Irène Némirovsky: the life of and new work by the author of 'Suite Française'
A review of a newly published collection of short stories by Irène Némirovsky and a new biography of the author. Together, they shed light on the life of the writer whose posthumously published epic of the Nazi occupation of France, "Suite Française," was a sensation when it was published in 2006, six decades after she wrote it.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Dimanche and Other Stories'
by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Bridget Patterson
Vintage, 293 pp., $15
'The Life of Irène Némirovsky'
by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, translated by Euan Cameron
Knopf, 464 pp., $35
The loss and revival of a literary reputation can be a strange and cruel affair.
In France, throughout the 1930s, Russian-born Jewish writer Irène Némirovsky was known primarily for her 1929 novel, "David Golder," an acerbic portrait of a Jewish businessman and his money-grubbing family that some readers felt bordered on anti-Semitic in character.
The book was made into a stage-play and movie and brought Némirovsky some fortune and fame. Although she published increasingly mature and sophisticated work over the next decade, in her lifetime she remained "the author of 'David Golder' " just as Jay McInerney is forever the author of "Bright Lights, Big City."
Twenty-first-century readers, of course, know Némirovsky as the author of "Suite Française," her unfinished epic about the Nazi invasion of France in World War II (Némirovsky would die in Auschwitz in 1942). Because the story behind the "Suite Française" manuscript's survival and publication 60-odd years after its composition is so extraordinary, Némirovsky seems guaranteed a lasting place in world literature.
But is it the writing or the nightmare story of the author's ghastly fate that's giving Némirovsky her place?
These thoughts can't help but hover over any reading of Némirovsky's "new" collection, "Dimanche and Other Stories" (finely translated by Bridget Patterson), and a new biography, "The Life of Irène Némirovsky," by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, translated by Euan Cameron.
The stories in "Dimanche," which appear to be arranged chronologically, reveal an agile and increasingly tough-minded author at work. The title story subtly traces the reveries of a Parisian mother who knows much more about her husband's infidelities and her 20-year-old daughter's budding sexual activities than she'll openly acknowledge. But within she's both resigned to her role on the sexual sidelines and wanting to re-engage with the erotic thrill and suffering of her past.
In another story, "Those Happy Shores," a woman of 22 is described having "a naïve, exaggerated understanding of physical desire, rather like a child who, given her mother's jewelry to play with, handles it with exaggerated yet touching respect, not realizing that the pearls she has been given are fake." Similar layered, intricate observations are at work throughout the book.
The shadows of "the war of 1940" intrude on two later stories focusing on self-involved men: a Uruguayan bon vivant in Europe in "The Spectator" and a wealthy collector in "Monsieur Rose." Both find their cocooned existences rudely violated as war grows from threat to reality. The stories aren't just critiques but documentation of how difficult it is to take in the reality of war when hostilities are still at a distance.
"Dimanche," alas, doesn't give the dates of the stories' composition. For that you need to turn to Philopponnat and Lienhardt's biography. The biography also provides a wealth of information on Némirovsky's Russian-Jewish childhood, her family's escape from Revolutionary Russia, their settling in Paris, her clashes with her vain mother, her happy marriage, her brief literary success, and her and her husband's deaths at the hands of the Nazis (their two daughters survived).
Unfortunately, Philopponnat and Lienhardt couch the information in an overwrought prose that's in sharp contrast to Némirovsky's own sharp, penetrative style. Némirovsky is generously quoted throughout book, but sources for quotations are identified only in the notes. Her novels and stories are discussed in a nuttily allusive manner, with the title of the work in question often being the last thing supplied.
Likewise, explanatory details on key players on the French political and cultural scene often come only after several mentions of them. Some, of course, will be familiar to American readers — but it still seems a perverse way of going about things.
The book is, at best, a flawed way to gain further understanding of her work. Better to wait for more of her fiction to be translated and published here. The bibliography of "Life" hints there's plenty in the works.
Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer.