Suite Française, here            


The Life of Irène Némirovsky, 1903-1942


by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt





Published: 6:30AM GMT 12 Feb 2010

Nicholas Shakespeare is riveted by The Life of Irène Némirovsky, a biography of the author of Suite Française, who was sent to death by the adopted France which she loved


By Nicholas Shakespeare

The Life of Irène Némirovsky

By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt

CHATTO & WINDUS, £25, 466pp


The occupation of France remains, even now, a smouldering peat bog. Seventy years have passed, but the insult of the German invasion still has the power to cause eyes to flick away in a nation that, right up until the breakthrough at Sedan, believed itself infallible. There is also the lesion of what the French did to themselves. It was a French gendarme who arrested my aunt in Paris and oversaw her departure to the internment camp at Besançon. And it was a pair of gendarmes who on July 13 1942 knocked on the door of a short, asthmatic mother of two in the village of Issy-l’Évêque; a 39-year-old woman who, had her adopted country permitted it, might have survived to become the finest French novelist of the last century.

In 1929, in the words of this riveting biography, “the Némirovsky meteor had burst across the French literary sky”. That October, an unsolicited manuscript arrives at the Paris publisher Grasset. A weary editor picks it out of the slush-pile. He stays up all night, astounded by the novel’s violence and audacity. The power of the dialogue, unsentimental and crackling with banking jargon, suggests an author gruffer, more scathing even than Paul Morand (whose novels skewered Parisian high society). But who is the author of David Golder? The novel has been submitted by a mysterious “M Epstein” – Némirovsky’s husband, who typed it out – and gives only a poste restante. After repeated letters elicit no reply, the editor thinks of placing an advertisement in the newspapers: “Seeking author, having sent manuscript to the publisher Grasset under the name Epstein.” At the end of November, a shy young woman enters the office. “Forgive me for not coming sooner. I’ve just had a baby. I’m the author of David Golder: Irène Némirovsky.”

She had arrived in France 10 years earlier. She was a Russian-Jew from Kiev where she had experienced the pogroms (“Lynch the Jews, save Russia”) and seen first hand how a great danger can in a matter of moments “wipe out centuries of civilisation and piety”. She remembered ghettoes where children rolled in mud, the fumes of stale red wine and vomit that attended the Revolution, and the sight of machine-guns pattering from the rooftops. She escaped with her parents across the snow to Helsinki where she witnessed the Finnish civil war and thieves’ hands being chopped off. Her surname, fittingly, meant “he who knows no peace”. She herself said: “I never knew peaceful times, I’ve always lived in anxiety and often in danger.” David Golder’s two main protagonists indicate just how many of these anxieties and dangers were home-grown: “I simply drew a portrait of papa and mama.”

Her father, Leonid, was a peasant and small-time gambler who made it big, “the embodiment of the toughness that for her was peculiar to the Jewish spirit”. He ran a factory making cheap cotton fabrics; then, when war came, he earned a fortune speculating in flour, arms and boots – until a price was put on his head and he joined the rootless rich in Biarritz.

Her mother, Fanny, was “the enemy” (and even inspired a novel with that title); a venal, lustful, spiteful woman with finely pencilled brows and a white-powdered face. Fanny resented her only child as a rival and refused to talk to her except as a little girl; even after Irène had daughters of her own Fanny would send her an enormous teddy bear. So the young Irène turned for affection to her French governess, “whom I loved as a mother”. From Marie, she learnt that France is “the most beautiful country in the world”, learnt to speak French before Russian, to read Stendhal before Tolstoy. When Fanny sacked Marie in revenge (after Irène alerted her father to one of Fanny’s numerous lovers), the distraught governess drowned herself in the icy waters of the Moika. With that vindictive act, Fanny’s transformation from corrupt to criminal was complete. Thereafter, Irène’s abiding resentment towards her mother – and watchful terror that she might turn into her – served as a force for self-exploration. “Only the blood of an old wound,”

she wrote, “can give colour to a work of art in the right way.” The theme of David Golder, as of L’Ennemie, The Wine of Solitude and Jezebel, was “the revenge of a girl on her mother”.

Advertised by Grasset as “the most captivating, most fascinating novel that we have published in 10 years”, David Golder sold 60,000 copies, was made into a bad stage play and a rather better film, and was pronounced a masterpiece by critics and readers. Admirers numbered Paul Morand and the former prime minister Joseph Caillaux. The authors have no truck with those who condemned the book as anti-Semitic, asking: “Had David Golder been written in 2009 by Bernard Madoff’s daughter, who would dream of accusing her of anti-Semitic views?” These opinions foamed around her as the pogroms she had fled in Kiev came lapping up the lizard-skin cobbles of her Paris boulevard. “Anti-Semitism is a French tradition,” brayed one of her fiercest critics, Robert Brasillach. Maybe this is why she wrote so fast, between 1935 and 1942 producing nine novels, a biography of Chekhov and 38 short stories. She was writing against the German clock.

From 1935, she also applied – repeatedly – for French citizenship, claiming: “I have done my best to make France known and loved.” She even became a Catholic. As one of her characters puts it: “What I wanted was your culture, your morality, your virtues, everything that was greater than me, different from me, different from the muck in which I was born!” And yet, for all her illustrious sponsors, nothing happened. France spurned her as brutally as her mother continued to do; years later, when approached by Irène’s youngest daughter Elizabeth, Fanny (who died in 1972, aged 97) shouted that she had never heard of Irène Némirovsky.

Then came May 1940. Suddenly, the French – 10 million of them streaming south – were themselves the rootless people of her books. Concerned more with literature than saving her skin, she turned her compassion on France. “Since it rejects me, let us consider it dispassionately, let us watch it lose its honour and its life blood.” Tolstoy had waited half a century to write War and Peace. “Whereas I, I work upon burning lava.”

