by Irène Némirovsky, translated from the French by Sandra Smith
Knopf, 395 pp., $25.00
Irène Némirovsky was born in 1903 into a rich Jewish banking family in Kiev. They fled to Paris during the revolution, and she was educated in French schools and at the Sorbonne. By the start of World War II, she had been to a great many parties and particularly balls because she adored dancing. She had married another Jewish-Ukrainian refugee—a banker called Michel Epstein—and produced two little girls and nine very successful novels.
Her tenth, Suite Française, was written in 1941 and 1942, and not published until more than sixty years later. She had planned a Tolstoyan saga about the war in five parts, but only the first two were more or less finished by the time she died in a concentration camp. They were called Tempête en Juin and Dolce, and when, under the title Suite Française, they appeared in translation earlier this year in Britain, the reviews were ecstatic—no other word fits. And it would be unfair to say that this enthusiasm was heightened by the pathos of the author’s life and death as described in the preface to the French edition by Myriam Anissimov. Némirovsky is a genuinely remarkable writer in whose work one finds a rare combination of deep feeling and a light touch. She is particularly good at imagining conversations (including conversations with oneself), and there are a lot of them in Suite Française.
The two sections of the novel are published with two appendices. The first consists of Némirovsky’s notes while writing it. They read like a constant explanatory, persuasive argument with herself; they tell one a lot about her, and incidentally about what it feels like to be writing a novel:
What’s important—the relationship between different parts of the work. If I had a better knowledge of music, I suppose that would help me. Since I don’t know music, then what is called rhythm in films. All in all, make sure to have variety on one hand and harmony on the other. In the cinema, a film must have unity, tone, a style. E.g.: those street scenes in American films where you always have skyscrapers, where you can sense the hot, muffled, muggy atmosphere of New York. So unity for the film as a whole but variety between the parts…. It’s this type of rhythm I want to achieve.
The second appendix contains Némirovsky’s letters, as well as relevant selections from those of Michel Epstein, between 1936 and 1942. By the end of that year they had both been deported to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus and he was probably gassed. Not at the same time, though: Irène was arrested in July and died in August, and Michel was arrested in October and killed in November. His last letters from Issy l’Évêque—the village to which the family had fled when the Germans moved toward Paris—are all addressed to influential (he hoped) persons who might discover where his wife …