Elisabeth Gille was only five years old when the authorities took her mother away.
It was July of 1942, the height of the German occupation of France. Her mother, Irène Némirovsky, was once the darling of the Parisian literati, but once the Germans arrived her fortunes fell. Her novels were no longer publishable, due to Nazi race law, and her literary friends abandoned her, hoping to gain the good graces of the occupiers. She fled with her family to the small village of Issy-l’Évêque, but in the end it did no good — she was specifically targeted by the Gestapo as a “degenerate artist of deluded Jewish hegemony,” a “stateless person of Jewish descent.” The writing was on the wall.
“I am going on a journey now,” she told her daughters. A long journey, as it turned out, although not the longest of her peripatetic life. As a girl she had come west from Russia with her parents, running from the Bolsheviks. Now the Gestapo took her east again — across Germany, into Poland, and finally to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where she was killed in the gas chambers.
She left behind the unfinished manuscript of Suite Française, a novel which detailed the downfall of Paris and the French countryside under the occupation. The book languished for decades in her unpublished papers, mistaken for a diary.
Her daughters survived the war. The eldest, Denise, became an archivist; Elisabeth Gille, the younger sister, had a long and productive career as an editor and a translator. Then, in 1991, when Elisabeth Gille was in her fifties, she wrote an odd sort of book: a fictional memoir about her mother, a book which could easily seem to the casual reader as if it were written by Irène Némirovsky herself.
Not that Gille was trying to put one over on anybody. In French the book was called La Mirador – Dreams Reves, which translates loosely to Dream Memories. It had Gille’s name on the cover, and hers was the book’s first voice:
The child is born in a beautiful Parisian apartment. One imagines her cradle surrounded by bright-eyed fairies: her mother, the famous writer, her sister… the servants, the nurse, the governess… her father, wearing a light-colored suit, with a tender expression on his face and a champagne flute in his hand.
This is the familiar territory of memoir. “The child” is Gille herself; “the famous writer” is her mother, Irène Némirovsky. Consider the phrase “one imagines”; how many times have we read a memoir in which someone imagines childhood events which they themselves could not possibly have witnessed? Everyone runs up against some version of this when recollecting their own past: the point in which memory gives way to sense-images, sense-images to imaginings.
But Gille is only warming up. Soon her real narrative begins, and in a much different mode:
“I have always found the fragrance of linden blossoms aggressive, though it is in fact quite tender, at least in literature, inebriating the senses in the mild air of late-summer nights. Heady to the point of causing queasiness, it is the fragrance of village squares where young folk walk around and around in the evening air beneath the heavy-lidded gaze of old men perched on benches, fingers knotted over their canes … The fragrance of the promenade in Charleville at sundown or of Turgenev’s parks, where slender young women from the last century cling to their lovers’ arms. And a fragrance which has always brought on my worst migraines and driven my heart to gallop and thrash uncontrollably.”
Consider the sudden and somewhat shocking assumption of “I.” We are no longer in familiar territory. Is this an unpublished memoir? one wonders. Another of Némirovsky’s (highly autobiographical) novels? Or is it a journal entry, found in a drawer after years of neglect?
In fact, The Mirador is a combination of all these things. Throughout this fabulously hybrid text, Gille gives herself license to use whatever mode strikes her fancy, as long as it helps explicate the mother she never knew. She writes her mother’s memoirs for her, imagining her history. She discusses her mother’s novels in her mother’s own voice. She even quotes Némirovsky’s letters and journals, letting these quotes merge with the larger narrative so that the reader can no longer tell which text is Gille’s and which is her mother’s.
This is, to put it mildly, an audacious project. No matter how liberal we consider ourselves about the slippery line between memoir and autobiographical fiction – even if we are more Exley than Oprah on the matter – there is still something that seems suspicious about the enterprise of full-on fictional memoir. Is this allowable? Can one simply jump in and narrate the course of another person’s life?
Perhaps – if you do it right.
If the proof of any literary idea is in the execution – or, as Joan Didion writes, “the writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream” – then Gille’s book succeeds admirably. Her version of Némirovsky is curt, cynical, with just enough seductive lyricism to make her believable as a writer of fiction. She sulks and pouts her way through a pampered Russian girlhood, tries her best to fathom the 1917 Revolution, and then throws herself bodily into the Paris literati without so much as a hesitation.