In its respectfulness and its dense poetic asides, beautifully translated by Euan Cameron, this tremendous biography is also very French. Its final pages are unbearable. In Russia, she had been saved by her cook, who thrust her under a bed with an Orthodox cross; in France, she is taken away and packed, without water, on a truck bound for Auschwitz. Her husband, Michel Epstein, half-crazed with worry and insomnia, telephones Morand and Caillaux. They don’t return his calls. When he himself is arrested, a sympathetic German officer gives his daughters 48 hours to get away. Epstein tells them: “Never part from this suitcase, for it contains your mother’s manuscript.” The manuscript remains on a shelf for several decades until her oldest daughter, Denise, with the aid of a strong magnifying glass, types it out. The unfinished novel, published to world-wide acclaim in 2004, since when it has sold three million copies, is Suite Française.




Published: 6:00AM GMT 28 Feb 2010


The Life of Irène Némirovsky by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt reveals a tragic figure and a troubling one too, finds Anne Chisholm


By Anne Chisholm

The Life of Irène Némirovsky: 1903-1942

by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt

tr by Euan Cameron

466pp, Chatto & Windus, £25


When the English edition of Irène Némirovsky’s novel Suite Française first appeared in 2005, it was immediately recognised as something extraordinary. As a study of the fall of France in 1940 and the start of the German occupation, not only was it richly observed and wonderfully well-written, it showed a quite remarkable humanity and generosity of spirit. As the introduction and appendices explained, Némirovsky, born a Russian Jew, had been taken to Auschwitz where she died, aged 39, in the summer of 1942, leaving the book unfinished and unread for 60 years until her daughter discovered it and arranged its publication.

Inevitably reviewers, of whom I was one, were affected by the story behind the novel; but even without the tragic context, it was clear that the book deserved to be called a masterpiece. Since then a great deal more of Némirovsky’s writing has been republished and a great deal of information about her life has surfaced.

Not everything she wrote was of the standard of Suite Française; more disconcerting was the evidence that her attitude to Jewishness was more complicated, even ambivalent, than had at first appeared. The fact that she had converted to Catholicism in 1938, while pressing to be granted French citizenship, could be seen as a precaution; but that she had not only published articles and stories in right wing anti-Semitic journals, but made her name with a novel about a ruthless Jewish financier raised troubling questions. Some of them are now answered in this flawed but informative and serious-minded biography.

Although virtually unknown here, Némirovsky was a well known and prolific author in France between the wars. Her biographers, out of a mixture of pride and guilt, claim her as a French writer, but while she always used the French language, almost everything she wrote derived from her Russian origins and sensibility and, it turns out, from her complex feelings about her background and her family. She was born in Kiev, a city with a history of violent pogroms, where a prosperous Jewish middle class flourished alongside squalid ghettos. Her father was a self-made businessman turned international banker while her socially ambitious mother brought her up to speak French and to prefer Paris, Nice and the spa towns where they spent many months every year to provincial life at home.

When the revolution came, Leon Némirovsky was able to move himself and his family to France, so that by the age of 16 Irène was living in Paris with an English governess and continuing her education in French. By the time she was 20 she was beginning to publish comic stories about flappers in Parisian magazines. She loved France and, her biographers establish from the start, she hated her mother, whom they call 'as lustful and mendacious as she was venal’.

Némirovsky was determined to be a writer. She got married in 1925, to Michel Epstein, a man from a similar background to her own, and continued to publish articles and stories; her second novel, David Golder, a plainly autobiographical study of a driven Jewish banker, his avaricious wife and flighty daughter, caused a sensation when it appeared in 1929, not least because her canny publishers cultivated a minor mystery about its author, who had delivered the typescript and then vanished to have a baby.

Later, Némirovsky would concede that she would not have written David Golder in the same way had Hitler been in power at the time. With its portrayal of Golder’s ruthless business practices and references to Jewish noses and dirty grey beards, it could all too easily be used to reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes, and to earn its author the reputation of being herself a self-hating Jew. France had many assimilated Jews, and since the Dreyfus affair anti-Semitism had been subdued; but by the late 1920s and increasingly during the 1930s there was plenty of evidence in the right wing press that it had not gone away. Némirovsky was playing with fire, but not, it seems, on purpose. She was not interested in politics; she was simply writing as she had to write. She felt safe in her adopted country, which she loved and where she was winning literary fame and fortune.

The story of how Némirovsky was forced to realise that she and her family, like so many others, were far from safe in France as Hitler approached is no less terrible for being familiar. What is extraordinary is how she refused to play safe with her writing, even while using every weapon she had to protect herself and her children. She could compromise in every way except in her books, although by 1939 she admitted that perhaps a life of Trotsky 'as the type of eternally rebellious Jew’ might not be a good idea, and that 'non-literary considerations are a part of my fear’.

It was not until during the occupation when she was writing Suite Française, forced to wear the yellow star, forbidden to go to Paris, making secret plans to save her daughters, that she wrote in one of her notebooks: 'Since France rejects me let us watch it lose its honour and its life.’ And it was not until recently that thanks to those French who did not reject her but saved her children and her unfinished novel that her reputation has revived and her talents have been fully recognised.

This book, which strives to tell uncomfortable truths, is an important contribution to understanding a complex, painful but ultimately triumphant story.




February 21, 2010

The Life of Irène Némirovsky by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt


Max Hastings


The Life of Irène Némirovsky by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt
Chatto £25 pp480


Irène Némirovsky, described by the authors as “a French writer whom fate had caused to be born in Kiev”, enjoyed a brief literary celebrity in the 1930s. Thereafter she vanished from public consciousness until 2004.

Then came posthumous publication of two completed parts of an intended trilogy on the wartime experience of France, Suite Française, consciously modelled upon War and Peace. It was hailed as a masterpiece, and became a global bestseller. The work was rendered intolerably moving, especially in its sympathetic portrayal of some German characters, by the fate of its author.

She was arrested by the French for the crime of her Jewish birth and deported to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus in August 1942, at the age of 39. When her husband, Michel Epstein, also murdered by the Nazis, was obliged to leave his two small daughters, he said: “Never part from this suitcase, for it contains your mother’s manuscript [of Suite Française].” Sixty years later one of them, Denise, deciphered Némirovsky’s tiny, fugitive’s handwriting with the aid of a magnifying glass, typed it up and sent it to a publisher.

