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Otto Selles

Enigmatic Testimony

The life & work of Irène Némirovsky.

When I first heard about Irène Némirovsky's novel Suite française, I suspected a publisher's clever marketing ploy, a book that owed its success to a powerful backstory based on the sufferings of a Holocaust victim. A Russian Jew exiled in France, Némirovsky was arrested in July 1942 and died a month later in Auschwitz. Her husband, Michel Epstein, would be arrested that fall and also die in Auschwitz, but their daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, escaped, entrusted with a suitcase containing a manuscript. Denise Epstein waited some sixty years before speaking to a publisher about the manuscript, a novel about the first years of the German Occupation of France in 1940-1942. Suite française went on to win (in 2004) the Renaudot Prize (the French equivalent of a Pulitzer) and became an international bestseller.

Could a lost manuscript be that good? Would another novel really add anything new to the myriad novels, historical studies, films, and documentaries on the Occupation? And so, most smugly and cynically, I decided not to read Suite française.

Since 2004, numerous books by Némirovsky have been reissued in both English and French, along with various biographies and academic studies. And I now feel sufficiently chastised by my own tardy discovery of a skilled writer. Némirovsky's success in the 1930s and her posthumous celebrity also raise complex interpretive questions on how to read, after Auschwitz, the works of a Holocaust victim who wrote before Auschwitz.

Born in Kiev in 1903, Némirovsky grew up in a wealthy family, neglected by her heartless mother and her business-obsessed father. Thanks to a French governess, she could claim French as a native language, which proved convenient when, at the time of the Russian Revolution, the family fled to Finland and then settled in Paris. Ironically, Némirovsky discovered her literary heritage at the Sorbonne, where she studied Russian literature. In 1929, at ...

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