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The Life of Irene Nemirovsky: 1903-1942
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 June 2014
Irina Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, the daughter of Leonid, a Jewish self-made banker, and of Anna, a cold and censorious mother whom Irina hated and whom she would portray mercilessly in several of her novels. The child suffered dreadfully from asthma in that blossom-laden city. From the time she was three years old, the family would travel every winter to the spa towns of France (Anna was devoted to all things French), where her parents would leave her with a beloved French governess (recruited in Kiev), to be treated for her asthma, while they lived it up on the Côte d’Azur. The little girl loved France, soon spoke French fluently and conversed in that language with her mother.

There were frequent pogroms in Ukraine, and the one in 1905 even reached the prosperous area of the city where the Nemirovsky family was living. In 1914 the family moved to St Petersburg, a city less liable to pogroms and where Leonid’s wealth continued to grow; and the war made him richer still. But then the Bolsheviks seized power; all the banks were taken over; drunken mobs were likely to attack any bourgeois (I have never read elsewhere of the ubiquitous raids on wine-shops and wine-cellars), and the Nemirovsky family fled to Finland in January 1918. After a while there, they moved on to Sweden, and then finally, in 1919 to Paris, where a branch of Leonid’s bank in Russia still existed, so they were not exactly penniless refugees. The circle of émigré Russians in Paris is very well described (as is the social and political background throughout the book).

Irène went to the Sorbonne, where she studied Russian literature (she had previously read mainly French literature). Up to then she had written mainly poetry for her own entertainment; now she began to write prose, generally full of sardonic observations, anticipating the quality of so many of her later novels. In 1921, at the age of eighteen, she had the first of these pieces published in a bawdy magazine. That this publication was also fashionably antisemitic would not have troubled Irène, who was herself very critical of Jewish characteristics. In 1923 she published a story which has the kind of description of ghetto Jews that could be found in antisemitic literature. Because she matches the description of the ghetto Jews with equally ugly ones of antisemitic officers and Russian drunks, Philipponnat acquits her of expressing a judgment on them. (I cannot go along with him when he writes, of another of her books, “Irène Némirovsky was a novelist, not a preacher.” I think there is never any doubt of the values she held and wanted to convey.) Like her mother, Irène could not help being haunted, with a shudder, by her ancestral roots. The portrayal in her books of wealthy Jews, obsessed with making money, is equally unpleasant. And she is driven to write about such Jews in very many of her stories.

She threw herself into the life of the giddy “Roaring Twenties”. But that stopped in 1926 when she married Michel Epstein, the son of an emigré Russian Jewish banker, but only a poorly paid bank employee.

Her breakthrough as a novelist came with the publication of “David Golder” in 1930, and its reception is discussed at length. It had 125 reprints within a year, and there are many pages about its adaptation for the theatre (a flop) and for one of the earliest talking films (a great success.)

Despite her fame and her sponsors, her applications for French citizenship from 1935 onwards were unsuccessful: the French were by this time worried about the influx of so many foreigners, especially of Jews. But she did convert to Catholicism early in 1939, as did her husband and their two young daughters. Was it an attempt to escape antisemitism? Was the reason the distaste she had shown in her books for both rich and poor Jews? Or was it a genuine spiritual search?

Shortly before, in 1938, she had found an idyllic market town, Issy-l’Évêque, in Burgundy, which represented to her the true France and to which she returned over and over again. Just before the end of the Phoney War in 1940, at the same time as her last book about Jews (“The Dogs and the Wolves”, the last to be published in her life-time) was issued, she began work on “All Our Worldly Goods”, the first of her novels about provincial France during the First World War and the period that led up to the Second World War.

She was in Issy when the German troops arrived in June 1940, and the reports of roads crammed with fugitives inspired the first part of “Suite Française”, which was also a panorama of a flawed French society. Its second part portrays a community like Issy under a still quite mild German occupation. So does another novel, “Fire in the Blood”. And in “The Fires of Autumn” she describes inter-war France perverted by her enduring theme, the love of money.

