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Sharon Chisvin


By Sharon Chisvin, June 10, 2010

The story is by now well known. In 1942, as 39-year-old French author Irène Némirovsky was being arrested by the French police to be sent to her certain death in Auschwitz, she entrusted a notebook to her daughter Denise. Fifty years later, Denise finally opened the notebook and discovered in it her mother’s manuscript for Suite Française, a novel that explores French life under German occupation - the very life Némirovsky was living as she wrote its pages.  Finally published in 2004, Suite Française became an instant international bestseller, with readers as enamored by the story of its discovery as by the fiction itself. 

Suite Française actually contains two novellas. Storm in June follows a group of Parisians as they flee the capital with the Nazis in pursuit, while Dolce examines life in a small French town, where compromise and conspiracy hang heavy in the air. These stories, like almost every other novel and short story that Némirovsky wrote, were based on what she experienced, what she observed, and who she knew.

Now, many of these personal experiences and encounters have been compiled into The Life of Irène Némirovsky, a fascinating biography by French writers Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt. By reading everything that Némirovsky wrote, including her journals and correspondence, conducting dozens of interviews and carefully combing archival materials, the biographers have managed to paint a vivid and extraordinarily detailed picture of the young author’s too brief life.

Translated from the French and published by Alfred A. Knopf, this biography examines Némirovsky’s early years growing up in Kiev, her strained relationship with her mother, her ambivalent affection for her father, and the literary success that came with the publication of her first novel, David Golder. The book looks at the indignities she alternately suffered for being an only child, a Jew, a woman, a Russian, an immigrant, an asthmatic and an artist, and it explores the ways in which loneliness, wars, revolution, romance and religion impacted her life. Most critically, it scrutinizes her unsuccessful attempts to distance herself from her Jewish identity and Jewish fate.

In 1939 Némirovsky, then living in Paris with her husband Michel Epstein and their two daughters, converted to Roman Catholicism. Within a year though, she felt the need to move her family to a small village in Burgundy where she hoped to fall under the Jewish radar of the Gestapo and French police. She was not so lucky. The day she was arrested, her biographers write, “…she ceased to be a novelist, a mother, a wife, a Russian, a Frenchwoman: she was just a Jew.”  

At that point none of Némirovsky’s accomplishments or connections mattered. Epstein tried in vain to seek her release, but within weeks he too was sent to Auschwitz where he perished in the gas chambers. Their daughters, however, survived in hiding and with them the manuscript for Suite Française.
“It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life,” Denise said in a BBC interview shortly after the book’s publication. “It. shows that the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her. It is not vengeance, but it is a victory."

This biography is also a victory - for the way in which it details a life well lived, a life cut short and a life’s work that continues to be read, reviewed and remembered.

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