A writer lost to the 20th century.
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
"After the calm comes the storm; it starts out slowly, reaches its peak, then it's over and other periods of calm, some longer, some shorter, come along. It's just been our bad luck to be born in a century full of storms, that's all. They'll die down."
This is what Irène Némirovsky writes in Suite Française, her incomplete novel published in 2004. Némirovsky has truly lived through the worst of all storms that the 20th century has summoned. She was born in Kiev in 1903 into a wealthy Jewish family. Emotionally disconnected from her parents, she grew up mostly in the care of her French governess. Her family fled the Russian Empire during the Russian Revolution and arrived in Paris in 1919. Irène studied Literature and then began writing short stories for magazines and newspapers. In 1929, her first novel David Golder was published and became an immediate success. She got married to Michel Epstein, who was Jewish and stateless just like her, and with whom she had two daughters. During the thirties, she quickly gained acclaim for her work, used to be well-read and was praised in literary circles.
The growing anti-Semitism in Europe and the outbreak of World War Two disrupted her growing success and her work stopped being published. In 1940, the anti-Semitic laws enacted by the Vichy France government forced the family to flee from Paris to the countryside. In this time of isolation, Irène spent her days writing and reading. In an interview with BBC in 2005, daughter Denise Epstein tells: “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.” On the 13th of July 1942, Irène Némirovsky was found and arrested by policemen of Vichy France and brought to Auschwitz. Even though her husband desperately fought for her release, Irène died in the concentration camp a month later, supposedly of Typhus. Just shortly after, Michel was also deported to Auschwitz where he was killed immediately after his arrival. Before their deportation, the couple took precautions and the two daughters, at that time only thirteen and five years old, were able to hide and survive the war.
Némirovsky’s fate is reflected in her work. When Irène lived in Paris in 1930, Snow in Autumn was published. In this hauntingly melancholic story of just barely fifty pages, Némirovsky tells the story of a wealthy Russian family that in the wake of the Russian Revolution flees to France. The maid of the family, who is the narrator of the novella, speaks of the heartbreak she has to endure when the sons of the family are sent to the military, the struggle of adjusting to a new bustling city and the enduring nostalgia of a lost life in the cold. Referring to the many immigrants seeking refuge in Paris after the Russian Revolution, Némirovsky writes:
“Back and forth they went, between their four walls, silently, like flies in autumn, after the heat and light of summer had gone, barely able to fly, weary and angry, buzzing around the windows, trailing their broken wings behind them.”
The maid is unable to adjust to life in Paris and must observe how the family, after a first culture shock, seamlessly entangles into Parisian society. She finds herself isolated and homesick, still picturing “the columns shimmering with ice in the moonlight” and thinking about the snow; “as soon as she saw the snow start to fall, she would be at peace […] She would go to bed and close her eyes, for ever.” In a dreamlike, yet lucidly written chapter, Nemirovsky describes how the maid eventually finds her snow, and with it, the peace that she has wished for.
In Le Bal, an equally short novella published together with Snow in Autumn in 1930, Némirovsky processes the cold and distanced relationship she had with her own mother. With sharp language she lets us take a front-row seat in the bitter mind of a young girl, unhappy with the decision of her mother to not let her attend the ball that she is hosting. Resembling the character Briony Tallis from Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the young girl decides to take her fate into her own hands. Némirovsky writes: “A kind of giddiness took hold of her: the wild need to do something outrageous and evil.” The girl takes revenge – with consequences that can only be described as comically tragic.
Le Bal and Snow in Autumn are just two of the works that Némirovsky could still publish in her lifetime. After the Second World War was over, she was forgotten in the literary world, her previous fame was lost in the turmoil that Europe was going through. Only in 1996 one of Némirovsky’s daughters discovered that in the suitcase that she had of her mother all along, was an unfinished manuscript from the time in isolation in the countryside. The manuscript contained Némirovsky’s unfinished novel Suite Française. Only the first two of five planned parts of the novel were completed. Denise Epstein, by then the only one of the two daughters still alive, initiated the publication of the novel which immediately became a bestseller and caused the rediscovery of Irène Némirovsky’s work.
The novel is thought to be an extraordinary time document, since even though it was written right in the middle of the Second World War, Némirovsky weaved in the events with balanced contemplation and intention. It tells the story of a French village occupied by the Nazis. Denise Epstein tells BBC:
"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."
A truly distinct writer in the literary landscape of the 20th century has been rediscovered in these surviving works. Némirovsky captivates with precise and simple language that is able to fascinate an audience still, almost a hundred years after publication.
An interested reader could start with Le Bal and Snow in Autumn to get a first quick insight into Némirovsky’s straight-forward and poignant prose style. The Wine of Solitude, published in 1935 when Iréne was living in Paris, is also a great way to get to know Némirovsky’s work. It is her most autobiographical novel and a fascinating way to learn more about her story.
* Interview quotes from: Caroline Wyatt. (2005). French novel survives Auschwitz. BBC News, Paris.