Irène Némirovsky: "She was proud to be Jewish"

Irène Némirovsky was "almost forgotten" when "Suite Française" was published in 2004.

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    Publishers were "very skeptical" when Olivier Philipponnat first proposed a biography of Irene Némirovsky.
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The fame enjoyed today by French novelist Irène Némirovsky (author of "Suite Française") turns on a couple of very twisty quirks of fate, says her biographer Olivier Philipponnat, author of "The Life of Irène Némirovsky." Killed in the Holocaust in 1942, by the turn of the century Némirovsky was "not totally but almost forgotten," Philpponnat told the Monitor in an interview included in the Monitor's 5/10/10 podcast.

What saved Némirovsky's reputation – although not her life – were the actions of her family. Her husband put the unfinished manuscript of "Suite Française" in a suitcase and told Némirovsky's young daughters to hang on to it, no matter what. This was not, however, because he ever dreamed of a posthumous publication, says Philipponnat. On the contrary, he says, her family unrealistically imagined that she would survive deportation. "They thought she'd come back to finish it."

She did not, of course. And even in the 1980s, when her daughters finally had the manuscript transcribed, it was not with any thought of publication, says Philipponnat. Instead, Némirovsky's daughters simply hoped to preserve their mother's words. The stunning success of "Suite Française" – finally published in 2004 – was something none of her family could ever have imagined.

One of the paradoxes of Némirovsky's experience is that although she is best known as a Jewish writer – and Holocaust victim – critics sometimes complain of anti-Semitism in her writing.

It's a charge that Philipponnat completely refutes. "She was proud to be Jewish," he says. She was also, however, very conflicted in her feelings about her parents and the milieu in which she was raised. If there are some ugly stereotypes in her writing, he says, some of them may come from her personal experience.

It is true, Philipponnat says, that Némirovsky – who was born in Kiev, where she spent her early years – saw herself first as a French women. That strong sense of identity with France was the reason she did not flee France after the Nazi occupation. "She did not see how much it was dangerous to her," Philipponnat says. But if she thought she was safe there, "This was an illusion," he adds.

Némirovsky's changing feelings about France are evident, he says, in the margins of one of her books. In March, 1942, next to a passage she had written some years earlier praising the bravery of the French, Némirovsky scribbled additional commentary. The two words she wrote – "hatred" and "despise" – seem proof to Philipponnat that, living under the pressure of the Nazi occupation, Némirovsky's feelings for the French were undergoing a change.

To hear Philipponnat's full interview with the Monitor, click here.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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