Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française, and The Mirador

September 2, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 1 8 min read

1. Suite Française
coverIn 1941, the celebrated French novelist Irène Némirovsky began work on her final novel. She was thirty-nine years old. Suite Française was to be a wildly ambitious work, a novel of a thousand pages. “To do it well,” she wrote in her notebook, “need to make 5 parts:”

1.   Storm
2.   Dolce
3.   Captivity
4.   Battles?
5.   Peace?

The first part of the novel, “Storm in June,” is an ensemble piece concerned largely with the civilian exodus from Paris as the Nazis approached the city. Paris is emptying out, the train stations in pandemonium and the roads clogged with refugees. In a series of short chapters alternating between various perspectives, the chaotic flight is made human.

There are the Michauds, a lower-middle-class couple whose love for one another sustains them through the anguish of not knowing what has become of their only child — Jean-Marie, a French soldier, vanished with so many others as the French army collapsed in disarray — who are promised a ride out of Paris by the director of the bank where both are employed, but are forced to walk when the director gives their seats in the car to his mistress and her luggage. The Péricands, a wealthy family run by a matriarch whose idea of wartime sacrifice is going without lunch “to personally supervise the packing of the linen.” Charles Langelot, a wealthy man who loves nothing but his porcelain collection. Gabriel Corte, a horrifically self-absorbed and utterly insufferable writer. Arlette Corail, the aging dancer who took the Michauds’ place in the bank director’s car.

Their lives intersect here and there in the flight out of Paris, and the perspective begins to shift between the various refugees and Jean-Marie Michaud, recovering from his wounds in a farmhouse with no means of contacting his parents. The village near the farm where he recovers is the setting of “Dolce,” Suite Française’s second section; the family who tends to him are on the periphery of the second book. It’s an effective and thoughtful structure.

In “Dolce,” a year has passed since the fall of France, and a regiment of German soldiers is to occupy the village of Bussy for three months. In an echo of the opening of “Storm in June,” the villagers are locking away their valuables. “Dolce” chronicles the period of the German occupation in all its tension and its sadness, its terrible risks and its unexpected moments of joy, a period wherein the villagers and the occupying soldiers slowly come to know one another as individuals. Her Germans are never less than human — “The Germans marched in rows of eight; they wore their field dress and metal helmets. Their faces maintained the impenetrable and impersonal expression of professional soldiers, but their eyes glanced furtively, inquisitively, at the grey facades of the town that was to be their home.”

Némirovsky writes with tremendous compassion, particularly for the utterly blameless Michauds, but she is unsparing in her assessment of her crueler and more thoughtless characters. Following the exodus in “Storm in June,” the second-oldest Péricand child — Hubert, a teenager — sits in a church and contemplates his family’s behavior during their flight from the city:

He judged his family with bitterness and a painful harshness. His grievances whirled around in his mind in the form of brief, violent images, without him being able to express them clearly: …their cars full to bursting with fine linen and silver caught up among the refugees, and his mother, pointing to women and children forced to walk with just a few bits of clothing wrapped in a piece of cloth, saying, “Do you see how good our Lord Jesus is? Just think, we could be those unfortunate wretches!” Hypocrites, frauds!

It’s a cliché to say that times of disaster and upheaval reveal us for who we are, but I believe there’s some truth to it. Irène Némirovsky’s characters are variously revealed by war and dangerous politics to be weak, courageous, venal, or honorable, and she knew of what she wrote.

She was Jewish, born in Russia, the daughter of a fantastically successful banker. The Némirovskys had fled the Bolsheviks and arrived in a country where they believed they’d be safe. Irène Némirovsky embraced France completely, and for a time, at least, France seemed to embrace her. She found fame as a novelist at twenty-six and was catapulted into French literary society. But by the time she began Suite Française in 1941, the same editors and critics who’d celebrated her before the war had turned away. Her letters went unanswered. Anti-Semitic tirades were published by her former friends. Her books were removed from her first publisher’s catalogue.

Words written in her notebook in 1941: “My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honor and its life. And the other countries? What are they to me? Empires are dying. Nothing matters.” The betrayal was absolute.

In 1942 she was living with her husband and two daughters in a village in the French countryside, working feverishly on her fiction and engaged in correspondence with anyone who she thought might possibly help her. Finances had become a problem.

Excerpts from her notebook appear at the back of the first Vintage international edition of Suite Française. She liked to work outdoors in good weather, and in the final entry she’d walked out of the village into a nearby forest—

Maie woods: 11 July 1942. The pine trees all around me. I am sitting on my blue cardigan in the middle of an ocean of leaves, wet and rotting from last night’s storm as if I were on a raft, my legs tucked under me! In my bag, I have put Volume II of Anna Karenina, the diary of K.M. and an orange. My friends the bumblebees, delightful insects, seem pleased with themselves and their buzzing is profound and grave.

She discusses her plans for Suite Française, and the last paragraph reads as follows:

The most important and most interesting thing here is the following: the historical, revolutionary facts etc. must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides must be described in detail.

The first two sections of Suite Française are a masterpiece. The planned third, fourth, and fifth sections— “Captivity,” “Battle,” “Peace” — were never written. Two days after she sat listening to bumblebees in the Maie woods, Irène Némirovsky was arrested. Her family never saw her again. She died just over a month later in Auschwitz.

