Almost three years ago the English-speaking world discovered the writing of Irene Nemirovsky when the novel Suite Française was published in English. Irene Nemirovsky had been a well-known author in France before the Second World War but her books had never been translated into English. The publication and worldwide sales of Suite Française changed that. Half a dozen of her earlier novels have now been published and while not as epic as Suite Française they are wonderful to read.
There was a recent exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, displaying the manuscript of Suite Française, the suitcase in which the manuscript had been kept, and dozens of family photographs providing a chronology of the life of Irene Nemirovsky. The manuscript gave the reader a tangible object to view - the tiny script, in South Sea Blue ink, the editing as she wrote, the human touch of the work of the author, the reader able to witness the process of the writing.
We also learned about the life of Irene Nemirovsky. Irene was a Russian Jew. Her father was a banker in Kiev and later St. Petersburg. She grew up in an affluent home, lived a life of privilege, despite increasing restrictions on the lives of Jews in Russia. It was only during the Russian Revolution that the family made their escape and settled in France. It was a spine tingling experience to walk through this part of the exhibit, reading the display boards, as my husband’s maternal grandmother lived in the same places and also left St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution. She fortunately left Europe for the United States in the early 1920’s and so was spared the fate of those who remained.
After leaving Russia Irene again lived a privileged life in France. She attended the Sorbonne, graduating in 1922 with an honors degree in Russian Literature and Language. She married a banker, Michel Epstein. By 1928 Michel Epstein was doing very well as the VP of The Union Bank in Paris, and Irene is becoming a recognized novelist. But, by 1938 it was difficult to be a Jew in France. Even though Irene, Michel and their children had converted to Catholicism and been baptized in 1929, they were unable to obtain French citizenship - despite recommendations by prestigious individuals. In 1941 the bank accounts of Jews were frozen, and by 1942 they were forced to wear the yellow star. The fate of Irene Nemirovsky and her husband was that of most European Jews - in spite of their conversion to Catholicism the Nazis saw them only as Jews. Irene was arrested in July 1942, her husband in October - they died in Auschwitz. Their young daughters were cared for by their nanny, now guardian, and hidden with false names in a Catholic boarding school. The suitcase containing their mother’s writing, and family photographs and papers was kept safe by the guardian until Denise became an adult. It was 50 years before Denise Epstein finally felt able to read her mother’s papers. She then discovered that she had more than personal papers, she had the novel her mother had been composing at the time of her arrest, Suite Française.
Since that time many of Irene Nemirovsky’s novels have been translated and published in English. Fire in the Blood is the wonderful tale of an elderly man who left his village when young and returns many years later to witness the consequences of events from the distant past. Written with suspense, humour and very keen observation of human frailties and prejudices, it is a small gem of a novel.
The most recent novel to be translated is All Our Worldly Goods. This is the story of two generations, the years of, and between, the two world wars – both fought in France. The novel begins “It was the beginning of the century…A profound sense of tranquility reigned over them, and over the sea, and over the world.” Pierre’s father owns a paper mill, Agnes is the daughter of a brewer, very much in love they must disobey their families in order to be together. Pierre goes off to war, but returns to make a life and a family with Agnes. Neither could know that war would also come for their son. The writing is tight and suspenseful, rapidly revealing events as they unfold. A poignant moment as the year 1938 comes to an end, with Pierre and Agnes sitting in front of the fire; snow is gently falling as they share a bottle of champagne and wonder what the New Year will bring. We read of the joy of pregnancy and childbirth and the fear of going to war. Irene Nemirovsky has a unique ability to see beneath the surface of human behavior and to write about the intimate lives of people with both humour and profound sensitivity – very wonderful to read.