Anyone who admired Suite Française will want to read this book, because Némirovsky’s story was so extraordinary, her character so bewitching. She was born in 1903 into a Ukraine where pogroms were commonplace. Her father Léon was a successful speculator, who became immensely rich and moved the family to a St Petersburg mansion in 1914. His wife, Anna, was a monster, who brutally neglected her only child and indulged a host of lovers.

“Irotchka” grew up in lonely luxury, attended by her French governess Zézelle (“the only person I really loved in the world”) until Zézelle killed herself in 1917, to be succeeded by a dour English nanny named Miss Matthews. Books were the girl’s solace, passion, obsession from the moment she could read.

French was more familiar to her than Russian. She came to adore Proust, and her own work was later compared to Balzac’s. The family spent months every year in grand hotels at continental watering places, notably Biarritz, of which Chekhov observed, “The whole of Russia complains that there are too many Russians.”

The Némirovskys fled the revolution, first for dreary months as refugees in Finland, thence to Sweden, and finally in 1919 to France. Léon retained substantial wealth, and acquired more. The family established itself in a large house, though the sluttish Anna took little heed of its comfort or cleanliness. Némirovsky enrolled at the Sorbonne, throwing herself into a passionate round of partying and especially dancing.

She began to write, focusing upon the nouveau-riche world in which she lived. Her first published story appeared in Le Matin in 1924. “Life is a farce,” she wrote, in the authentic spirit of her youth and times. “He who makes a fuss about it is crazy.” In 1926 she and Epstein were married; he was a bank employee and Muscovite refugee, notably slight like her. His character remains opaque, likewise their relationship, but what is known suggests mild-mannered ineffectuality. They had two daughters.

In 1929, the celebrated publisher Bernard Grasset gave a dramatic fanfare to David Golder, the novel that made Némirovsky famous. It was a tale of a doomed tycoon set in the shady business world the author knew so well. It was staged, filmed and widely translated.

Its tone reflected a disdain for Némirovsky’s own kind, and arguably for Jews, which remained characteristic of her work. She is alleged to have said: “It was conceived in Biarritz, from the spectacle of all those unhinged and depraved idle rich…I don’t know why they are making so much fuss about this little book…I simply drew a portrait of papa and mama.”

One critic wrote, in a passion reflecting the shameless anti-semitism of France at that time: “Only a Jewess could write such a terrible and such a perceptive indictment of the Jewish passion for wealth.”

In 1932, Léon’s speculations went disastrously awry. He lost huge sums, and died a few months later. Anna preserved a significant fortune, but refused to share a sou with her daughter. The Epsteins became overwhelmingly dependent on Irène’s work for their income. She wrote prolifically, often dark comedies of manners, a flood of short stories and novels such as Le Bal, which Cocteau described as “a sort of masterpiece”. But, having always known unlimited cash, she found it hard to support the lavish lifestyle she had always affected. Nor did she ever quite repeat the starry success of David Golder.

Her biographers have performed a remarkable feat of research, collating long-lost notes and fragments, exploiting the fact that so much of Némirovsky’s fiction was autobiographical. It is hard to be as enthusiastic about their prose style, which is plodding and over-punctuated with question marks. Némirovsky, nevertheless, emerges as an irresistibly elusive, brilliant, sparkling personality suffused with melancholy and tragedy even before the death camp beckoned. Photographs emphasise the beauty of that moon face and those huge, haunted eyes.

As Europe’s political landscape darkened through the 1930s, both Irène and Michel strove to secure French citizenship, but were denied. In 1939, in a further desperate lunge for self-preservation, the entire family renounced their religion — though neither Irène nor Michel were practising Jews — and embraced Catholicism.

When the Germans occupied France, this availed them no more than Némirovsky’s personal appeal to Pétain: “I have never been involved in politics…I have done my best to make France known and loved. I cannot believe, Monsieur le Maréchal, that no distinction is made between those who are unwanted and those respectable foreigners who, if they have been shown princely hospitality by France, are aware of having made every effort to deserve it.”

From their rural refuge at Issy-l’Evêque in Burgundy, the family pleaded in vain with the local prefect to be permitted sufficient relaxation of Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws to visit their flat in Paris. Némirovsky, a lifelong asthmatic, desperately pressed for money, scribbled on through 1941 and early 1942 at her last work, almost until the day of her arrest. Her willingness to forgive her persecutors transcended any narrow religious conviction: “Suffering must become Love,” she wrote, in a spirit worthy of the greatest martyrs.

Most of her books retain significance and appeal chiefly as sources of evidence about their creator. But Suite Française stands among the finest of all contemporary testimony about the wartime experience of Némirovsky’s adopted country. This biography falls short of matching the fascination of its subject. But it describes a life tinged by nobility.

Némirovsky’s ghastly mother survived until 1972, still prosperous at 97, but refusing to the last to lift a finger to assist her orphaned granddaughters. The two miraculously survived the war, and eventually achieved the triumphant resurrection of their mother’s memory.





Saturday, February 20, 2010

Failed by France




BIOGRAPHY: The Life of Irene Némirovsky, By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt Translation by Euan Cameron Chatto&Windus, 466pp, £25


ANY CONTEMPLATION of Irène Némirovsky inevitably begins and ends with the horror of her death in Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, when she was 39. And it’s one of the sad ironies of the literary life that if it weren’t for this fate she would now almost certainly be forgotten – as she was until the discovery of her most famous, though unfinished, novel, Suite Française , a few years ago. The importance of Suite Française and the terrible poignancy of her final days restored her to our consciousness and led to the re-issue of some of her other novels after more than 60 years of obscurity.

She died of course because she was Jewish – Jewish at least in the sense defined by the “Jewish Statutes” of the French collaborationists. This is another sad irony: the people whose tragic destiny she was forced to share had often regarded her uneasily as not one of them, as a writer who seemed to exhibit anti-Jewish prejudices and misrepresentations. After the publication of her first novel, David Golder, she was even accused of anti-Semitism. This was a charge she vehemently – and correctly – denied. “It is true and sincere,” she would say in her defence, “it’s the way I saw it.”

