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Conflicted about her Russian, French and Jewish identity
on 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.)