Until 2005, the French novelist Irène Nemirovsky, author of the much-lauded Suite Française, had been more or less completely forgotten, even by specialists in French literature between the wars. Her name did not feature in critical surveys or in the memoirs of contemporaries. Pure chance has led to the discovery of this gifted woman and her work.

She was born in Kiev in 1903, the child of Léon Nemirovsky, a rich Jewish banker, and Faiga (or Fanny, as she called herself), a self-regarding and unfeeling mother. Fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the family settled in Paris, where Léon rebuilt his fortune. Outwardly Irène seems to have been something of a Jazz-age, party-going flapper, but in fact she was observing the human behavior around her with penetrating originality.

She was only twenty-three when she married Michel Epstein, whose origins were Russian and Jewish like hers. Three years later, in 1929, she published her first novel, David Golder. No doubt it is painfully autobiographical: Golder, like her father, has risen from poverty by taking huge financial risks. His name “evoked an old, hardened Jew, who all his life had been hated and feared.” Golder’s friend Soifer, a miser, leaves thirty million francs, “thus fulfilling to the end the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth.” (Nemirovsky drops summary sentences of the kind with terrible simplicity.)

The superficial shame in her depictions of nouveaux-riches Jews might be considered a type of self-hatred, except that Nemirovsky evidently felt pity for them, along with an underlying pride in the way that they dealt with so much contempt from everyone else. Old and hardened Jews do what they have to: they are not allowed a choice. In another early novella, The Ball, she describes Kampf, “a dry small Jew, whose eyes have fire in them,” and the pretentious Madame Kampf, no doubt modelled closely on her own mother. Their daughter wreaks a frightful revenge on them for the sin of social-climbing. And yet, under the savagery of the fiction is a redeeming quality—these people really do love, but don’t know how to show it. In her understanding of the waywardness of the heart, Irène Nemirovsky is the equal of Katherine Mansfield.

After the collapse of France in June 1940, and the installation of the Vichy regime, Irène and Michel were in mortal danger as foreign-born Jews. They hid their small daughters Denise and Elisabeth, but did not themselves try to escape. Instead, Irène’s artistry rose to the drama of the moment, and she wrote Suite Française, a full-length novel that describes the German occupation and the disintegration of France and its society. The novel is so detailed and vivid that it becomes, more or less, a historical document.

The French police came for her in July 1942, and she was murdered in Auschwitz the following month. That November, her husband Michel was also deported and murdered there. The manuscript remained in a suitcase in the possession of the two daughters who for more than sixty years found it too painful to deal with. Its survival and eventual publication was quite outside the bounds of probability.

The role of the artist ultimately is to bear witness. Irène Nemirovsky is in the select company of those who were able to do so in the face of death, thus bringing some hope to others. And how many of those murdered like her, one cannot help wondering, would also have been in that company if only they had been allowed the chance?

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