The family had to register as Jews; some publishers cancelled their contracts with her; another accepted some stories which appeared under a pseudonym; but most of the stories she wrote at the time were published only after the war. The German authorities demanded that royalties of Jewish writers had to be paid into a blocked account. Irène’s husband Michel was dismissed by his bank. Very little money was coming in. Yet, with all those worries, she was still enormously productive in those last two years before her arrest on 13 July 1942. Michel and their two daughters were arrested on 6 October. Amazingly, a German officer gave the girls 48 hours to get away (with a suitcase which contained the manuscript of “Suite Française”). Michel and Irène had long ago made arrangements for a friend to look after the girls if their parents were arrested, and this woman hid them until the Liberation. Both parents died in Auschwitz.

Némirovsky has left various notebooks and memoirs of her life, and her novels have a strong autobiographical elements. Her descriptions are always extremely striking, and Philipponnat quotes many of them, adding enormously to the pleasure the book gives. But when they come from novels, it seems to me that Philipponnat sometimes takes them at face value. Even if the only slightly disguised characters in the novels are often based on Némirovsky’s perception of, for example, her parents and are written with all the passionate feelings that she had about them, can we take these as true images of what her parents were really like? Perhaps they were; but Philipponnat does not raise this question, and seems to see her parents entirely through Irène’s eyes.

When writing about of Némirovsky’s books and of their reception, Philipponnat will make many references to French, Russian, German (and English) stories with which hers can be compared or to passages which might have inspired her. Few English readers will know of these writings. Besides, if they have not read her books, many of the lengthy comments about them will be difficult to understand. All this makes the second half of the book quite hard going; but Irène’s character comes out strongly, and that makes the effort worth while.

(See my Amazon reviews of David Golder, The Misunderstanding, The Dogs and the Wolves, All Our Worldly Goods, Suite Française.)
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on 9 July 2013
My partner gave me this biography because he knows that I rate the author highly. The tragic story of Irene Nemirovsky has fascinated me since I read Suite Francaise. I was researching the life of Katherine Mansfield at the time and the knowledge that Irene had read and been influenced by Mansfield, and had been reading Katherine Mansfield's diaries when she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, gave me a deeper involvement in her work.

More recently I read her first, published novel, David Golder - an almost vicious portrait of her father and mother - and became more determined to find out about her life. This biography was written by two people and translated into English by a third, so perhaps this has something to do with its difficulty. The amount of information crammed into it is incredible, but also makes the book a battleground where the reader fights for clarity and a thread of chronological stability. It doesn't help that stories and novels not available in English are referred to and quoted without explanation, making it a bewildering maze of literary allusion. The narrative facts of Irene Nemirovsky's life are buried in it (as Katherine Mansfield once said of Frieda Lawrence's good qualities) like a sixpence in a gigantic plum pudding.

Yet, as a study of Irene Nemirovsky's work, it's context and influences, the biography is invaluable. Irene's parents were Russian Jews, her father a banker and financial wheeler-dealer; her mother a vain socialite who was terrified of growing old. `Fanny' as she liked to be called, kept her daughter in children's clothes even after she had grown up - and tried to keep Irene out of sight so that she wouldn't give Fanny's age away to her many lovers. Irene hated her mother and made her the subject of a number of vitriolic novels, including one called Jezebel.

The family spent a lot of time in France, living the life-style of rich Europeans - Irene's preferred language was French. But all this changed dramatically with the financial collapse that occurred at the end of the nineteen twenties. St Petersburg became unsafe for anyone of Jewish ethnicity. A cook saved Irene from the Russian pograms by hiding her behind the bed clutching a Christian, orthodox, cross. The Nemirovsky's left Russia via Finland with their jewellery concealed in their clothes and settled permanently in France, but in much reduced circumstances.

In Paris, Irene tore herself away from her family and married the son of another Jewish Banker, Michel Epstein. She had started writing as a young girl and continued to write after her marriage. Her first major novel, David Golder, was sent to the publisher just as Irene was about to give birth to her first child. She had given a poste restante address because she didn't want her family to know if the novel was rejected. David Golder caused a great stir at the publishing house and they were desperate to find the author. When Irene did, eventually, arrive at their office, they were amazed to find a very young woman, olive skinned, dark eyed, modest, and could hardly believe that she was the author of such a brutal novel about male pride and the horrors of growing old and powerless.