David Golder was published in 1929 when Nemirovsky was a precocious, spirited, spoilt young woman of 26. The only child of rich Russian émigrés – her father was a banker – she had passed an unsettled childhood between swish hotels on the Riviera and smart houses in Kiev and St Petersburg, where she had observed the Revolution with more excitement than fear. Then there was the escape to Paris from Finland, her father’s money still intact, and the new delights of a modish flapper lifestyle before she settled down to marriage – also to a banker, though of a modest kind – and the life of a professional if well-off writer. David Golder was a literary sensation. It was translated into several languages and the film a year or two later was one of the first big talkies to be made in France.

Its luminous, intense brilliance was recognised. But it was particularly a sensation because of the author’s piercing – some thought “hard” and “pitiless” – depiction of her characters who were Jewish. There were those who liked it for this reason alone; while many Jews were anguished by what seemed an exposure of Jewish vices rather than their virtues. Why did Némirovsky have to seem to add fuel to the fire that was beginning to flame with increasing ferocity around them?

David Golder is certainly an example of one of the perils of writing – that her truth was interpreted as a general truth, individual faults seized on as a portrayal of racial faults. But Irène Némirovsky wasn’t really interested in portraying Jewishness per se. Until Suite Française , her inspiration was autobiographical. What she was interested in writing about was her “wretched” childhood and youth. The lonely life of a little rich-but-unmothered girl was hers. The tender but money-obsessed father, ridden by historical woes and the terror of poverty – the ultimately sympathetic character of David Golder is a compassionate portrait of Leon Némirovsky. Above all the hated mother. However this was a family and a milieu that happened to be Jewish and so they became in the eyes of opportunists, archetypal Jews.

Until Suite Française , when Némirovsky resolved to broaden her canvas – without limiting that piercing gaze – and omit Jews from the narrative completely, all her novels, as her biographers point out, can be read as one long, obsessive, continuous novel exploring the primary themes of David Golder: the atavistic terrors of the homeless and stateless and the damage visited on a child by a pathologically unloving mother.

Anna Némirovsky, Irène’s mother, was monstrous. If there can be any doubt about Irène’s experience of her as preposterously vain, shamelessly materialistic, contemptuous of her daughter and faithless to her husband, she would display it appallingly in her behaviour towards her grand-daughters, Némirovsky’s two children. After the war, they were orphaned – Irène’s husband died at Auschwitz in his turn – and penniless, and their guardian, a family friend, appealed to her for help. Now a 70-year-old wealthy solitary, their grandmother sent her away with a token pittance and the statement “I have no grandchildren”.

Incidentally, Anna, in another irony, preferred to recognise as little as possible her Jewish ancestry. She forbade the speaking of Yiddish, banned Jewish dishes from the table and insisted on being called the English-sounding Fanny. Irène grew up knowing nothing about Jewish religious practices. “Fanny” survived the war on the Côte d’Azur and lived to be 97.

Despite her fears about the sins of the mother, Irène Némirovsky escaped them. She was able to be a typical loving mother. But she couldn’t escape the sins of her time.

Her biographers are painfully revealing on the French equability about the “purge” from la belle France of Jews and other stateless, known as meteques – effectively about a pogrom. As ugly, implacable and hate-filled edicts against Jews that would lead to the deportations emanated from Vichy, she couldn’t believe that “the most beautiful country in the world”, civilized France, could bring her to harm. She sought citizenship again and again, and failed. She had the family baptised, probably seeking safety as much as spiritual succour. She sought help from her well-placed friends but they could, or would, do nothing.

France did fail her. This biography, though it has its faults - it’s oddly ordered and the authors have a disconcerting tendency to make unjustified statements - makes some amends.

Anne Haverty is a writer. Her most recent book is a novel, The Free And Easy (Vintage)



The Jewish Chronicle

February 25, 2010

Review: The Life of Irene Nemirovsky

A tragic writer's coruscating pen

By Anne Garvey


By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt (Trans: Euan Cameron)
Chatto and Windus, £25.


By 1942, French Jews were so restricted, they were even forbidden to ride a bicycle. Yet, as the corrupt, collaborationist Paris government issued one vicious, petty edict after another, the celebrated novelist Irène Némirovsky sat in a village only a few miles from the border where the Nazi writ had yet to run.

Why didn't she escape with her family to America when relatives appealed to her to leave? This biography asks the question but, throughout its absorbing detail, we still want to shout, like a pantomime audience, to her, : "Get out of there!"

Némirovsky's brilliant novel fragment Suite Francaise burst upon the literary world in 2005, the manuscript discovered in a suitcase her daughter had treasured, unopened, for 60 years believing it to contain her mother's handwritten diary. Entrusted to her the day her mother was arrested by the zealous French police in 1942, the 12-year-old Denise kept the suitcase safe during her years of flight from Gestapo persecution. Its quasi-miraculous appearance saw Némirovsky, murdered in Auschwitz aged 39, storm to the top of the international bestseller list.

She was born in Kiev in 1903. Her father Leonid was a hugely successful entrepreneur, a boy from the ghetto determined to give his only child the education and ease he never had.

When Némirovsky was 14, Leonid, no longer able to do business with the increasingly fanatical Bolshevik regime, led his wife and child in a desperate dash to the Finnish border then, after a year of privation in the snowy wastes of Finland, to Sweden and eventually to Paris, where he re-established his business empire and sent his beloved daughter to the Sorbonne.

Irène clashed with her beautiful mother, Anna, the "Enemy" of her first published work. Hatred of her mother is at the heart of her work. Anna is present in one heartless, immoral, vain and grasping character after another.

Strangely, this passionate malice towards her mother, is largely unexamined by Philipponnat and Lienhardt, who treat Irène's venom simply as an objective appraisal of Anna's character.

When the successful novel David Golder appeared, an admiring French public marvelled that such a young woman could show intimate knowledge of the mechanics and the motives of bankers and businessmen - and they were shocked at the cynical depravity of Golder's wife, Gloria. Némirovsky explained: "they are Mama and Papa".

Few writers have cast such a merciless gaze on their fellow-Jews. Her entire output, until Suite Francaise, is a hard-headed analysis of those around her. She conveys dramatically the pursuit of wealth in order to be accepted - and stay safe. The ultimate irony is that, even as she turned her coruscating pen on her parents, she herself was neither.

