Irène Némirovsky

Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe! -- Adolf Hitler, 30 January 1939

My dear friend ... think of me sometimes. I have done a lot of writing. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but it helps to pass the time. -- Irène Némirovsky

Némirovsky has a particular talent, a nearness to her readers, so that you almost feel the flesh of the characters she creates, however vile, rapacious and idiotic they may be. This is where she is irresistible - addictive - so that once you pick up one of her novels, you cannot put it down. -- Carmen Callil

I think David Golder is an excellent, sensitive portrait of what happened to Jews who were ghettoised and who could live only by making money. -- Carmen Callil

She could look inside the human soul and make music with her words. But it is only now that I can look at it as a reader rather than as my mother's daughter. -- Denise, daughter of Irène Némirovsky

My mother had a wonderful time in the 1920s and 30s. Our apartment on the Left Bank was always full of writers, talking late into the night. -- Denise, daughter of Irène Némirovsky

For me, the greatest joy is knowing that the book is being read. It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life. It shows that the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her. It is not vengeance, but it is a victory. -- Denise, daughter of Irène Némirovsky

The daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker, Irène Némirovsky (1903-1942) was born in Kiev. In 1918, she was living with her family outside St Petersburg, the family then fled from the Russian Revolution to France. In France she was a successful writer, until the Germans stopped her from writing under German occupation. In 1941, the family left Paris and resided in a little village. July 1942, she was arrested and interned in the Pithiviers concentration camp, from where she was immediately deported to Auschwitz where she died August 1942.

Her father was a man of some influence, as unlike the Jews of the time who were barred from St Petersburg (cf Marc Chagall), the family not only lived in St Petersburg, but he was one of the few Jews to be persona grata at the Imperial Court of St Petersburg.

Following the Russian Revolution, the family fled Russia, living for a year in Finland in 1918, before arriving in Paris in 1919. Her father was forced to obtain a job as an employee in the bank he once owned, but soon he was able to rebuild his lost fortune. Irène attended the Sorbonne.

In 1918, the then fifteen year old Irène, living in the Finish village of Mustamäki (then a haven for the Russian wealthy elite exiled from St Petersburg) wrote poetry to relieve the boredom.

Little goat grazing in the mountains,
Galya is happy to be alive.
The grey wolf will devour the little goat
But Galya will devour an entire country ...

Luckily for us, Irène never threw anything away. Nearly twenty years on, in 1937, she found her youthful poems and other writings in a slim black notebook. Now aged thirty-four, it made her feel sad, as it reminded her of her youth made her feel old.

She left a note for her daughters:

If you ever read this, my daughters, how silly you will think I was! Even I think I was silly at that happy age. It is important to respect the past. So I won't destroy a thing.

By now, Irène was a successful French writer, courted by the French literati, two highly acclaimed novels to her name, David Golder and Le Bal. She had become a literary celebrity on a par with Colette in the1930s, but she felt tired.

Anxiety, sadness, a mad desire to be reassured. Yes, that's what I seek, but in vain. Only in Paradise will I find reassurance. I think of Renan's words: "You find peace in God's heart." To be confident and reassured, sheltering in God's heart! And yet, I love life.

Following the success of Suite française, David Golder and Le Bal were published in English. Sandra Smith, the translator, was contracted to translate five more novels, after the success of Suite française.

David Golder is a story of a rather unpleasant Jewish banker. A Jewish businessman born into poverty on the Black Sea who achieves fabulous wealth by speculating in gold and oil. He now lives in pomp in Paris and Biarritz, but now he is dying and temporal wealth is exposed as spiritually empty. An international financier, rich as Croesus, with a greedy, grasping wife and a heartless daughter. Shylock meets King Lear!

Barely had the ink dried, than there were cries of antisemitism from the Jewish lobby. That short stories by Irène Némirovsky were published by Candide and Gringoire further fueled the charge of antisemitism, conveniently ignoring that the same magazines also published Colette.

In one passage, Golder and Soifer wander down the Rue des Rosiers in Paris, then as now a Jewish quarter. "A dirty Jewish neighbourhood isn't it?" says Soifer. "Does it remind you of anything?" "Nothing good," replies Golder. But this passage, which might be taken as self-hating, anti-semitic, might be better regarded in the way Patrick Marnham, who wrote the introduction to David Golder, describes it: "This is the world of Jewish exiles in 1920s Paris - unsentimental, bitter and black."

The same attacks were launched on Monica Ali by sections of the Brick Lane Bangladeshi community because they did not like their portrayal in her novel Brick Lane. They threatened ritualistic burnings of her book and prevented filming in Brick Lane of the film Brick Lane.

Sandra Smith, the translator of Suite Française who has been contracted to translate five more of Némirovsky's novels into English, finds this charge absurd: "Everybody was being published in those right-wing papers at the time. But their literary sections were different from the regular parts of the paper. They didn't subscribe to the same political angles."

Henri de Régnier struck the right balance with his 1929 review of David Golder:

Of course the human subject matter that Nme Némirovsky deals with is rather repugnant, but she has observed it with passionate curiosity, and she manages to communicate this curiosity to us, so we may share it. Interest is stronger than disgust.