As the banking sector grew steadily weaker, Irene became the family's main breadwinner. She and her husband were consistently denied French citizenship in an atmosphere of increasing anti-semitism. Irene was one of France's leading novelists, a Christian convert and her children were born there, but she would never become French. But she still believed that France was safe, despite German occupation, and refused to leave when she had the opportunity. She and her husband were arrested and deported, separately, to the concentration camp at Auschwitz where they both died. The children were saved by a friend who hid them until the war was over. The eldest treasured the suitcase that contained her mother's manuscript of Suite Francaise, but it was many years before she could finally bear to look at it.

The concluding chapters of this biography make you very sad, because they give a very clear picture of how genocide can happen without ordinary, reasonable people acknowledging what is going on. It's terrifying to think that immigrant-phobia can become genocide so easily.
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on 11 November 2010
Having read numerous books by Nemirovsky, I was certainly anticipating this book. Composed by using secondary materials including excerpts from her books, this "biography" is a heavy read and not worth that hard cover price of the book. Frankly, after a number of months of reading a chapter or a portion of a chapter at a time, I am still trying to finish it. Not worthy of an exceptional writer.
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on 9 June 2013
The tragic story of Irene Nemerovsky has fascinated me since I read Suite Francaise. I was working on the biography of Katherine Mansfield at the time and the knowledge that Irene had read and been influenced by Mansfield, and had been reading Katherine Mansfield's diaries when she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, gave me a deeper involvement in her work.

More recently I read her first, published novel, David Golder - an almost vicious portrait of her father and mother - and became more determined to find out about her life. This biography was written by two people and translated into English by a third, so perhaps this has something to do with its difficulty. The amount of information crammed into it is incredible, but also makes the book a battleground where the reader fights for clarity and a thread of chronological stability. It doesn't help that stories and novels not available in English are referred to and quoted without explanation, making it a bewildering maze of literary allusion. The narrative facts of Irene Nemerovsky's life are buried in it (as Katherine Mansfield once said of Frieda Lawrence's good qualities) like a sixpence in a gigantic plum pudding.

Yet, as a study of Irene Nemerovsky's work, it's context and influences, the biography is invaluable. Irene's parents were Russian Jews, her father a banker and financial wheeler-dealer; her mother a vain socialite who was terrified of growing old. `Fanny' as she liked to be called, kept her daughter in children's clothes even after she had grown up - and tried to keep Irene out of sight so that she wouldn't give Fanny's age away to her many lovers. Irene hated her mother and made her the subject of a number of vitriolic novels, including one called Jezebel.

The family spent a lot of time in France, living the life-style of rich Europeans - Irene's preferred language was French. But all this changed dramatically with the financial collapse that occurred at the end of the nineteen twenties. St Petersburg became unsafe for anyone of Jewish ethnicity. A cook saved Irene from the Russian pograms by hiding her behind the bed clutching a Christian, orthodox, cross. The Nemerovsky's left Russia via Finland with their jewellery concealed in their clothes and settled permanently in France, but in much reduced circumstances.

In Paris, Irene tore herself away from her family and married the son of another Jewish Banker, Michel Epstein. She had started writing as a young girl and continued to write after her marriage. Her first major novel, David Golder, was sent to the publisher just as Irene was about to give birth to her first child. She had given a poste restante address because she didn't want her family to know if the novel was rejected. David Golder caused a great stir at the publishing house and they were desperate to find the author. When Irene did, eventually, arrive at their office, they were amazed to find a very young woman, olive skinned, dark eyed, modest, and could hardly believe that she was the author of such a brutal novel about male pride and the horrors of growing old and powerless.

As the banking sector grew steadily weaker, Irene became the family's main breadwinner. She and her husband were consistently denied French citizenship in an atmosphere of increasing anti-semitism. Irene was one of France's leading novelists, a Christian convert and her children were born there, but she would never become French. But she still believed that France was safe, despite German occupation, and refused to leave when she had the opportunity. She and her husband were arrested and deported, separately, to the concentration camp at Auschwitz where they both died. The children were saved by a friend who hid them until the war was over. The eldest treasured the suitcase that contained her mother's manuscript of Suite Francaise, but it was many years before she could finally bear to look at it.

