An unfinished woman

A gently flawed study of the complicated life and tragic Auschwitz death of Irčne Némirovsky

By Matthew Battles
June 20, 2010

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The first biography of Irène Némirovsky, Jonathan Weiss’s “Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works,’’ appeared in 2006, not long after the astonishing advent of her unfinished (and previously unknown) wartime novel “Suite Française.’’ Where Weiss was elegant and analytic, Némirovsky’s French biographers, Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, are floridly abundant. In a translation by Euan Cameron, their newly published biography of Némirovsky offers narrative moments gleaned from the author’s works, interweaving letters, journals, and stories so tightly that the pages of the book seem smudged with its subject’s own ink. Given that, it is sometimes hard to discern the documentary from the fictional elements in this fabular and dreamlike telling.

Born in Kiev in 1903, Némirovsky was raised in the demimonde of Russia’s Jewish upper class in the last years of empire, a world that combined privilege with fragility and risk. Despite the richness of Kiev’s architecture or the proliferation of its theaters, Philipponnat and Lienhardt observe that it was “impossible to forget that [the city] was the capital of an immensely vast field of buckwheat and rye’’; the winds of the Ukrainian steppe ruled the city in springtime, bringing the scent of honey and storms of yellow pollen.

Driven to increase his fortune, Némirovsky’s father, Leonid, absented himself from his family with constant work; her mother, Anna, strove to spend those riches prodigiously on pearls and gigolos. Yet all that wealth could not protect the Némirovsky family from the vicissitudes of history and the ferocious pogroms that marked the years of the tsar’s waning power, smashing not only the shtetls but reaching into the upper-class districts of Kiev and St. Petersburg as well.

In this tempest of threat and privilege, Irène grew up amid a torturous back-and-forth of cultural richness and domestic barrenness. Through Némirovsky’s own memories and a vast knowledge of time and place, Philipponnat and Lienhardt evoke the lingering tragedy of her childhood. Némirovsky’s mother was tormented by the rigors and expectations of parenthood; every glimpse of her growing, lovely daughter reminded her of the ravages of age and the bondage of family. With the rest of wealthy Russia, Némirovsky’s family spent as much time in France as they could, with the girl half-orphaned in hotel rooms while her father marshaled his far-flung millions and her mother plied her charms in the salons and ballrooms of Paris.

Némirovsky’s French governess, Zézelle, immersed the girl in a transforming Gallic identity. Zézelle, who smelled of “fine soap and oil of violets,’’ offered young Irène a vision of French domesticity, of calmness and orderliness and light, which she would spend her life recapturing.

As Russia dissolved in a torrent of murder and privation, the family escaped from St. Petersburg by way of Finland and Sweden, locales that charged the young woman’s imagination with frozen fir trees and fairy tales and a chilly violence. Ensconced in Paris, Némirovsky reveled in the French youth that she always believed it was her destiny to enjoy, alternating serious study in language and literature at the Sorbonne with the gay, fervent rituals of a Parisian flapper. Out of those experiences she emerged emancipated not only as a young Frenchwoman, but as an artist as well: Her first novel, “David Golder,’’ which tells the story of a financier, his loathsome wife, and their wayward, troubled daughter, was published to acclaim in 1929, the first of a string of novels of moral struggle.

The greatest of these works, “Suite Française,’’ was not known until the late 1990s, when Némirovsky’s elder daughter, Denise, discovered and published the manuscript to great acclaim. It was written in the impossible years 1939-1942, during which Némirovsky raised her two daughters, converted to Catholicism, and strove to transform the terror of the age into art. With two of her planned five books finished, Némirovsky was sent to Auschwitz in November 1942, where she was gassed; her gentle husband, Michel Epstein, followed her three months later. Their daughters, given a 48-hour reprieve by the arresting officer, went into hiding and survived the war.

In the adroitness and wisdom with which “Suite Française’’ treats the savage dawn of World War II, the work is an astonishment. With Némirovsky’s earlier books it also presents the puzzle of its author’s engagement with her Jewish identity. Although her fiction does not ignore Judaism altogether, it rarely treats it charitably; and the two novellas in “Suite Française,’’ while prescient and precise on the evil nihilism of Nazism, never fail to portray their characters in anything other than flawed human terms. Philipponnat and Lienhardt’s biography may be faulted for its lack of critical attention to Némirovsky’s portrayal of Jewish life. But it goes some distance toward answering these charges by exploring in its full complexity and nuance a life lived amid, and not apart from, the conundrums of its time.

Némirovsky’s fiction shapes striving, suffering, and longing into bitterly redemptive moral tales, but the story of her demise is in no way redemptive. She died within days of her arrival at Auschwitz; as with millions of other victims, she was denied the analytic rigors of time and survival. There would be for her no fateful choice, no ennobling suffering and perseverance, no legend-making resistance; the machinery of the Final Solution would deny her even these dubious honors. Her tale, then, does not belong in the canon of redemption with which we have familiarized ourselves and in some sense domesticated the Holocaust. This story is of a bright and flickering life, and of how much was snuffed out by monstrous crime.

Matthew Battles, author of “Library: An Unquiet History,’’ can be reached at

LIFE OF IRČNE NÉMIROVSKY By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt
Translated, from the French, by Euan Cameron
Knopf, 448 pp., illustrated, $35