The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

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MAR 2011 Issue

Filling in the Blanks

Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt
The Life of Irène Némirovsky
(Knopf, 2010)

It is hard to imagine the shape Irène Némirovsky’s daughter must have been in when, in 1998, she braced herself to crack a notebook which she thought held her mother’s painful diary entries, but which turned out to be the first two parts of the so-called Suite Française, released in 2004. Unknown and unread since the 1940s, this was an intended quintet of novels spanning World War II and set in France. The last three books, however, perished in the mind of Némirovsky when she was killed by the Nazis in the Auschwitz gas chambers in 1942.

Perhaps her daughter was disappointed to lose what she thought would be an insight into her mother’s life after all those years, or perhaps she was ecstatic to find these brilliant, unpublished works in their stead. It is in this arcane state that Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt must have found themselves, too, when they took on The Life of Irène Némirovsky, which seeks to provide a unique and intimate account of the author’s life from its beginnings in the Ukraine of Imperial Russia.

Born in 1903 to affluent Jewish parents, Irma Irina Némirovsky spent time in France at regular intervals, developing a love for the country. “She was a French writer whom fate had caused to be born in Kiev, and her Russian, less innate than bookish, would remain imperfect. For Irène Némirovsky, Russian would always be that ‘wild, sweet language’ of the East, where she was born.” The authors largely refer to Némirovsky as “Irène,” the name she adopted upon her family’s exile to France after the overthrow of the czar, though they also refer to her as “Irina” or “Irotchka,” mirroring the sparring between the author’s Russian-Jewish roots and her Francophile tendencies.

In 1929, Némirovsky published David Golder, a commercially successful novel with anti-Semitic overtures, an aspect which the authors make short shrift of: “By the age of 18, Irène Némirovsky knew how to use irony about things that were dear to her, so as to make them worthy of literature. Those critics who, in 1930, would give a cool reception to the Soifers, Fischl, and the other grotesque caricatures of Jews in David Golder, ignored this aspect of her character.” A later passage declares that, while attending a charity fair at a French cultural venue in Kiev, and after having recited the Duke of Reichstadt’s speech before the assembled benefactors, it was “thus, probably for the first time, beneath the tricolor flags and paper chains, [that] Irotchka felt French by right, a right with which comes a love of a language and a culture.” The “youthful unawareness” of the author aside at the time she wrote David Golder, it would seem that, in the end, Irène won out over Irotchka.

This book is by and large a monument to a great writer that seeks to fill in the gaps in her documented life with quotes and adaptations from her novels. This is a liberty we can abide, given that the author was not yet 40 when she died, but it eventually becomes tiresome and overbearing. The authors scramble to explain the origins of this unique woman, best known for her vivid, genuine depictions of France, written at the very time of its invasion. Reading of Némirovsky’s escape from Russia, her first forays into womanhood, and meeting the man who would become her husband, it is clear that Némirovsky’s life was an interesting one, a life that could easily withstand some forthright speculation on the authors’ behalf.

Solid connections are made between Némirovsky’s deep loathing for her mother and the volatile relationships between many of her protagonists and their mothers. A link is also made between the suicide of Némirovsky’s nanny in a river and the overwhelming number of the author’s characters that seem to find watery graves, begging the question of whether dramatizing factual accounts of Némirovsky’s life is necessary “to make them worthy of” telling.

The answer, of course, is no. While the book is extremely well researched, this account of Irène Némirovsky’s life strives too hard for relatability, speculating too heavily on the wealth of material that Philipponnat and Lienhardt clearly know well. The sad truth is that, just as the content of the three missing volumes of the Suite Française won’t ever be known, the sentiments and intentions of their author cannot be done justice by musings carried out upon her literary oeuvre. In lieu of another attic discovery, all else is just speculation.


Dustin Cosentino


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

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