by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt
translated by Euan Cameron
The tragic story of Irene Nemirovsky 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 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.