Celebrating Irene Nemirovsky, Jewish Book Week 7 March

A rather large crowd was assembled in the Galleon Room of the Royal National Hotel to hear Olivier Philipponnat (biographer), Euan Cameron (translator of biography), Sandra Smith (translator of novels and, on this occasion, interpreter) and Denise Epstein (daughter) discuss Irene Nemirovsky.

The loudest applause was reserved for Denise Epstein when she said while her mother had wanted to be French–something she had never managed–she herself had decided to be Jewish once she had the possibility of a choice.  Olivier Philipponnat pointed out that an anti-Semitic pamphlet of 1936 had named Nemirovsky as one of the important Jews Frenchmen should beware of, after which she was especially anxious to become French.

There was some discussion of Nemirovsky’s books failing to show ‘correct’ attitudes in being critical of the Jews in ‘David Golder’ and other works while not being critical of the Germans in ‘Suite Francaise’.  Philipponnat answered this by saying that she was writing novels, and portraying things as she saw them, while after the Fall of France she was in internal exile in Burgundy and had no way of knowing what was happening by way of repression of the Jews.

Philipponnat gave some play to the idea that Nemirovsky had always been French, even though born into a Russian-speaking Jewish family in the Ukraine–her closest attachment as a girl, for instance, had been to her French governess.

That leaves the question of whether the parallels with and contradictions of ‘War and Peace’ in ‘Suite Francaise’ supply both the missing elements of Russian-ness and moral commentary.  For instance, the contrast between the Rostovs loading carts with their goods and then Natasha Rostova shaming them into making room for wounded soldiers with the Péricands loading their cars with goods and then waiting for their expensive linen to come back from the laundry is well-known.  But does this form part of an articulated critique?  I don’t know.  In any case, the negative characters seem to me very French and the positive ones very Russian.

Denise Epstein explained the delay in the MS of ‘Suite Francaise’ reappearing by saying that first of all she’d been waiting to give the suitcase back to her mother when she returned after the war, then when it became clear she wasn’t going to return she thought they were private diaries and so not to be opened, then finally before sending the papers off to a literary-historical archive she decided she’d better work out what they were.  Olivier Philipponnat said that before the publication of ‘Suite Francaise’ in France it was only ‘David Golder’ that was in print there [possibly because it lent itself to an anti-Semitic reading?]

And what is more, the 1930 film of ‘David Golder’ will be shown at the Institut Francais tomorrow (8 March) and it will be serialised on R4 “Woman’s Hour” from 29 March.

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