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The reality behind the novels

‘I never knew peaceful times’, Irène Némirovsky once said, ‘I’ve always lived in anxiety and often in danger’.

10 March 2010

12:00 AM

10 March 2010

12:00 AM

The Life of Irène Némirovsky: 1903-1942 Oliver Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, translated by Euan Cameron

Chatto, pp.466, 25

‘I never knew peaceful times’, Irène Némirovsky once said, ‘I’ve always lived in anxiety and often in danger’.

‘I never knew peaceful times’, Irène Némirovsky once said, ‘I’ve always lived in anxiety and often in danger’. This comment was made during a radio interview in 1934, when the novelist, who would later write Suite Française, was in fact living through the only peaceful period of her life. She had survived the pogroms of her childhood in Kiev and the dangers of her family’s flight from St Petersburg during the October Revolution. In Paris she had gone through a difficult period of resettlement before achieving her childhood dream of becoming a celebrated French writer. In 1934 she had eight years left to live, four of which were to be overshadowed by the approach and arrival of war.

The authors of this first full biography have been able to consult Némirovsky’s working notebooks and draft manuscripts that were previously thought to have been lost, as well as the memories of her oldest daughter, Denise Epstein. The result is a far more detailed picture of her life, which provides us with the information that is essential for an understanding of her work.

Némirovsky’s mother, Fanny, was sensual, selfish, immoral and cold. She never showed her daughter any love and hired a French nanny to look after her only child. Irène grew up speaking French and dreaming of ‘the most beautiful country in the world’. Two years after Irène was born, Russia suffered military defeat at the hands of the Japanese, and the Cossacks were unleashed, in the customary manner, on the Jews of Kiev. The little girl was hidden under a bed by the family cook, who put an Orthodox cross round her neck to protect her. In four days following the pogrom the governor of Kiev issued 8,000 passports to those who chose to leave. In the following 12 months, 200,000 Russian Jews followed them into exile.

But Irène’s father, Leonid Némirovsky, had a better plan. For several years he disappeared completely, while her mother amused herself with a succession of lovers. When he returned in 1914 he had made so much money that the family were able to move to a splendid house in St Petersburg. For a Jewish wheeler-dealer turned banker this was the highest honour imperial Russia could bestow. Irène later said that her father was ‘consumed by a terrible lust for gold’.


Gold was in fact his defence against the dangers that had surrounded him all his life. But in 1917 not even great wealth was enough protection. From the balcony of their house Irène watched machine gunners firing into a bloodthirsty mob that broke into their building. As the Bolsheviks took power, Leonid’s bank was nationalised and a price was put on his head. In 1918 the family fled in the middle of the night to Finland. It took Irène and her mother a further year to reach the safety of France. She was 16.

In the years that followed, Leonid devoted himself to restoring his fortune, and his wife devoted herself to a life of pleasure. Neither of her parents had much time for their daughter and Irène realised that she would have to make her own way and create her own values. The authors suggest that at one time while she was neglected in the pleasure-seeking world of Biarritz, she was raped. On another occasion she apparently disturbed her mother at the wrong moment in the wrong company. The eventual result was that loathing turned into ‘an abominable hatred’, and she grew to think of her mother as ‘the enemy’. Her lingering affection for her father was tinged with contempt for a man who paid for his wife’s lovers, and who seemed to have no interest in life apart from bettering other men in the mortal struggle for money.

Némirovsky was originally published at the age of 23 under a male pseudonym. She made her first appearance under her own name in 1929 with David Golder, a sensational début that was to remain her greatest commercial success. The book was adapted as a film and a play and was widely translated. Hailed as a masterpiece, it is the story of a poor man who, through ruthless ambition and energy, tramples his way from obscurity and hunger in Odessa to a great fortune in Paris. His wife is entirely devoted to debauchery in Biarritz, his beloved daughter is a cynical manipulator of his affections. Published as it was at the end of a decade of wild financial speculation, on the eve of the Great Crash, David Golder enjoyed an immediate critical and popular success. But there was one problem; all the characters in the book were Jewish.

It was Némirovsky’s achievement to have brought the world she knew so well to vigorous life, and to make the reader who starts out repelled by the principal character end by caring for Golder’s humanity. But sections of the Jewish press were concerned that the book’s success would encourage anti-Semitism. Many critics, including Jewish critics, defended the author from this charge. As the authors of this Life point out, Némirovsky was a novelist not a preacher. She wrote about what she knew and described the truth as she saw it. Provoked by the controversy she once said, ‘I don’t know why they are making so much fuss … I simply drew a portrait of papa and mama.’

Years later, following the rise of Hitler, she declared that had the Nazis been around when she was writing David Golder she would not have written it in the same way. This admission has recently been used against her by contemporary critics who continue to accuse her of anti-Semitism. The present biography notes that she added, ‘And yet I would have been wrong . . . it would have been a weakness unworthy of a real writer!’

For Némirovsky, literary achievement and integrity were what gold had been to her father: a means of insisting on her own true value, a means of protecting herself from racial malice, and a means of making a decent life for herself and her family. To judge her anti-Semitic because she wrote about unattractive Jewish characters shortly before the rise of Hitler is absurd. Némirovsky’s own response was to say that for her David Golder did not just show faults, it depicted Jewish virtues — ‘courage, tenacity, pride … in a word “guts” ’.

Between 1929 and 1940 (when her writing was proscribed by Pétain’s anti-Semitic government) Némirovsky published a further eight novels and dozens of short stories which frequently dealt with Jewish themes. Devoted to France and completely set on assimilation, she and her husband, Michel Epstein (also a Russian-Jewish banker), and their two daughters converted to Catholicism. But her attempts to become a naturalised French citizen were repeatedly rejected, although both the girls were French by birth. She began to despair when she heard of the Nazi-Soviet pact, in August 1939. And yet she refused to leave.

A third of this biography is devoted to the last four years of the novelist’s life, a time when she wrote her last three published novels and a further four that were unpublished at the time of her death. These include much of her greatest work such as The Dogs and the Wolves and Fire in the Blood, and show how her attitude to both her adopted country and her Jewish origins changed under the pressure of events. She and her family could easily have fled, but she decided that she had run away too often, and so she finally nailed her colours to the Republican mast. The defeat of 1940 sealed her fate. In May 1942, her daughter Denise, aged 12, who had just made her First Communion, was obliged to wear the Yellow Star. Two months later Irène Némirovsky was arrested by French police and deported within two days to Auschwitz where she died.

When war broke out she had taken refuge in a small village in Burgundy, and it
was from this vantage point that she watched the horrors of defeat and the procession of millions of exhausted soldiers and civilians fleeing across France. She made this spectacle the setting of the first part of Suite Française, the book that was eventually discovered and published five years ago. It is both a fictional masterpiece and an invaluable historical record that surpasses all other personal accounts of that tormented episode. This painstaking biography shows how the rest of Irène Némirovsky’s fiction was also inspired by her earlier life and is of similar historical interest. q


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