsky became famous.
From the publication of David Golder to the defeat of France in 1940, she published ten novels and many short stories. All of them sold well. But once again catastrophe befell her; inexplicably, she and her husband attempted neither to flee nor to go into hiding with their children as the noose tightened around them. They were arrested in 1942 and they both died at Auschwitz. Their two daughters survived.
Susan Suleiman, a professor of French literature at Harvard, first became interested in Némirovsky’s work in 1992 after reading a biography written by Némirovsky’s younger daughter, but she was put off by the prose style and the subject of David Golder. All the same, when Suite Française was published, Suleiman, who took a special interest in Vichy France, could hardly remain indifferent to this stunning eyewitness account of France between 1940 and 1942: “I…felt deeply moved by it, not only because of the author’s tragic backstory…but also because of the message-in-a-bottle quality of the work itself.”2
Captivated by the author’s inspiring vision, intrigued by the long-belated publication of the book, and above all fascinated by the violence of the reactions triggered by her writings, both in the past and in the present, Suleiman set to work on her absorbing study. Stimulated by her deep and subtle understanding of the French cultural landscape between the world wars and as stubbornly determined as a detective, she applied herself, through a close reading of Némirovsky’s work, to examining the experience of this Jewish novelist, Russian-born but French-speaking, on the eve of World War II. She worked relentlessly to disentangle the contradictory, often revised memories that blurred the details of this drama.
Némirovsky was an atypical case, if not an absolutely unique one. She was a “foreign Jew from the East” but was not part of the flood of poor, Yiddish-speaking, much more religious Jews who fled pogroms in Russia starting in the 1880s, “since she was wealthy, well educated, and politically conservative.” Not only had she spoken French from her earliest childhood but this polyglot never wrote in any language but French. This however didn’t make her a Frenchwoman, either in French nationality, which she never managed to obtain despite repeated applications, or by the nature of her family life, since the family she had married into was also one of very recent immigrants, and least of all in the subjects of her books, which were resolutely focused on what mattered to her most: the Jew.3
One of the constant subjects of most of Némirovsky’s novels is the Eastern European Jew, triumphant in business but too bruised by the humble nature of his birth not to fear he’ll one day fall back into the misery of the ghetto. Hence both his unmistakable revulsion for the “little Jew” and the impossibility of breaking free of a past that sticks like a second skin. Beginning with her first novel, this theme is securely in place. David Golder has made his fortune; he is powerful and inflexible, he manages deals from New York to Moscow, but he bears on his very body the marks of his beginnings as a peddler, and whenever he goes out for a walk on the grounds of his handsome villa in Biarritz,
wearing an old greatcoat, a woolen scarf around his neck, and a worn-out black hat, he looked strangely like some Jewish second-hand clothes merchant from a village in the Ukraine. As he walked, he would sometimes raise one shoulder, in a weary mechanical movement, as if he were hoisting a heavy bundle of clothing or scrap iron on to his back.
And when even a Jew assimilated into the better sort of society, such as Christian Rabinovitch, the main character of Brotherhood (Fraternité), a 1937 novella, finds himself confronted with a miserable Jewish immigrant, he is plunged into a state of anguish, exclaiming:
“Wretched creature! Was it possible that he himself was of the same blood as that man?” And all the while, “he was swaying forward and backward…his body found itself repeating the rocking movement that had soothed earlier generations of rabbis bent over the holy book, money changers over their gold coins, and tailors over their workbenches….”4
In The Dogs and the Wolves (Les Chiens et les Loups), a novel published in 1940, a Jew just emerged from a miserable childhood confronts the pampered son of a prominent banker:
You…who despise us, who refuse to have anything in common with the Jewish scum. Wait a bit! Just wait!… You’ll be dragged back into it, you who got out, you who thought you escaped.5
Between the two world wars, the general public was above all attuned to the energy of Némirovsky’s prose, as well as a certain brutality in the choice and treatment of subjects that were unexpected in books written by a woman. When asked about this, she explained:
Young Frenchwomen have not usually had the human experiences that circumstances…have allowed me to acquire: the world of Jewish high finance with all the dramas, the bankruptcies and the catastrophes that occur daily, the journeys, revolution…. Now that I think of it, it is not surprising that I should have been left throughout my life with this fear, this feeling of insecurity and threat.6
Most critics were quite positive and largely overlooked the purely Jewish aspects of her work. There was something of Balzac’s Père Goriot in David Golder dying alone after devoting all his strength to rebuilding his fortune for an adored but ungrateful daughter; the critic for The New York Times, writing in November 1930, went so far as to compare Golder to King Lear—in Suleiman’s words, “because of his solitary death and his attachment to his daughter.”
