The literary lives of the French writer Irène Némirovsky (1903-42) include a posthumous one: In 2004, more than six decades after her death at Auschwitz, the manuscript of a novel that she had left behind in her adopted homeland of France was published to an acclaim even greater than her work had garnered in the prewar days. The book also complicated her reputation in ways that no one who knew her earlier work could have expected.
"Suite Française" consisted of two novellas: "Tempête," which caustically captured the hurly-burly of Paris as the Nazis occupied it in 1940; and "Dolce," which pictured the strangely normal French life that managed to persist in a nearby village. Readers of "Suite Française," even if unaware of Némirovsky's fate in the Holocaust, cannot fail to be held by the strength of her vivid portraiture and her measured, limpid prose. As if out of nowhere, Némirovsky gave 21st-century readers an almost palpable sense of what it was like to be alive on the verge of one of the 20th century's major cataclysms. The reasons for the delay in the book's publication were at once mundane and moving: Thinking that the manuscript was a diary kept by their mother, Némirovsky's two daughters—who survived the war, shielded by a nursemaid— had simply been unable to bring themselves to look at it....
Messrs. Philipponnat and Lienhardt begin "The Life of Irène Némirovsky" by describing her end—at Auschwitz, located roughly midway between her birthplace in the Ukraine and her adopted spiritual home in France. The authors believe that she died of typhus, as the Nazi records have it, rather than in a gas chamber.
Her ultimate fate was so tragic that it softens whatever harsh feelings one might have about her earlier, rebarbative views. It is possible, as some have done, to see her victimization at the hands of the Nazis as an ironically just fate, given those views—a kind of cosmic justice. But of course her fate was shared by millions—and there was no justice to any of it. In any case, the Nazis denied everything most precious to Némirovsky and her fiercely wrought identity: her Catholicism, her artistry, her Frenchness, her individuality, her humanity.Share