Despite a welter of anecdotes the biography is a hard read, written as it is in a high baroque style, replete with dramatic purple prose. On Némirovsky's conversion to Catholicism (which of course failed to save her or her husband), for example, the authors declaim: "Was it such a paradox that she was setting out on the Road to Emmaus at the very moment that The Dogs and the Wolves was asserting the ineluctable resurgence of the Jewish character…"

Anne Garvey is a freelance writer based in Cambridge







Ray of hope in an age of evil

THE LIFE OF IRENE NEMIROVSKY Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt (Chatto & Windus, £25)


Prior to his arrest by the French authorities in 1942 and his subsequent murder by the Nazis, Michael Epstein left a piece of luggage with his two small daughters. "Never part from this suitcase," he told them, "it contains your mother's manuscript." Their mother had already been deported to Auschwitz, where she died within a few weeks.

The manuscript in question was an unfinished novel which more than 60 years later the eldest daughter, Denise, finally got round to reading before sending it to a publisher. Entitled Suite Francaise and detailing life under Nazi occupation, it became a bestseller on its publication in France in 2004 and went on to become an international phenomenon in translation.

That's a remarkable story in itself, but no more so than Irene Nemirovsky's entire life. Born into privilege in the Ukraine in 1903 and spending many of her childhood summers in fashionable Mediterranean resorts, she and her parents had to flee anti-Jewish pogroms in St Petersburg before finally settling in Paris in 1919.

In that city her father easily resumed his financial career, while her mother, an unloving and selfish monster, entertained lovers and brutally neglected her daughter, of whose youth she was pathologically jealous.

Irene for her part felt exhilarated to be living in France -- "the most beautiful country in the world", as she saw this embodiment of liberty, equality and fraternity.

This naive trust in her adopted country was ultimately, and fatally, to be proved wrong, though in the intervening years she became a celebrity. Her first novel, David Golder (1929), though criticised by some as anti-semitic in its portrait of a lonely, wealth-obsessed Jewish financier, met with general acclaim (Cocteau described a subsequent novel, Le Bal, as a "masterpiece") and for many years she was feted in Parisian literary, social and political circles.

Such renown, though, didn't save her when the Nazis invaded, even though she and her husband had spent years trying to secure French citizenship (her personal pleas to Petain fell on deaf ears) and had even gone so far as to renounce their religion and convert to Catholicism. Belated flight to the rural retreat of Issy-L'Eveque in Burgundy only delayed the inevitable.

Jonathan Weiss has already written an account of Nemirovsky's life and works for Stanford University Press, but this new biography, translated by Euan Cameron, easily supplants it in length, range and the amount of detail uncovered by its authors, though its arrangement of the narrative is fussy and its stylistic intrusions and flourishes are occasionally irritating.

Fortunately, its story is biographer-proof, while the recent translations of such novels as Fire in the Blood, All Our Worldly Goods and The Dogs and the Wolves prove that Suite Francaise wasn't a one-book wonder.

Nemirovsky is now revealed as one of the finest novelists of an age that didn't deserve either her hard-won insights or her compassion for humanity.








Publié le 24/01/2008 N°1845

Prix de la biographie « le point »

La vie brève d'Irène Némirovsky


Née en 1903 à Kiev, l'écrivain Irène Némirovsky mourut en 1942 à Auschwitz. Olivier Philipponnat et Patrick Lienhardt racontent avec chaleur cette vie inachevée. Le Point leur décerne son prix de la biographie, remis au Festival de Nîmes (25-27 janvier).


« La vie d'Irène Némirovsky », d'Olivier Philipponnat et Patrick Lienhardt (Grasset/Denoël, 503 pages, 23,60 E).


Deux titres dominèrent longtemps la trajectoire d'Irène Némirovsky : « David Golder » (1929) et « Le bal » (1930). Inspirés par sa propre situation familiale, ces romans imposèrent d'emblée la jeune femme de moins de 30 ans comme une horlogère des mécanismes humains. Aussitôt adapté au cinéma, « David Golder » donna à Harry Baur l'occasion de tenir l'un de ses plus grands rôles, celui du banquier juif véreux trahi par sa fille chérie-il lui « vaudra » en partie d'être arrêté par les nazis. Quant au « Bal », il marqua en 1931 les débuts de la jeune Danielle Darrieux, encore active soixante-dix-sept ans plus tard : personne n'oublia cette jeune fille qui, pour punir des parents snobs qui la délaissent, jette tous les cartons d'invitation au bal qu'ils projettent.

Les années 30 confirmèrent la propension de la jeune Russe à faire s'affronter des mères monstrueuses, des pères rongés par l'appât du gain et des filles vengeresses. Après avoir arpenté les plages de Biarritz comme une Sagan sans poudre, la débutante frivole, une fois mariée, se vit reconnaître comme un écrivain français à part entière par la critique-Brasillach compris. Convertie entre-temps au catholicisme, plus confiante que jamais dans « le plus beau pays du monde », Irène Némirovsky ne ressentit même pas le besoin de réclamer sa naturalisation à l'approche de la guerre. La police française n'eut qu'à la cueillir, en juillet 1942, dans son village de Bourgogne, avant que les Allemands la déportent à Auschwitz, où elle mourut du typhus à 39 ans.

A la fois chaleureuse et fouillée, cette biographie exhaustive pourrait se conclure par un chapitre posthume. Car Irène Némirovsky et son mari, mort en déportation lui aussi, laissaient deux filles, qui entretinrent après guerre la flamme : Denise Epstein à travers de nombreuses rééditions, Elisabeth Gille en consacrant une très belle « biographie rêvée » à sa mère, « Le mirador » (1992). Le nom de Némirovsky n'était pourtant plus connu que des happy few quand la première se décida de ressortir le manuscrit que sa mère lui avait confié avant de disparaître, soixante ans plus tôt. Ce sera « Suite française », vaste fresque chorale couvrant l'exode et les débuts de l'Occupation. Ce pays si littéraire n'avait pu écrire de romans à la hauteur de l'événement ? Voilà que cette femme née à Kiev, fidèle aux techniques romanesques de Balzac et de Tolstoï, avait composé, sous la menace et en temps réel, un chef-d'oeuvre de distance et d'humanité : le triomphe prit des airs de réparation.