The reaction of Jewish readers was much more mixed: Wasn’t depicting such a vile Jewish setting itself tantamount to anti-Semitism? Némirovsky defended herself with spirit when a journalist for the magazine L’Univers Israélite asked her about that: first of all, she pointed out the absurdity of making such an accusation against a Jewish woman, married to a Jewish man; and after all, not all of her Jewish characters were unsympathetic, and the non-Jews were hardly any better. Most of all, though, she knew the Jews and she portrayed them as she saw them.7
In another interview she took as further justification the example of François Mauriac, a bourgeois Catholic novelist whose pen was dipped in vitriol when he described his own background. She might just as reasonably have cited Proust’s or Joseph Roth’s portrayal of Jews. In conclusion, she pointed out that her writing focused only on a certain type of Jew, the “rich, cosmopolitan” Jews for whom “the love of money has taken the place of all other feelings” and has “gradually destroyed all love of traditions and of the family.”8
But Némirovsky lived in a world that was becoming more and more dangerous for Jews, to the point that she admitted after 1933, “It is absolutely certain that had there been Hitler, I would have greatly softened David Golder, and I would not have written it in the same way.” However, she added:
And yet I would have been wrong, it would have been a weakness unworthy of a real writer!… It seems to me that, on the contrary, and it’s something I’m proud of, I’ve depicted genuinely racial virtues: courage, tenacity, pride…in a word, “guts.”
And perhaps it was precisely that quality that would lead to her undoing.
From 1934 on, she seemed to have a vision of the future that was as dark as it was accurate: in a review of a play by Ferdinand Brückner, she pointed out the details concerning the persecution of the Jews in Germany, which
may appear…strange and even improbable to French readers, and, in fact, the first thing to go through your mind is that these people have all gone mad. But alas, this madness is real and contagious…. There never was a more important time to say: “Let those who have ears listen!”9
Three years later, in Brotherhood, she created a Jewish character whose apprehension of disaster was not unlike hers: “He was one of those people who, after every speech given by this or that politician or dictator, would visualize war not in the next year or the following year, but tomorrow, immediately.” The Dogs and the Wolves ends with the expulsion from France of a young Jewish woman who is unable to obtain the necessary permits to stay. And yet Némirovsky refused to leave France, ignoring the advice urging her to leave from Alfred Adler, the celebrated psychiatrist who had family ties to the Epsteins and had taken refuge in the United States.
When war was declared, she sent her two daughters to live in Issy-l’Évêque in central France. She joined them there in May, and Michel in June, after the fall of France. The first anti-Jewish decrees were issued in July. Foreign-born Jews were especially at risk. In a futile effort to distinguish herself from “undesirables,” Némirovsky wrote to Marshal Pétain requesting that she be placed in the category of “respectable foreigners…allowed to live freely in France.” Even though the letter to Pétain went unanswered, she made no attempt to seek safety in Switzerland or even in unoccupied France, the zone libre, which was quite close. She needed money, and even though Jews were forbidden to publish, ironically she managed to place eight short stories in Gringoire, a violently anti-Semitic newspaper, thanks to her friendship with the editor, Horace de Carbuccia. The stories appeared under a pseudonym and ran from December 1940 to February 1942.10
In the meantime, the anti-Jewish decrees grew increasingly punitive. At this point she took a precautionary step: she persuaded Julie Dumot, her father’s former secretary, to come stay with them and to take charge of her daughters if she and her husband were to be taken away. She was plucky but she was laboring under no illusions. Two days before her arrest, she wrote her friend André Sabatier: “I’ve written a great deal lately…I suppose they will be posthumous books, but it still makes the time go by.” She was arrested on July 13, 1942, and deported to Auschwitz on the 17th. Her husband was seized three months later. Julie Dumot thereupon left Issy-l’Évêque in great haste, taking the children with her.
