In July 1942 a writer named Irène Némirovsky, a Russian-Jewish émigré living in the countryside of Burgundy, was arrested by French police and deported to Auschwitz. She died of typhus within a month. Her husband, Michel Epstein, was deported to Auschwitz four months later, and probably gassed. Only their two daughters survived the war, moving from one hiding place to another. One of those daughters, Denise Epstein, carried her mother’s last manuscript with her throughout the war and into her own adulthood. When she finally decided to transcribe the pages, she was astonished: She and her sister had always assumed they were notes or fragments of a novel. What she learned after months and months of work with the cramped handwriting–Némirovsky’s response to wartime paper shortages–was that Suite Française, the title her mother had given to her novel-in-progress, could stand alone as a finished work, a brilliant portrait of French society in 1940. The book was published in 2004 and became an international sensation. Sandra Smith’s sure-footed English translation has recently appeared in a volume that, like the original French edition, includes the fiction plus a “true story” chaser–the author’s diary notes from 1941 and 1942, related correspondence and an afterword by Myriam Anissimov.
Survivor stories are always compelling, and Némirovsky’s Suite Française is no exception, though the survivor here is the manuscript–not the author. It rivals the story of Anne Frank’s diary, or the story of Albert Camus’s novel The First Man, found in the wreck of the car where he died. The editorial apparatus of both the French and American editions insists that we read Suite Française through the lens of Némirovsky’s found manuscript and the tragedy of the Holocaust. It’s impossible not to think of the miracle of Némirovsky’s surviving last words when you’re reading, and this context gives the book an importance, a shimmering sense of surplus value. As for the author, she turns out to have had a morally complicated history only hinted at in the supplementary material to Suite Française.
In 1939 Irène Némirovsky was a successful novelist and socialite, living an affluent life in Paris with her banker husband, Epstein. She had just converted from Judaism to Catholicism. It’s hard to know whether she converted in order to obtain French citizenship or out of a deeply held faith–possibly for both reasons. Despite her connections and literary prestige, French citizenship was denied to her.
At age 36 Némirovsky had already published twelve books, which earned enough to provide her with a steady income in addition to what her husband made as a banker. She had been born in Kiev; her father was a wealthy businessman, and like many prominent Russian-Jewish families, hers had made the transition to French life seamlessly. Her French was perfect before she ever saw Paris. She was steeped in the rich Russian literary tradition, and even the discipline of the Russian novelists became hers. For each of her own stories, she wrote pages about the characters in detailed notebooks before she knew them well enough to start her novel.
Némirovsky’s mother was a cruel narcissist, and troubled parent-child relations dominate many of her books, such as her much-admired novella The Ball, about a badly mistreated daughter who takes revenge on her social-climbing parents by throwing all of their invitations to a party into the Seine. Her most successful novel, David Golder, also revolves around the troubled-family theme, in this case with the child in the cruel role: David Golder is a ruthless Jewish financier unable to please his heartless socialite daughter. That book became a well-known film in the 1930s, but it also made Némirovsky the darling of the anti-Semitic right, who celebrated her portrait of a Jewish profiteer and lauded her for her “pure” prose style (this detail, gleaned from an admiring review by the virulently anti-Semitic writer Robert Brasillach, is cut from the English-language version of Anissimov’s original French preface). Némirovsky seems to have traveled in the wrong circles, all of her own volition: Among her closest friends were right-wing Frenchmen who became notorious Nazi collaborators and champions of Vichy France.