Posts Tagged ‘Irene Nemirovsky’

La vie d’Irene Nemirovsky (Olivier Philipponnat & Patrick Lienhardt)

March 14, 2010


This is the French original of the work whose English translation was launched during Jewish Book Week.  As I recall, there it was revealed that they had found some new material for the English version during a recent visit to Russia, in particular from Tatiana, the grand-daughter of Irene Nemirovsky’s aunt-cum-surrogate sister Victoria.  In fact, they may even have found some more documentary material…

From this book, it seems as though Le vin du solitude is highly autobiographical, certainly with regard to Nemirovsky’s childhood and her relationship with her mother.  I’m not sure that we really get an idea of what she was like–that may be inevitable with a biography of a writer, where we already seem to know more about the subject than any biography could tell us–and some events in her life happen offstage, presumably in the absence of any reliable evidence.  For instance, one moment she’s studying Russian and comparative literature at the Sorbonne while going out having a good time with her friends, while the next she’s married to Michel Epstein and engaged in producing oeuvres alimentaires to make ends meet.  OK, so her father’s fortune had disappeared about the time of his death, so that explains something…

How she met Michel Epstein, what their marriage was like–we never really learn.  Similarly, while she was determined to love her daughters in the way that she had never been loved herself, it appears that she wanted to have them educated by governesses, so that they (like her) would not have any schoolfriends–an irony that surely deserves some comment or explanation.

I also didn’t get an idea of what ways her books are like those of other French writers of her time, and in what way they differ from them.  There are odd cases where we learn about the same topics being treated by other writers, but nothing systematic.  The eternal undergraduate would be inclined to claim that the difference is that at the end of her freedom she was in the Burgundian countryside with no occupation other than writing Suite Francaise and no way of gaining control over her circumstances except by rising above them into objectivity.

We do learn a lot about how much she earned for what book when it was published by whom, and indeed the reason given for her never seeking to cross the line into Vichy France was that she depended on a mensualite from her publishers in Paris.  At the same time, her mother lasted out the war years in Nice with forged Latvian papers, which makes it sound as though survival was merely a matter of technique.

Irene Nemirovsky est bien plus preoccupee de litterature que de sauver sa peau, mais il se pourrait que cela revienne au meme car: ‘Ce qui demeure: 1) notre humble vie quotidienne; 2) l’art; 3) Dieu.’

Some time after Irene Nemirovsky had been…taken away…, Julie Dumot, who had agreed to look after her daughters, went to ask for help from their grandmother.  ‘I have no granddaughters’ came the answer through the closed door of her flat.  But they survived, and so–in the end–did what we know as Suite Francaise.

All that will remain of us is love.

Celebrating Irene Nemirovsky, Jewish Book Week 7 March

March 7, 2010

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.