“Bernard Grasset,” she writes of her first Parisian publisher, “was expecting a middle-aged man, perhaps a retired banker. Instead, standing before him he saw a petite, young, shy, and curiously dressed woman, peering at him nearsightedly.”
In fact, Gille’s version of her mother is so believable that when I write to you about Gille’s descriptions of people and places I am tempted to ascribe them to Némirovsky herself, as in this lovely description of an emigre ship bound from Finland to France:
“The ship, by one of those odd coincidences of which the period was so fond, was carrying theatrical sets, and during the entire ten-day crossing in turbulent waters, we had to continually push back the bundled-up stage curtains and backdrops that were constantly falling on us … Neither my father nor I suffered from seasickness and we were proud to be the only clients at the bar. I did my best to get closer to Andre by drowning my sorrows in drink, despite my father’s weak protests. The tiny bar had an upright piano on which the bartender, a Polish student, banged out Chopin pieces to pay his passage, struggling to be heard over the noise of the storm.”
The ship of Europe, a beleaguered stage set on stormy waters — it takes a writer, it seems, to fake another writer’s memoir.
Not that Gille’s version of her mother is perfect; as a child she sometimes behaves like a spoiled, self-hating brat, and as an adult she is deeply conflicted about her own Jewish identity. But it is a testament to Gille’s skill as a writer that the mother she creates is palpable and bristling. By the time the war comes, and the world begins to close in around her, you begin to feel for the woman, to understand her complexities and sympathize with her shortcomings. Most of all, you want to listen to her.
Which is just another way of saying that you want to listen to Gille — to listen to her dream. Ethical issues aside, The Mirador is an argument for fictional memoir as a fabulously flexible genre. (Perhaps it already is a genre — consider Stephen Elliot and Eric Martin’s hilarious and ruthless Donald.) The fictional nature of her enterprise allows Gille great latitude in painting scenes which are fundamentally novelistic, such as a scene in which frightened White Russians pass the time in the basement of a hotel requisitioned by the Red Army:
“After a night spent sleeping on the green felt of the billiard tables or cushions and overcoats on the floor, a few energetic souls attempted to establish a semblance of order. Young society ladies tore the fabric off of chairs and made armbands, offering their services to an amiable doctor who was nursing several dowagers suffering from fainting spells. A prince took it upon himself to remove all the lapdogs to a nearby room because their barking had becoming intolerable.”
Delightful, ironic description of the sort one would find in the best satirical French novelists.
Unburdened by absolute fact, Gille’s book is free to fulfill a myriad of fascinating functions. It is, in turn, a memoir (albeit a fictional one); an autobiographical novel (of someone other than the author); a history lesson; and an investigation into the literary process, as when the character of Némirovsky leafs feverishly through French industrial magazines and British books on the oil trade to provide adequate characterization for her creations. Each of these modes — with the possible exception of the literary investigations, which can sometimes seem a bit strained — is fundamentally successful; its remarkable how well The Mirador works as a whole, how it holds together.
The Mirador is so successful, in fact, that one gets to the end of the book before remembering that twinge of suspicion from the first page. Now that we have a handle on what Gille is doing — juggling memoir and fiction, criticism and text — we have to ask ourselves a stark question: what right does Gille have presenting this story, as if she could write her mother for the world?
Keep in in mind that when this book was first published Némirovsky had more or less faded from the literary world — it would take another 15 years for Suite Française to rehabilitate her international reputation — and some French readers would have approached the book as their first acquaintance with her work. Such readers could have easily mistaken Gille’s Némirovsky for the genuine article.
To put it harshly: is this art, or is this theft?
Perhaps we can split the difference and say it is both. But I would argue that it is the sort of theft all of us engage in every day, whenever we read a novel: we take the work of a writer and we re-envision it in our own image. Many of us go a step further and re-envision it on personal terms. We imagine where the author was when he wrote it, what he was reading, what he ate for breakfast. Imagine the grubby hands of countless grad students poring over the dirty letters sent between James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, scurrying back and forth between their correspondence and the final chapter of Ulysses, trying to understand the relationship between Joyce’s literary production and his sex life.