The concluding chapters of this biography make you very sad, because they give a very clear picture of how genocide can happen without ordinary, reasonable people acknowledging what is going on. It's terrifying to think that immigrant-phobia can become genocide so easily.
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on 31 July 2012
This biography of the author Irène Némirovsky is remarkable for the thoroughness of its research and its completeness. Némirovsky was born in Russia but after the revolution she fled to Finland then to Sweden and finally settled in France. She was an outstanding author, writing in French, but her Jewish origins led inexorably to her separation from her family and finally deportation by her adopted France to Auschwitz where she died in 1942.

This biography cleverly intertwines her own life with that of the narratives and characters in her books, providing as much a summary of her work as of her life. The result is at times rather dense and detailed, especially if the reader is unfamiliar with the works of Némirovsky. On the other hand it may serve as a wonderful stimulus to delving into one or more of the books mentioned. The harder going is also punctuated by vivid and personal descriptions of her time in Paris and, especially during the war period, in the sleepy rural village of Issy-l'Evêque, providing a contrast to the literary analysis.

Above all, the underlying story of the struggles of an immigrant to ever be fully accepted, irrespective of their achievements, is deeply disturbing and moving. During the war years the majority of those who had feted her slowly drifted to the shadows. Publishing and by consequence earning a living, became difficult both because of formal restrictions on Jewish writers and the less explicit desires of former colleagues to keep their distance. One is left with the question of who was responsible for her deportation. At the same time the efforts made by the French that saved her daughters from a similar fate and the relationships between the occupying Germans and the village inhabitants encapsulates the contradictions to be found in her own best known book, Suite Française.

The biography therefore tells the wonderful, tragic story of a marvellous writer but achieves much more in providing a very human view of foreignness and the vulnerability which emerges at times of stress. The authors, in capturing an element of the writing of Némirovsky note: "she was simply observing that a great danger is enough to wipe away centuries of civilisation and piety, and that brutish impulses smoulder beneath polite behaviour." This was undoubtedly her experience.
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on 12 October 2010
A story of how people who leave family, friends and their culture behind in one country, live in another culture. This story happens to take place between the Russian Revolution and WWII. As always with people who live in different countries, there are the issues of adapting, adopting and acceptance. The latter comes terribly unstuck in the late 1930s and during WWII. The true story is a reminder of what people give-up and, in this case, escape when they leave their home country. Its a story also of the impact of childhood and parents on one's adult life and discrimination (before the horrors of WWII). The life story is interwoven with characters from Irene's novels - none of which I have read but the book is so well written, it didn't matter. This story is another reminder of how lucky some of us are because, 'there but for the grace of God walk I'. Beautifully written and the translation is superb - I could hardly put the book down.
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on 13 February 2013
This is an excellent account of a fascinating life - and well translated. I would recommend it to anyone interested in 20th century French writing.
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on 30 March 2016
I was delighted to receive this biography for Christmas as I wanted to find out more about the author. But I think the writers missed a trick here. It feels like a very skewed view of her life, often using her own novels as sources. For example, Irene Nemirovsky had a very poor relationship with her mother, and what we get is Irene's view of Anna, drawing on her fictionalised portraits. It's interesting, but I don't think it's sufficiently balanced with other perspectives (maybe it was impossible to find any?). But the real issue for me is that the writers weigh in with judgmental comments too, making assumptions about the characters without backing up their claims with evidence. I was looking for more objective source material, and a sense that the authors had made an effort to seek out the truth. Stylistically it's confusing and dense; maybe that's something to do with it being a translation but I really struggled to wade through it. Disappointing.
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on 12 July 2013
Nice to have this in a good English translation and digital. Thank you. A very important and significant development in European Literature.
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on 27 May 2013
It's a very interesting book, so far as I have read. I'm presently in the 1920s - there's cealy a lot more to come!!
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