A Marvelous Writer in a Hopeless Situation

Irène Némirovsky with her mother, Fanny, before they fled Russia, circa 1916
Irène Némirovsky Archives/IMEC
Irène Némirovsky with her mother, Fanny, before they fled Russia, circa 1916

In 2004, the Prix Renaudot, a major French literary award, went for the first time to a posthumous work, Suite Française. The author, Irène Némirovsky, had died at Auschwitz. Not only was she dead, she was virtually forgotten, but as a result of the prize the book’s popularity, both in France and around the world, repeated the success enjoyed by Némirovsky’s first novel, David Golder, published in 1929. It is a rare thing in literary history for the same writer to rise not once but twice from obscurity to universal renown, especially after an interlude of seventy years. But if Némirovsky’s career is a surprising one, her life—cut short so tragically—is every bit as much so.

Just who was Némirovsky? The daughter of a Jewish banker, she was born in Kiev in 1903, a city whose Jewish quarter was regularly ravaged by violent pogroms she was never to forget. The family left Ukraine for Saint Petersburg in 1914. Three years later, still very young, she witnessed the first riots and executions of the Russian Revolution. Her father decided it was time to get his family to safety and, in 1917, piled into a sleigh, they escaped to Finland, where civil war was raging, and from there to Sweden, finally reaching Paris in 1919.

Irène, who had been brought up by a French governess, found herself entirely at home in Paris and studied literature at the Sorbonne. She was carefree and lighthearted and loved to dance, but she was also eager to get out from under her mother’s authority and so, in 1926, she decided to marry Michel Epstein, “a small, brown-haired man” whom she found “attractive,”1 and who, like her father, was a Jewish banker. Up to this point, there was no reason to think that an exceptional fate awaited her. Within her, however, she carried an explosive book, ready to emerge.

In 1929, she sent a manuscript to the publisher Bernard Grasset. Captivated by her fierce, vigorous style and stunned by the implacably drawn portraits of her characters—a Jewish businessman in thrall to his wife’s greed and tormented by his daughter’s selfishness—Grasset wasted no time publishing the book. From one day to the next, Némirovsky became famous.

From the publication of David Golder to the defeat of France in 1940, she published ten novels and many short stories. All of them sold well. But once again catastrophe befell her; inexplicably, she and her husband attempted neither to flee nor to go into hiding with their children as the noose tightened around them. They were arrested in 1942 and they both died at Auschwitz. Their two daughters survived.

Susan Suleiman, a professor of French literature at Harvard, first became interested…

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