- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2010

THE LIFE OF IRENE NEMIROVSKY
By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt
Knopf, $35,448 pages

WOMAN OF LETTERS
Edited by Olivier Corpet and Garrett White
IMEC, $29.95, 128 pages, 160 pages

Nearly 70 years ago, on July 17, 1942, the French police shipped the brilliant young novelist Irene Nemirovsky off to Auschwitz along with 1,000 other French men and women and 113 children under the age of 12. Her stay in the camp was not long. Her death certificate states she died of “flu” at 3:20 p.m. on Aug. 19, 1942.

Although she was no longer among the living, thanks to her husband, Michel Epstein, who would shortly die at Auschwitz as well, she would become an international best-selling novelist in 2004. Just as he was being arrested, her husband managed to give a suitcase to their two young daughters with the injunction, “Guard this with your lives for Mama.”

“Woman of Letters” movingly and meticulously recounts how Denise and Elisabeth Epstein kept that suitcase, finally only opening it in 1980 to find their mother’s handwritten manuscript of “Suite Francaise,” that would in 2004 sell more than 1,300,000 copies throughout the world. In succeeding years, nearly all of Nemirovsky’s 16 novels, one biography (of Chekhov) and three anthologies of short stories have been translated and published to very considerable popular and critical success.

Nemirovsky’s own life has also produced a number of biographies and critical works that in turn have provoked reactions from scholars and critics. In particular the featured reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and the Sunday New York Times Book Review brought forth letters to the editor, including one from a Harvard professor of French civilization and comparative literature who is writing a book on Nemirovsky and Jewish identity in France.

Nemirovsky was the only child of a well-to-do Russian Jewish banker and his socially ambitious wife in Kiev. The family came nearly every year from Kiev to vacation in Paris and on the French Riviera. With the onslaught of the Russian Revolution, they settled for good in the fashionable quartier of the French capital.

Irene had a French governess, read voraciously everything she could find in French literature and proudly declared she dreamed exclusively in French. She attended the Sorbonne, and at 21 had her first novel, “The Misunderstanding,” published to worthy if not enthusiastic reviews, but at 23 she found fame and fortune with her next work, “David Golder,” the story of the last days of a Russian-Jewish banker.

This work not only became a huge best-seller, but was the first French talking motion picture directed by Julien Duvivier and starring Harry Bauor, who also played the eponymous banker in a highly successful stage production. Her French publisher, Bernard Grasset, was quite astounded to discover his new author was not only a woman but a new mother as well, as he found the language powerful and virile, nothing he thought a woman could possibly be capable of writing.

This was a time in Europe when anti-Semitism and fascism were on the rise everywhere leading up to World War II. The authors of “The Life of Irene Nemirovsky” quote a review at the time the novel was published: “We are returning to a situation similar to that in the middle ages and the sixteenth century, when women used the same cruelty in their language, even in their writing, as men.” Other reviewers called “David Golder” a masterpiece, comparing Nemirovky’s writing to that of Balzac, Zola and Dickens.

The New York Herald Tribune said of the novel: “This powerful tale transcends any racial or geographical features, and it unfurls with great power from its frantic opening up to its inevitable conclusion.” The authors are concerned not to present Nemirovsky as being overtly anti-Semitic today in evaluating her fairly merciless portrait of the Jewish banker Golder. They quote her as saying, “I am absolutely certain that had there been a Hitler, I would have greatly softened ‘David Golder,’ and I would not have written it in the same way. And yet I would have been wrong, it would have been a weakness unworthy of a real writer.”

If indeed Nemirovsky in her work presented Jewish characters in ways that appear to readers today as stereotypical, she also time and again created in her fiction compassionate and humane Jews.

The years during which Nemirovsky lived and wrote in France were a veritable minefield for a writer. Publications like Gringoire, in which her novels were serialized and her short stories were published, had in its early days a reputation for being “the great Parisian political and literary weekly,” but wound up in the Vichy years as an outright anti-Semitic rag.

Both books dealing with Nemirovsky’s life illuminate how the novelist drew on her own experiences for her fiction. Her mother, a handsome, ambitious, most disagreeable woman whom her daughter loathed, served her splendidly as raw material for more than one female character in her work. Her two daughters recollect on coming to visit their grandmother after the war being faced with a closed door, hearing a voice say, “I have no grandchildren.” She died at 97 in l972.

The two works on the life of this admirable novelist are enriched with bountiful family photographs that capture Nemirovsky’s life and her writing. The title of the short work, “Woman of Letters” is exquisitely ironic in its own way. This was the identifying tag with which the French authorities labeled her for the convoy sending her off to her death in Auschwitz.

Cynthia Grenier is a Washington writer.

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