2. The Mirador
When she disappeared in 1942, Irène Némirovsky left two daughters behind. Denise was thirteen and Elisabeth was five. Their father, Michel Epstein, was arrested and deported a few months after their mother disappeared. He died at Auschwitz that November. The girls fled with their governess and survived the war.

coverIn her fifties, Elisabeth — who now went by the name Elisabeth Gille — wrote The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irène Némirovsky By Her Daughter. She had worked for years as an editor, but The Mirador was the first book she wrote. She was in poor health, René de Ceccatty writes in the book’s Afterword, “and the cancer that would eventually kill her was beginning to spread.” She had only a few years left to live. Elisabeth had no memory of her mother. She had complicated feelings about the choices her mother had made.

This is the part of the story that confounds: Irène Némirovsky, a highly intelligent woman with two dependent children and a devoted husband, seemingly made no particular effort to save herself. By the summer of 1942 she was resigned to her death. On July 11th, the day when she sat in the woods on the raft of her cardigan and wrote of Suite Française and bumblebees, she also wrote a letter to her editor: “My dear friend… think of me sometimes. I have done a lot of writing. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but it helps pass the time.” She knew by then that her arrest was only a matter of time. She had written her will the month before.

But before that final summer, there were any number of opportunities for escape. She came from enormous wealth, and could easily have emigrated. Friends begged her to join them in America. She could have slipped into Switzerland, or otherwise gone into hiding. Her initial reluctance to abandon France can be explained partly, I believe, by the fact that Némirovsky didn’t think of herself as a Jew. She had converted to Catholicism, along with her husband, and saw her family’s Judaism as a relic of the past. She was fully assimilated into French society. She published her work in far-right publications.

“When I was an adolescent,” Elisabeth Gille told an interviewer for the Italian publication Il Messaggero in 1992, “I was angry with her for her lack of political sense. It would have been easy for her to have saved herself, but she didn’t even try, and by staying she put my sister and me in danger. …She was criminally blind.”

But even after Némirovsky’s arrest, there was one more chance to live and she failed to take it. “Apparently,” Gille said in the same interview, “the officer who escorted her to police headquarters in 1942 even gave her a chance to escape. She said she wasn’t going into exile again. She was French, and that was that.”

This was a woman who had prepared her last will and testament, had written to her publisher in terms of posthumous works, and had prepared a detailed letter for her children’s governess outlining instructions for their care in the event of her death. It seems unlikely that she had any illusions as to the fate that awaited her.

Elisabeth Gille wrote The Mirador in part, perhaps, in an effort to understand. It’s an accomplished and beautifully written work. At times uneven, but nonetheless a remarkable portrait of a woman known to her youngest daughter only by the evidence she left behind — the publications, the journal notes — and by her older sister’s memories, and by photographs.

A challenge in writing The Mirador, Elisabeth Gille told the Il Messaggero interviewer, was that there was no documentation of her mother’s life from her birth in 1903 until 1930. Perhaps because of the freedom a lack of documentation allowed her, the sections describing Némirovsky’s childhood strike me as the most vivid and alive in the book. Her descriptions of a privileged Russian childhood, and of the landscapes the child moved through, are lovely and meticulously imagined. A carriage ride with her father—

We cut down narrow lanes that descended into ravines filled with pine trees and birches, penetrated by cool air and shadows in which I took refuge from the blinding glare of the sun. The horses slowed. We could hear a stream bubbling nearby. Twigs caught in my hair when I poked my head out of the opening in the hood.

Irène lives with her parents — a kind but mostly absent father, a monstrous beauty of a mother — and her adored French governess, Mademoiselle Rose, in an atmosphere of immense wealth. At ten she watches Anna Pavlova perform Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre. As a teenager the Revolution breaks out all around her and the family flees for the border. Her first kiss is in Finland. A perilous sea voyage brings her eventually to France, to her beloved Paris.

Where the book falters, it seems to me, is when Gille moves from the personal to the political, when she pulls the camera back from her mother’s life to engage in sometimes-lengthy explications of the political storms that surrounded her. Impossible, of course, to consider a life like Némirovsky’s outside of the context of politics, but I’m reminded of Némirovsky’s directives to herself for Suite Française. (“…The historical, revolutionary facts etc. must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life… must be described in detail.”) But for all that, The Mirador is a striking and fascinating work.

3. The Notebook
Némirovsky’s older daughter, Denise Epstein, had often seen her mother writing in the leatherbound notebook. Irène Némirovsky wrote in pencil, in a tiny script to save paper. When Denise’s parents were arrested and it became necessary to flee the village with her governess and her tiny sister Elisabeth, Denise took the notebook with her as a memento.

In the dangerous years that followed the girls were moved between boarding schools and cellars, seemingly never far ahead of the authorities. Through all of it, Denise carried the suitcase with her mother’s notebook with her, but even after the war neither Denise nor Elisabeth could bring themselves to read it. Finally, in the 1990s, they decided to entrust the notebook to L’Institut mémoires de l’édition contemporaine: an organization, Myriam Anissimov wrote in her preface to the French edition of Suite Française, “dedicated to documenting memories of the war, in order to preserve it.

Before giving it up, Denise decided to type it out. With the help of a large magnifying glass, she began the long, difficult task of deciphering the minuscule handwriting. Soon she discovered that these were not simply notes or a private diary, as she had thought, but a violent masterpiece…”

Denise sent the work to the French publisher Denoël, who published it in 2004. She felt, Anissimov writes, “tremendous sadness that her sister Elisabeth Gille, who died in 1996, had not been able to read it.”

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.