That might have been the end of the story, but Irène’s writing was to survive thanks to her daughters and her posthumously published novel. Suleiman has much to say about what happened after Némirovsky’s death. The two daughters led very different lives. The elder, Denise, was twelve when her parents were arrested. She never had the time to pursue her studies after the war. For many years she subsisted “doing odd jobs.” In her own words, she was “down and out and drifting.”
Her sister, Élisabeth, was just five in 1942, and she had, Suleiman writes, “no real memories of her parents or of her mother’s arrest.” She was raised by friends of her parents and
felt less burdened by the past [than her sister], at least on the surface…for a long time she refused to think about the past, in part because she had seen her older sister, who had been incapable of “creating a wall,” “go under” several times as a result.11
After studying at the Sorbonne, Élisabeth had a twofold career as a translator and a publisher. I knew her in the 1970s, when we were colleagues, and we remained friends until her death. She admired her mother’s novels, their cadence, their daring, but that didn’t keep her from asking questions that were as pressing as they were painful. She explored them in a 1992 interview:
It would have been easy for her to have saved herself, but she didn’t even try, and by staying she put me and my sister in danger. We were also picked up and, logically, we should have been sent to Auschwitz just like our parents. She was criminally blind…. She lived a life of privilege,…and she didn’t understand what was going on all around her.12
These questions led Élisabeth to the project of writing an imaginary autobiography of her mother, which she titled The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irène Némirovsky by Her Daughter, first published in French in 1992.
But it would be another twelve years before Suite Française was finally published. An enduring legend has built up around that publication, according to which the daughters never let the hefty manuscript out of their possession, during all the years when they were hurried from one hiding place to another. Even more implausibly, it was claimed that they had never read the manuscript until the 1980s.
The reality, while every bit as interesting, is not without its mysteries. It seems that, before fleeing with the girls, Julie Dumot, quite sensibly, entrusted the manuscript to a notary in Issy-l’Évêque. She is then reported to have retrieved the manuscript after the war but, inexplicably, to have decided not to return it to the girls. It was only upon her death, in 1957, that the manuscript was delivered to Denise. Catherine Descargues, a journalist who had written a long article about Némirovsky in a Swiss newspaper that same year, assumed Denise could not publish it because the novel was unfinished.
Moreover, as Suleiman observes, at that time the French nouveau roman was just becoming popular and French readers showed little appetite for novels about World War II unless they recounted the exploits of the French Resistance. Apart from Elie Wiesel’s memoir La Nuit, one exception was André Schwarz-Bart’s novel Le Dernier des Justes (The Last of the Just), which won the Prix Goncourt in 1959, but it stirred such intense controversy, mainly based on his interpretation of biblical texts, that the author left France and moved to Guadeloupe. Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were still unknown to the general public.
Publication began to seem possible again twenty years later, just as Élisabeth was beginning to consider writing about her mother. Given her experience in the publishing world, Élisabeth’s opinion carried more weight than her older sister’s, and it would seem that it was she who was opposed to it. I believe she was discouraged by the text itself. Suite Française contained two out of the five sections planned by Némirovsky. The first, “Storm in June” (Tempête en juin), is a pitiless tableau of the fear, cowardice, and greed of the horde of French fleeing before the advancing Germans. It is one of the very few texts dealing with that fraught subject that were written in the heat of the aftermath of the exodus of 1940. The second section, “Dolce,” transports the reader to a village where the story focuses on the attitudes of the inhabitants toward their conquerors, and in particular on the almost tender relations between a German officer and the wife of a prisoner of war, in whose home the officer is billeted.