Elisabeth Gille was five years old when her mother was taken away to be killed – they barely knew each other. To know her mother was to know the texts she left behind, the same way all of us imagine our authors. The difference with Gille is that she went a step further and narrated the picture she saw. She closed the circle; she used the tools of fiction to bring the dead writer to life.
So if Gille is only doing what everybody else is doing – except more skillfully, in a more writerly fashion — then why do we react so strongly to what she has done? What is it about this book that is both powerful and a little disturbing?
Maybe it’s because Gille’s book skillfully conceals its own hybrid nature. It is doing many things under the guise of one specific thing: it seems, at first glance, to be a memoir, and we all know how much Americans in particular cling to the supposed veracity of their memoirs. The Mirador can even be mistaken as a Holocaust memoir, if the reader isn’t careful. There are several snares here for the woeful misreader.
The Mirador is an extremely crafty book. So crafty, in fact, that much of its complexity — its intertextuality, even — is only revealed upon reading its acknowledgements.
“This book was imagined on the basis of other books,” Gille writes. (What book isn’t? — so the reader might wonder.) “Firstly, those of my mother, Irène Némirovsky … Also Sholem Asch’s trilogy, especially Petersburg and Moscow. The scenes I describe at the Hotel Metropol are inspired by the latter.”
Gille is speaking here of the vivid hotel scene mentioned earlier in this essay: the princes, the fainting ladies, the incorrigible lapdog. Here we have a fictional memoir, stealing from a novel to provide a sense of the real — hybridity at is finest.
Fiction begets life begets fiction — perhaps the best argument for accepting The Mirador on its own terms is that it’s less about Irène Némirovsky than it is about literature itself: its endurance, its continual spur to the imagination. When Gille writes about her mother, she is writing about her mother’s literary tradition, one that parallels her mother’s own movement from Russia to France — a tradition that encompasses Alexander Blok and Alexander Pushkin, Musset and Molière , all of whom are referenced or quoted in The Mirador.
Her mother is a book made up of other books, and Gille is reading her.
Consider the beautiful final scene, in which Némirovsky remembers a trip she took with her father to Yalta, where he told her a story about Chekhov:
“My father and I walked along the shore for a long time. He told me that when Chekhov began to notice the symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his beloved brother Nikolai, he traveled around the world and then, after a terrible attack of hemotypsis, went to live in Crimea. Vera Komissarzhevskaya came to see him … In the twilight, the sandy-bearded, sickly Chekhov, wearing a pince-nez, and the lady with the enormous tragic eyes had paced up and down this beach just as we were doing, surrounded by the fragrance of roses and the ethereal melody of the waves. At his request, she recited Nina’s final monologue from The Seagull, which had been created for her.”
Time seems to collapse, and we are aware — if we have read the book correctly — of several layers of imagination. Gille imagines Némirovsky, Némirovsky imagines her father, her father imagines Chekhov. By imagining her mother and setting the cycle in motion, Gille is bringing us into a larger conversation, not just with her mother’s ghost, but with the inexhaustible world of writing.
It is fitting, then, that the book ends with the quote from the end of The Seagull:
“It was nice in the old days, Kostya! Do you remember? How clear, warm, joyous and pure life was, what feelings we had – feelings like tender exquisite flowers… Do you remember? ‘Men, lions, eagles, and partridges, horned deer, geese, spiders, silent fish that dwell in the water, star-fishes, all living things, all living things, have completed their cycle of sorrow, are extinct… For thousands of years the earth has borne no living creature on its surface, and this poor moon lights its lamp in vain. On the meadow the cranes no longer waken with a cry and there is no sound of the May beetles in the linden trees.”
A mournful speech, but not without hope. Note those linden trees: the same ones we found in The Mirador’s opening pages. Here we thought that Gille was talking about her mother in those early lines, when she was really talking about the ever-expanding library of literature: a library from which everyone is permitted to steal.
1. Suite Française
In 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:”
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.
In 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.”