Déjà auteurs d'une excellente biographie de Roger Stéphane, Olivier Philipponnat et Patrick Lienhardt font vibrer toutes les cordes de ce destin bref, tendu jusqu'à la rupture. Née dans le luxe à Kiev, exilée par la révolution de 1917, bannie par les lois antijuives en France, l'auteur du « Bal » aura tout connu de la vie. L'enfance russe est l'épisode le plus riche, émotionnellement ; la « Suite française » prouve l'étonnante perspicacité littéraire de celle qui pensait de bout en bout ses intrigues, mais manqua de vigilance dans la vie.






Irène Némirovsky en toutes lettres

Par Delphine Peras (L'Express), publié le 11/10/2007


Voici enfin racontée la vie de l'auteur de Suite française. Un passionnant récit sur le destin d'une femme et d'une écrivaine d'exception.


Livre: La vie d'Irène Némirovsky

Auteur: Olivier Philipponnat et Patrick Lienhardt

Editeur: Grasset


Automne 2004, coup de théâtre: une fois n'est pas coutume, le prix Renaudot est attribué à un roman posthume, Suite française. Il est signé d'une certaine Irène Némirovsky, morte du typhus le 19 août 1942, à l'âge de 39 ans, dans le camp d'Auschwitz-Birkenau. Roman extraordinaire et terrible sur l'exode de 1940, portrait implacable de la France occupée, Suite française fut miraculeusement conservé par la fille de l'auteur. Le succès est phénoménal: 700 000 exemplaires vendus en France à ce jour, 450 000 en anglais, des traductions dans 31 langues. Réédités à cette occasion, les autres romans d'Irène Némirovsky connaissent eux aussi un formidable engouement. C'est dire si l'on attendait avec impatience la biographie de cette grande femme de lettres, si célèbre dans les années 1930, mais si vite oubliée. Elle vient enfin de paraître, au terme de trois ans de travail: c'est une réussite totale. Solidement documenté, bien construit, très agréablement écrit, le livre d'Olivier Philipponnat et Patrick Lienhardt s'impose d'emblée comme un ouvrage de référence sur la vie d'Irène Némirosvky. Une vie brève, mais exceptionnelle.

Née à Kiev le 11 février 1903, la jeune Irina, comme on l'appelait alors, vient d'une famille fortunée, russe et juive: son père, Leonid, est un self-made-man avant l'heure, devenu un homme d'affaires puissant; sa mère, Anna, est une grande mondaine qui ne s'entendra jamais avec sa fille, en qui elle voit d'abord une rivale. Irène détestera toute sa vie cette «mère hargneuse». Ce qui ne l'empêchera pas de recevoir une éducation parfaite, avec une préceptrice française. Ajoutés à cela, de fréquents séjours dans les palaces de Biarritz et de la Côte d'Azur, mais aussi nombre de lectures - Balzac, Maupassant, Zola, notamment - font que la culture du futur auteur des Mouches d'automne est profondément française.

Suspectée d'antisémitisme
Autant dire qu'après la révolution bolchevique l'exil de sa famille à Paris, en 1919, est une aubaine, puisque Irène y fera toute sa carrière d'écrivain. Ses premiers textes remontent à 1921, mais sa renommée naît véritablement en 1929, avec la parution de son roman David Golder, du nom d'un vieil homme d'affaires juif, ruiné, abandonné de tous, qui croit encore à sa bonne étoile. «Excellent roman balzacien. Tous les traits sont vigoureusement appuyés», écrit Robert Kemp dans Liberté. Roland Dorgelès la recommande à la Société des gens de lettres, l'intelligentsia l'acclame - celle-là même qui ne fera rien pour la sauver de la déportation...

Reste que le ton du livre, cru et hargneux, ses descriptions acerbes des juifs valent aussi à Irène Némirovsky d'être suspectée d'antisémitisme. Ses biographes n'éludent pas le sujet, qui a fait couler pas mal d'encre aux Etats-Unis, mais le traitent en faisant la part des choses, pour mieux souligner que la vision de la romancière à cette époque est avant tout sociale, et non raciale. De même que sa conversion au catholicisme, juste avant la guerre, ne tenait pas du reniement de sa judaïté - elle n'a jamais été pratiquante - mais d'un besoin sincère de consolation spirituelle. Et si elle a pu écrire, jusqu'à la fin de sa vie, pour des journaux aussi collaborationnistes que Gringoire ou Candide, c'était surtout pour des raisons alimentaires - sa mère s'étant arrogé l'héritage entier de Leonid, mort en 1932.

Le bruit des bottes nazies s'amplifie, Irène Némirovsky ne veut pas se croire menacée. N'est-elle pas une intellectuelle française avant tout, l'auteur de 16 romans et d'une cinquantaine de nouvelles? Las! elle finit par se réfugier avec ses deux petites filles dans un village de Bourgogne, où elle écrit deux des trois volets prévus de Suite française. Le 12 juillet 1942, elle est arrêtée par les gendarmes...

Document passionnant, poignant, dur, cette Vie d'Irène Némirovsky se lit comme un roman.




L'offense faite à Irène

Par François Dufay (L'Express), publié le 18/09/2008


Quatre ans après le triomphe de sa Suite française, Irène Némirovsky, morte en déportation, est célébrée aux Etats-Unis par une exposition-événement. Qu'aucun musée en France n'a voulu accueillir, estimant la romancière suspecte de «haine de soi», voire d'antisémitisme...

C'est une élégante valise de cuir, capitonnée et gravée d'initiales dorées. Pendant des années, les filles d'Irène Némirovsky, qui l'avaient reçue en dépôt, n'ont pas osé l'ouvrir. «Elle contient le "cahier" de votre mère. Vous devez toujours la garder avec vous», leur avait dit leur père, au mois de juillet 1942, alors que la romancière venait d'être arrêtée par la police de Vichy.

Le précieux bagage a suivi les jeunes filles à travers les vicissitudes de l'Occupation. Quand, devenues adultes, elles se sont enfin décidées à l'ouvrir, elles y ont découvert un manuscrit, couvert à l'encre bleue d'une fine écriture serrée: celui du roman auquel avait travaillé leur mère dans les jours d'angoisse de 1941 et 1942. Enfin publié par Denoël en 2004, ce récit de la débâcle de juin 1940, intitulé Suite française, allait valoir à Irène Némirovsky d'être couronnée du prix Renaudot à titre posthume, soixante-deux ans après sa disparition à Auschwitz.