That a young Jewish woman, threatened with the most atrocious fate, should have even imagined this love story, while making not even the slightest passing reference to the situation of the Jews and drawing such a harsh portrait of the French bourgeoisie, was at once strange and provocative. Who wouldn’t have feared that this text would fatally damage Irène’s reputation? But Élisabeth died young, in 1996, and eight years later Denise made up her mind to publish Suite Française.
Irène Némirovsky’s death at Auschwitz would have made indecent any renewal of political criticism of her treatment of Jews, and the saga of her two young daughters fleeing the German and French police while clinging tight to their mother’s manuscript stirred both the imagination and the sympathy of the public. But what overwhelmed readers the most was the immediacy of the text itself. “I work upon burning lava,” writes Némirovsky, and she transformed that lava, pitilessly but not without a certain compassion, into a novel. Thus French reaction to the book was one of great warmth. The same could not, however, be said of Great Britain and the United States when Némirovsky’s first novels were republished, in the afterglow of Suite Française’s success.
In the debate that ensued, Suleiman resolutely took Némirovsky’s side against critics such as Ruth Franklin who saw Némirovsky as “the very definition of a self-hating Jew” and reproached her for the “crude anti-Semitic stereotypes” of David Golder13: “One had to be more generous,” says Suleiman, “in reading [her] works. Ultimately, it came down to how to read Némirovsky, both as a person and as a novelist.” Suleiman’s exceptional understanding of both the work and the time led her to echo Primo Levi’s refusal to pass peremptory judgment on people who find themselves in exceptionally difficult situations: “We should beware of the error of judging eras and places according to the prevailing standards of the here and now.”14
—Translated from the French by Antony Shugaar
Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, The Life of Irène Némirovsky, 1903–1942 (Knopf, 2010), p. 112, quoting an undated letter, “Paris, le jeudi,” from Irène Némirovsky to Madeleine Avot. ↩
Susan Rubin Suleiman, The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France (Yale University Press, 2016), p. 8. ↩
Irène Némirovsky, journal entry 1938, quoted by Suleiman, p. 133. ↩
Némirovsky, “Brotherhood,” in Dimanche and Other Stories (Vintage ebooks, 2010), pp. 109–110. ↩
Némirovsky, The Dogs and the Wolves (Chatto and Windus, 2009), p. 152. ↩
F. Lefèvre, “Une révélation. Une heure avec Irène Némirovsky,” les Nouvelles Littéraires, January 11, 1930, quoted by Philipponnat and Lienhardt, The Life of Irène Némirovsky, p. 171. ↩
Nina Gourfinkel, “L’expérience juive d’Irène Némirovsky: Une interview de l’auteur de David Golder,” L’Univers Israélite, February 28, 1930, quoted by Suleiman, p. 140. ↩
Janine Auscher, “Nos interviews: Irène Némirovsky,” L’Univers Israélite, July 5, 1935, quoted by Suleiman, p. 143. ↩
Némirovsky, “Les Races, 8 tableaux de Ferdinand Brückner, adaptation de René Cave,” Aujourd’hui, No. 323, March 10, 1934, quoted by Philipponnat and Lienhardt, The Life of Irène Némirovsky, p. 237. ↩
Her last publisher, Albin Michel, also helped her out, even sending her a monthly fee despite the prohibition against paying royalties to Jewish authors. In 1946 and 1947, he published the texts received between 1940 and 1942, La Vie de Tchekov, Les Biens de Ce Monde, and Les Feux de L’Automne, and continued sending monthly payments to the daughters until they reached adulthood. ↩
Élisabeth Gille, radio interview 1994, quoted by Suleiman, p. 231. ↩
Conversation with René de Ceccatty, published in Élisabeth Gille, The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irène Némirovsky by Her Daughter (NYRB Classics, 2011), p. 236. ↩
Ruth Franklin, “Scandale Française: The Nasty Truth About a New Literary Heroine,” The New Republic, January 30, 2008, quoted by Suleiman, p. 12. ↩
Primo Levi, “The Drowned and the Saved,” The Complete Works of Primo Levi (Liveright Publishing Company, 2016), III, p. 2533. ↩