The timeless legacy of the writer Irène Némirovsky

“My God! What is this country doing to me? It is rejecting me, so let’s take a cool look at it and watch how it’ losing its honor and its life.” 

In this secret note written in hiding, Irène Némirovsky, a celebrated author in France since the 1920s, is justly making an accusation against Vichy regime,  which was collaborating with Nazi Germany. Since 1941 she, at times together with her husband Michel Epstein and their two daughters Denise and Élisabeth, had had to hide from being deported as a Jewish woman converted to Christianity in Issy-l`Évȇque in Burgundy. In mortal danger, she began recording her impressions of French society against the background of World War II. These ultimately led to her last – unfinished – novel: Suite français

The talented writer was born the daughter of Lav, a Jewish banker, and Fanny Némirovsky in 1903 in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, then part of the Russian Tsarist Empire. In the wake of the October Revolution and growing anti-Semitism, the family emigrated to France via Finland and Sweden. Irène Némirovsky had already begun writing stories as a teenager. The Sorbonne graduate in literary studies celebrated her first international success in 1929 with the novel David Golder, in which she tells the story of a Jewish businessman in the last phase of his life. 

However, the anti-Semitic politics of annihilation would stop at nothing. Némirovsky knew this, too, writing her publisher saying that her novel Suite français would likely be a posthumous work. In order to save paper, she wrote the novel in tiny handwriting. A sensual, yet historically relevant novel, it tells the story of the war and everyday life, of worried refugees and greedy aristocrats, of human depravity and the courage that some people summoned even in difficult circumstances. Amidst the chaos, a secret romance unfolds between the German officer Bruno von Falk and the young French woman Lucile Angellier. Némirovsky wanted it to be a timeless novel, a historical snapshot that would remain en vogue for decades, even centuries after its publication.  

The disillusioned writer would be proven correct. Irène Némirovsky was arrested in July 1942 by French gendarmes and deported from the Pithiviers camp to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus shortly thereafter. Her husband wrote to Marshal Pétain, wanting to take his wife’s place in a work camp. He was subsequently arrested as well and killed in Auschwitz. Their orphaned daughters were tormented by having to sneak from hiding place to hiding place until the end of the war. What they did not know was that along with photos and documents, the last manuscript of their mother was among their belongings.

This breathtaking novel remained in an old, rarely opened suitcase for over 60 years. The daughters’ pain of losing their parents at such an early age was too great. When they finally took it out, a whole world opened before them, not only bringing them closer to another literary masterpiece of this fascinating writer, but also revealing on an emotional level their mother’s last thoughts. 

Irène Némirovsky was once again proven to  be right. In Suite français, the former literary star – today almost completely unknown – created complex figures who moved in an atmosphere of betrayal, envy and greed, yet also humanity. She created a multifaceted view of the weak and the strong; humiliated and proud characters whose reactions and behavior reappear again  and again in every era and every time of crisis. From this perspective, it truly has become a timeless and eternal novel.

*Martina Bitunjac, PhD, storica, Centro Moses Mendelssohn / Università di Potsdam

Martina Bitunjac