When the manuscript for David Golder was received by publisher Bernard Grasset in 1929, he was so enthused he decided he would go for immediate publication. When he tried to contact the author he found all he had was a post office box number, he had no idea who the author was and was forced to place an advertisement in a newspaper asking the author to contact him.

When he met Irène a few days later, he could not believe that this charming, fashionable young Russian woman who spoke fluent French, who had only lived in France for ten years, could have written such a powerful novel. He took a lot of convincing to believe it really was her hand and that she was not acting for a famous writer who for some reason wished to remain anonymous.

David Golder was an overnight success, highly acclaimed by both critics and other writers.

Irène Némirovsky, then only twenty-six, did not let the success go to her head, she could not understand what all the fuss was about, as she considered David Golder to be a 'minor novel'.

22 January 1930, she wrote to a friend:

How could you think I could possibly forget my old friends because of a little book which people have been talking about for a few weeks and which will be forgotten just as quickly, just as everything is forgotten in Paris?

When the Germans invaded, Irène Némirovsky was deserted by all her fair-weather friends, her husband lost his job at the bank, the Germans forbade publication of her works. To add further to her fall from grace, the family were forced to wear a yellow star to identify them as Jews.

The family left Paris and went to live in Issy-l'Evêque. They could have left France, but they thought France would be safe, and having been refugees once, did not wish to become refugees twice.

France was not safe. Irène Némirovsky was a Jew, a stateless person. They were the first to be rounded up and sent to the gas chambers.

Within months of the fall of France, Jews were being interned in the technically unoccupied Vichy area as well as in occupied France, such was the foul diligence of French gendarmes. Thus did Némirovsky's French refuge became a death trap, and, the writer, for all her fame, was compelled to wear a yellow star in her fateful last few months in the village of Issy-l'Evêque.

The Gendarmes came for her 13 July 1942. She was sent first to Pithiviers, then to Auschwitz, where she was gassed 17 August 1942 .

Two days before her arrest, she wrote in her diary:

11 July 1942: The pine trees all around me. I am sitting on my blue cardigan in the middle of an ocean of leaves, wet and rotting from last night's storm, as if I were on a raft, my legs tucked under me! In my bag, I have put Volume 11 of Anna Karenina, the diary of KM [Katharine Mansfield - Némirovsky considered her to be Chekhov's 'spiritual heir'] and an orange. My friends the bumblebees, delightful insects, seem pleased with themselves and their buzzing is profound and grave.

She knew what was to become of her. In her notebooks she had written: "I am dying ... just as a chicken has its throat slit to be served to these traitors for dinner."

Perhaps she had listened (illegally) to the BBC, which on 1 July 1942 announced the death of 700,000 Polish Jews in gas chambers.

After two days in prison, on 16 July 1942, she was sent to Pithiviers camp. She spent only one day at Pithiviers, the following day, Convoy 6, was the first train to be sent off under the new dispensations of the Final Solution.

Before leaving the camp Irène Némirovsky wrote in a letter: "I think we are leaving today ... May God help us all."

Although officially recorded as dying of typhus, there was a typhoid epidemic raging through the camp, Irène Némirovsky was gassed on 17 August 1942. She was 39 on the day she died.

Her husband was sent to Auschwitz and gassed a few months later.

On their mother's arrest, the two daughters fled and went into hiding, moving from safe house to safe house. They took with them a suitcase containing what they thought were all their mother's notes, not knowing that what the suitcase contained was the handwritten manuscript for Suite française and a partial typed manuscript for Fire in the Blood.

As she was led away by the French police, Irène Némirovsky told her two young daughters "I am going on a journey." This was the last occasion on which the girls saw their mother.

The sisters did not open and look what was inside the suitcase until many, many years later, the memory of what had happened to their mother was too painful.

The girls had occasion to open and examine what was in the suitcase, when they decided to donate the contents to Institut mémoires de l'édition contemporaine , an archive of contemporary literature located in a medieval abbey near Caen. Expecting to find notes, a personal diary, they were surprised to find in a leather-bound notebook, written in microscopic writing that required a large magnifying glass to read, the manuscript for two novels, Storm in June (Tempête en juin) and Dolce, which were to be published as Suite française. [see BCID 5838965 and BCID 5944022]

The two novels were the first of a five part series, a literary account of German occupied France, the outline and notes of which were also in the suitcase.

From the notes that she wrote before beginning Suite française, we know that she dreamt of an ambitious five-part piece of around a thousand pages, constructed like a symphony. She saw Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as her model. She also had in mind Tolstoy's War and Peace. It was to be an observation of occupied France and its aftermath.

She had no illusion as to the enormity of the task that she had undertaken, and began to have doubts as to whether she was up to the task. 12 June 1942 she began to doubt she would finish it and had a premonition that she had not long to live.

To lift such a heavy weight,
Sisyphus, you will need all your courage.
I do not lack the courage to complete the task
But the goal is far and the time is short.

She also had no illusions of the French in defeat who she referred to as 'loathsome'. In her writing she denounced fear, cowardice, acceptance of humiliation, of persecution and massacre. It was rare to find anyone in the literary world who was not prepared to collaborate with the Nazis. Once fawned over, publishers now did not deign to reply to her letters.

3 July 1942, she wrote: "Just let it be over – one way or another."

11 July 1942, she wrote to her editor at Albin Michel, that left little doubt that she did not believe she would survive the war:

My dear friend ... think of me sometimes. I have done a lot of writing. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but it helps to pass the time.

Two days later, 13 July 1942, the gendarmes knocked at her door. They had come to arrest her.

Suite française was a bestseller in France in 2004. Suite française won the Prix Renaudot 2004, the first time that the prize has been awarded posthumously.

The suitcase also contained the typewritten manuscript for Fire in the Blood (Chaleur du Sang), but only the first few pages, it stopped at page 45.

Irène Némirovsky had left notes and other archive material with a trusted friend. When these came to light they were found to contain the original hand written manuscript for Fire in the Blood, which matched the typewritten pages found in the suitcase. [see BCID 5836268]

Irène Némirovsky sketched out Fire in the Blood in December 1937 when she sketched out several other novels.

New subjects and a novel. I thought about The Young and the Old for a second novel (a play would be better). Austerity, purity of parents who were guilty when they were young. The impossibility of understanding that 'fire in the blood'. A good idea. Disadvantage: no clear characters.

A location materialised when at the end of 1937, she went to the village of Issy l'Evêque to interview a nanny for her daughter Elisabeth.

She mentions Issy l'Evêque when she makes an entry in her notebook for 25 April 1938:

Returned from Issy l'Evêque. 4 full days of happiness. What more could I ask? Thank God for that and hope.

It was to Issy l'Evêque the family retreated when they left Paris, and it was here that she wrote Suite française.

Begun in 1938, Fire in the Blood was probably reworked during the summer of 1941 when living in Issy l'Evêque.

It was whilst at Issy l'Evêque that the family were forced to wear the Yellow Star of David to identify them as Jews, and yet, according to the eldest daughter Denise, all she has are fond memories of that time.

And yet, they were the happiest years of my life. We lived together as a family, and my mother took long walks in the woods, during which she wrote and wrote. In the evenings, we had our parents to ourselves.

The moment the Gendarmes came for their mother, Denise recalls:

My mother told me she was going on a journey, and she went upstairs to collect her suitcase. It was a solemn farewell but we didn't know it would be the last.

The girls went into hiding, moving from safe house to safe house, always taking with them the suitcase containing their mother's notes. All through the war they were hunted by the police.

Irène Némirovsky has been accused of being a Jew hater, of antisemitism. This is the norm, the knee-jerk reaction, for the Jewish Fascist far right to call anyone who dares to criticise either Jews or the Jewish State of Israel, as both Noam Chomsky and John Pilger have learnt to their own personal cost. Should a writer portray a Jewish character in the same light, they too will be attacked. There appears to be a smear campaign to tarnish the reputation of a writer of some repute, who, together with her husband and many other Jews, was sent to die at the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Typical of these attacks was a hatchet job by Paul La Farge with an article on the Jewish-American literary website Nextbook. [see Behind the Legend]

Carmen Callil, a great defender of Némirovsky and her work, disagrees sharply with the charge that she hated fellow Jews: "The only reason we're having this conversation is that our culture is now suffused with political correctness. She didn't dislike Jews. She disliked some Jews. Big difference."

Jonathan Weiss, professor of French at Colby College, in Maine in the US, whose biography of Némirovsky, Irene Nemirovsky: Her Life And Works, was published by Stanford University Press (2006), says: "It is true to say, I think, that she was alienated from her Jewish roots, but to describe her as self-hating goes too far."

Critics have likened Irène Némirovsky to the Russian and French literary giants, writers such as Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Flaubert.

The prix Renaudot (also called "prix Théophraste Renaudot") is a literary award which was created in 1926 by ten art critics awaiting the results of the deliberation of the jury of the prix Goncourt. The prix Renaudot, while not officially related to the prix Goncourt, is a kind of complement to it, announcing its laureate at the same time and place as the prix Goncourt, namely on the first Tuesday of November at the Drouant restaurant in Paris.

Located in a medieval abbey l'Abbaye d'Ardenne near Caen in Normandy in France, Institut mémoires de l'édition contemporaine is an archive of contemporary literature.

The Final Solution was the policy Adolf Hitler devised as the "Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe". Extermination camps were constructed for the mass murder of Jews. All across occupied Europe, Jews were rounded up and dispatched to the camps. January 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Central Security Office, mapped out Hitler's plans for the Final Solution throughout Europe, and on 5 May 1942 he came to Paris to present the Vichy government with the numbers of Jews it had to supply for deportation. In summer of 1942, the mass arrests began in a sequence of round-ups by French police.

Copies of books by Irène Némirovsky have been registered as BookCrossing books.

BookCrossing books are released into the wild and their progress tracked through the Internet via a unique Book Crossing ID (BCID).

(c) Keith Parkins 2008 -- March 2008 rev 1