Suite Francaise was my entry into the wonderful novels and short stories of Iréne Nemirovsky (1903 to 1942). I have now read eight of her novels and ten of her short stories. She wrote fifteen novels and over thirty short stories. I love her work. Eventually I hope to read her full oevere at least once. I wanted to know more about her life than I could learn from brief online articles and The Life of Iréne Nemirovsky by Oliver Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt served me quite well.
She was born in Kiev, Russia in 1903. Her father was of peasant stock and rose to serious wealth by trading on a large scale. He was a financial advisor to the Czar. He fled Russia for Finland with his daughter Iréne and wife Fanny in 1917 when the post-Czarist government issued a warrant for his arrest. After a year the family moved to Paris where Iréne would live until turned in by French gendarmes as a Jew. She applied and was turned down for French citizenship. The father had transported significant wealth and once again established an affluent life for his family. She was transported to Auschwitz where she died in 1942. Her husband Michael Epstein tried frantically to get her released. He ended up also dying in Auschwitz. Their two children were kept in a convent until the war ended. The dominant psychological force in her life was the mutual hatred of Iréne and her mother.
I like to read literary biographies, not because I generally read literature in search of biographical clues but because i like to ponder the well streams of creativity. Literary biographies present a great challenge. Do you focus more on the life or the work? Do you relate every incident in their life to something in their works, is their old nanny and school chums searched for in their works or do you focus on the day to day year to year activity of the subjects life? The best biographies find a way between these two extremes, helping us to understand why the author wrote what the did while letting us feel we know them. Thd Life of Iréne Nemirovsky leans slightly toward being a work of literary exigis.
The section of the book devoted to the Russian years of Nemirovsky was fascinating, I learned a lot about late Czarist upper class life including who the financial advisor of Rasputin was! There is much cultural data in the opening sections that provided me with a wonderful learning experience. The Nemirovskys were Jews and there were ugly currents of anti-Semiticism in late Czarist Russia. There were terrible pograms, mostly by Cossacks. IShe wrote only in French which she learned very young from a French governess. She loved Classic French and Russian literature. In 1929 she published her first book, David Golder, about a Jewish Russian banker living in Paris with his wife and daughter. It was tremendously sucessful and was made into a movie. From then on Nemirovsky wrote at least one novel a year as well as numerous short stories.
In Paris I was intrigued to learn Nemirovsky was considered "wild" but there are no details provided. A very important aspect of the life, and very much seen in her work, is her troubled relationship with her mother, who does seem a horrible person. Némirovsky's novel Jezebel is said by the biographers to be partially based on the mother.
On the right her mother, above her father
Close to a third of the book is spent detailing the plots of various books she wrote and in offered explanations as to how these books were related to her life experiences. Nemirovsky saw herself as a mother and a wife who wrote fictions and I wished their was more on the day today business of her life. For example, we are given no idea what she ate or fed her children but their is a lot of data on the publishing industry in Paris from 1929 to 1942. We learn she graduated from the Sorbonne but nothing of her student days.
There was at one time controversy about Nemirovsky portrayal of the Jewish banker in David Golder. She made pointed references to her "poisoned blood". Some have accused her of being anti-Semetic but this is just too stupid to speak about on The Reading Life.
Great shame is reflected on the French by their treatment of French Jews. Nemirovsky was turned over for transportation to Aushwitz by Parisian policemen.
Their are many fascinating facts mentioned in passing about French life and culture. I was deeply moved to learn that tne last literary work Nemirovsky probably read was The Journal of Katherine Mansfield.
The description of her transportation by train to Auschwitz was truly heartbreaking. The Germans cheated the world, I feel this personally, of at least twenty more novels. At 39'she was a great writer.
The authors tell the story of the 2004 discovery and publishing of her acknowledged by all master work Suite Francaise.
It is so terrible to imagine a creator of such beautiful wise works as Iréne Nemirovsky murdered by the Germans. The country she loved helped send her to her death. She was a kind gentle profoundly intelligent person who believed France was the most beautiful country in the world.
There is much to admire about The Life of Iréne Nemirovsky. I am glad I had the opportunity to read it. It is for lovers of Nemirovsky, not just for the curious.