Aujourd'hui, la fameuse valise et le manuscrit qu'elle renfermait constituent le clou de la grande exposition consacrée à la romancière, qui s'ouvre le 24 septembre à New York, sous le titre Woman of Letters: Irène Némi-rovsky and Suite française. Une exposition-événement mêlant reliques, archives et photos de famille, qui promet d'attirer les foules. Car, outre-Atlantique, Irène Némirovsky, depuis le succès phénoménal de Suite française, vendu à 1,3 million d'exemplaires dans le monde, est devenue une star. Son destin tragique, la peinture qu'elle brosse d'une France veule et couchée, la résurrection si romanesque de son oeuvre, ont suscité chez les Américains «a tremendous interest», comme le souligne David Marwell, directeur du Museum of Jewish Heritage. Des dizaines de milliers de visiteurs sont attendus dans ce musée, situé dans le sud de Manhattan, face à la statue de la Liberté. Présent à New York pour une session de l'ONU, Nicolas Sarkozy pourrait même, dit-on, inaugurer l'exposition.

A Paris, le veto du musée du judaïsme

Le paradoxe est que le public français n'aura pas la chance de voir cette manifestation, constituée d'archives prêtées par l'Institut Mémoires de l'édition contemporaine (Imec). Aucun musée de l'Hexagone, à ce jour, ne s'est porté candidat pour l'accueillir! Sollicité, le musée d'Art et d'Histoire du judaïsme, installé dans le quartier du Marais, à Paris, a même opposé un refus catégorique. Une décision jugée «ahurissante» par la famille de l'écrivain et ses nombreux admirateurs. La raison de ce veto? Il tient à l'étrange destin d'Irène Némirovsky et aux polémiques qui l'entourent. Bien qu'étant une victime de la Shoah, la romancière, née en 1903 à Kiev, dans une riche famille juive émigrée en France en 1919, aurait péché par aveuglement. Cette jeune femme amoureuse de la vie et de ses plaisirs - les photos d'époque la montrent dans des bals ou dans des villégiatures ensoleillées - aurait, en quelque sorte, payé son «ticket d'entrée» dans la bonne société par des descriptions de ses coreligionnaires tristement conformes à l'idéologie des années 1930. Cheveux crépus, nez recourbés, mains molles et teint bistre: on retrouve, hélas, sous sa plume, ce genre de stéréotypes, pour dépeindre des personnages âpres au gain, ambitieux, mais immanquablement rattrapés par leur atavisme... Tel est le cas, notamment, de David Golder, héros éponyme de son premier roman, un vieux financier impitoyable bafoué par une famille encore plus dénuée de coeur que lui.

Ces soupçons d'antisémitisme font bondir Denise Epstein, fille aînée d'Irène Némirovsky, aujourd'hui âgée de 79 ans: «Ma mère avait un regard très acerbe, ironique, sur les milieux qu'elle avait côtoyés. Dans ses livres, elle n'est pas plus tendre pour la bourgeoisie française et les exilés russes que pour les juifs. Elle avait connu une révolution, un exil, une enfance solitaire, une mère indigne de porter le nom de mère: cela lui a donné un regard pessimiste sur la nature humaine. Qui s'est trouvé confirmé lorsque, sous l'Occupation, le milieu littéraire l'a abandonnée.» Le besoin de reconnaissance et l'inquiétude qui taraudent ses personnages n'étaient-ils pas, en réalité, les siens?

Quant à sa conversion au catholicisme, qui lui est parfois reprochée... «On n'y comprend rien si on ne la resitue pas à sa date: 1939. Elle pensait protéger ses enfants des périls à venir. Moi-même, après la guerre, j'ai fait baptiser les miens, prise au piège de la peur.» «Peinée» par la «campagne insultante» menée contre sa mère, Denise Epstein défend sa mémoire dans un beau livre d'entretiens avec la journaliste Clémence Boulouque, intitulé Survivre et vivre, qui sera publié chez Denoël le 9 octobre.

Un plaidoyer qui n'est pas de nature à fléchir les détracteurs d'Irène Némirovsky. Au risque de «paraître sectaire», Laurence Sigal, directrice du musée d'Art et d'Histoire du judaïsme (dont les tutelles sont le ministère de la Culture et la municipalité), assume son refus d'accueillir une exposition célébrant une romancière à ses yeux surestimée, en qui elle voit un «cas de détestation de soi absolument formidable». Irène Némirovsky n'aurait, selon elle, été rattrapée par le judaïsme qu'à travers les persécutions qu'elles a subies. Or, souligne Laurence Sigal, l'institution qu'elle dirige se veut d'abord un musée de la culture juive et non de la Shoah.

Bref, en 2008, en France, il ne fait pas bon avoir «trahi» sa communauté... A l'inverse, David Marwell n'a pas hésité, lui, à dérouler le tapis rouge pour Irène. «Ce qui m'intéresse chez elle, assure cet ancien chasseur de nazis, ce sont précisément ses complexités et ses ambiguïtés, représentatives de celles de milliers de juifs de son temps. Ceux qui lui reprochent ses personnages caricaturaux font d'elle un personnage unidimensionnel.»

Des choses gênantes dans sa biographie

Loin d'occulter la polémique, le musée new-yorkais la prendra à son compte, en organisant des débats autour de la romancière. Raison de plus pour que l'exposition soit l'un des événements les plus courus de l'automne à Manhattan. Aux côtés de Jack Lang (président de l'Imec), de Denise Epstein ou encore de l'historien Robert Paxton, Elie Wiesel, Prix Nobel de la paix et ancien déporté, sera présent le soir du vernissage. Et pourtant, Irène Némirovsky n'est pas sa tasse de thé. «Les juifs qu'elle dépeint, confie-t-il à L'Express, ne sont pas "mes" juifs: elle décrit des gens d'argent, les miens sont des mystiques. Il y a dans sa biographie, c'est vrai, des choses gênantes. Mais je n'aime pas juger les morts. Surtout quand ils sont morts dans un camp de concentration.»



April 4, 2007

New Work From a Writer Who Died in the Holocaust



PARIS, March 31 — It happens often enough. The author of a small shelf of forgotten novels strikes gold with a best seller, prompting publishers to reissue his or her earlier books, which, behold, suddenly also do well.

So it is with Irène Némirovsky’s “Suite Française.” First published in France in 2004, it has sold 600,000 copies in French and close to one million more in 30 other languages. And predictably, a dozen of her earlier books have since been reissued and sold for translation.

Now another previously undiscovered Némirovsky novel has been unearthed. A powerful tale of love, betrayal and death in a Burgundy village, “Chaleur du Sang” — provisionally titled “Fire in the Blood” in English — was published to warm reviews here in March.

What makes this case unusual, as many readers have since learned, is that “Suite Française” was written from 1940 to 1942 and was only published more than 60 years after Némirovsky, a Ukrainian-born Jewish writer, died in Auschwitz. Her earlier novels were published in the 1930s.

But that has not prevented their revival as well.

“We had four in our backlist,” recalled Olivier Nora, president of Éditions Grasset. “After ‘Suite Française,’ all of them were sold in all the countries where ‘Suite Française’ was sold. We followed the same path. When publishers were fighting over a book, we went with the same publisher as ‘Suite Française.’ ”

Albin Michel, which owns the rights to nine of Némirovsky’s books, has reported similar success both in new French editions and in the sale of translation rights, with German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, British and American publishers showing most interest.

Now, as if consolidating Némirovsky’s literary rebirth, comes “Chaleur du Sang.” Like “Suite Française,” this unpublished wartime novel was buried among a jumble of Némirovsky’s papers rescued by her young daughters, Denise and Élisabeth Epstein, after their father, Michel Epstein, was also deported to Auschwitz. He died there in November 1942, three months after Némirovsky.

Denise and Élisabeth, who carried their mother’s papers while hiding from the German and French police, were reluctant to go through them after the war. But after Élisabeth died in 1996, Denise began transcribing the handwritten manuscript of “Suite Française.” Finally, in 2004, it was published to acclaim by Éditions Denoël in Paris.

Denise Epstein, who is now 77 and lives in Toulouse in southwest France, has recalled that her father would often type Némirovsky’s manuscripts. And indeed, among the writer’s papers she found 10 typed pages of “Chaleur du Sang.” But the narrative broke off in midsentence.

Then in 2005, to ensure their preservation, Némirovsky’s archives were deposited at the Information Institute of Contemporary Publishing in Paris. And it was there that Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, who are preparing a biography of Némirovsky to be published here this fall, found the rest of “Chaleur du Sang” in her own minuscule handwriting.

This short novel, which runs to just 155 pages in Denoël’s French edition, is evidently far less ambitious than “Suite Française,” which Némirovsky had planned as a five-volume epic reminiscent of “War and Peace.” At the time of her arrest, she had completed only two of them: “Storm in June” and “Dolce,” which together are “Suite Française.”

“Storm in June” is an extraordinary portrayal of bourgeois Parisians fleeing advancing German troops in early spring 1940. “Dolce,” written at a time when Némirovsky was wearing a yellow star, is the touching story of a French woman’s silent love for a cultivated German army officer who is billeted in her mother-in-law’s house.

What links “Dolce” and “Chaleur du Sang” is that both are set in a village inspired by Issy-l’Évêque in Burgundy, where Némirovsky vacationed before the war and where she and her family escaped after the fall of Paris. “Chaleur du Sang,” which will be published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf this fall, even names the Hôtel des Voyageurs, where Némirovsky stayed in Issy-l’Évêque for some months in 1940.

However, in this novel — which her biographers believe was conceived as early as 1937 though it was written at the same time as “Suite Française” — there is no suggestion of war. Rather, in the spirit of a novel by, say, Jane Austen, it dwells on intense, often repressed emotional conflict set against bucolic country life.

Its story is told by Silvio, a 50-something bachelor who has settled in the village after many years abroad. An observant loner, he watches the goings-on of his extended family, including his comely cousin Hélène; her childhood sweetheart husband, François; and their lively daughter, Colette.

Then tragedy — self-inflicted, not accidental — strikes and, with the complicity of ever-watching and ever-whispering villagers who prefer not to become involved, a cover-up follows. Similar villagers said nothing when Némirovsky was taken away by the French gendarmes in July 1942.

As in “Suite Française,” the fate of Jews in occupied France is not an issue in “Chaleur du Sang.” Rather, it is with the reissue — and new translations — of “David Golder,” Némirovsky’s first novel, that her attitude toward Jews has become the focus of heated debate.

Critics have noted that “David Golder” portrays a wealthy and embittered Jewish immigrant to Paris, that in the 1930s Némirovsky wrote short stories for some right-wing journals and that in 1940 she and her family converted to Catholicism (although this did not save her or her husband).

“Her supposed ‘self-hating’ has been more of an issue in the Anglo-Saxon world and Israel than here,” said Olivier Rubinstein, president of Éditions Denoël. “When Denise and I went to Israel for the publication of ‘Suite Française’ in Hebrew, there were virulent debates about her supposed anti-Semitism.

“I am not trying to hide aspects that are disagreeable,” he went on, “but I think the question is more complex. I think it was less anti-Semitism than the disdain that bourgeois Jews like Némirovsky had for immigrant shtetl Jews from Poland and Russia. And remember, we’re judging actions of 1938 with the post-Holocaust eyes of 2007.”

Mr. Nora said that the biography by Mr. Philipponnat and Mr. Lienhardt, which in an unusual agreement will be published jointly by Grasset and Denoël, contains new information that should help clarify how Némirovsky herself, rather than her novels, regarded Jews and her own Judaism.

Still, what “Chaleur du Sang” and new editions of her other books, notably “Le Bal: Autumn” and “David Golder,” have demonstrated is that “Suite Française” was not a solitary jewel in an otherwise ordinary literary career. Belatedly, Némirovsky has now taken her place among the small but illustrious group of foreign-born writers who have enriched French literature.



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