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A Hidden French Treasure

Irene Nemirovskydead of typhus in Auschwitz in 1942, has won France’s prestigious literary Prix Renaudot this year, the first time ever that the prize was awarded posthumously. Her extraordinary multi-part novel Suite francaise was an immediate bestseller last year in France, even before it won.

Born in 1903 in Kiev, Nemirovsky and her wealthy parents fled the Soviet Union for France in 1919. Her first novel in French, David Golder was published when she was 26, and with it her writing career soared, until her arrest and deportation in 1942. Her daughters- Denise, 13, and Elisabeth, 5, survived, aided by the governess their mother had instructed— and paid—in advance. They carried with them from one hiding place to another a suitcase, its only contents the notebooks in which Irene Nemirovsky had written all day long, until she was forcefully detached from them on July 16, 1942. She died in Auschwitz of typhus a month later, at 39. Her husband, Michel Epstein, followed her; he died in a gas chamber on November 6, 1942.

It would take 62 years for those hidden notebooks to be published, hi the French edition of the book there is a photo of one of them, each page filled with minuscule script in order to save paper and ink. One can only be moved by Nemirovslcy’s economy and the urgency to pour out her story before time would run out. Her daughter Denise, who typed the manuscript for publication, needed a magnifying glass to decipher the words, a labor she began in 1975. Amazingly, until then the daughters had thought the notebooks were a journal, and so couldn’t bear to read them.

Having come through illness and hardship, after the war the daughters went to the Hotel Lutetia in Paris searching for their parents among the survivors gathered there. Elisabeth [Gilles], the younger daughter, died shortly after she wrote an imaginary biography of her mother (Le Mirador, 1992). Denise [Epstein] lives in Toulouse. A meeting with Myriam Anissimov, known for her monumental biographies of Primo Levi and Romain Gary, was the catalyst for Denise to publish Suite francaise rather than depositing the manuscript in a library.

The first volume, Tempete en juin, speaks about the exodus from Paris during the first hours of the German occupation. The reader follows the itineraries of these people from different social milieus in their panic to leave the capital, with its roadblocks and bombings, hunger and injuries. The second volume, Dolce, recounts the arrival of German troops in the town of Bussy and the budding romance between the daughter-in-law of the bourgeoise whose home is confiscated and a German officer who lodges there. The books have not gone through the fine cutting and editing Irene Nemirovslcy was in the habit of doing. We are reading, essentially, a first draft; Suite francaise was supposed to be a five part epic novel inspired by War and Peace. How moving to read the elaborate scaffolding for the three sections she never lived to write. One of her notes shows the care she took for details: “What 1 need: an extremely detailed map of France or a Michelin Guide” and “A treatise about porcelain; Birds of June, their names and songs.”

I’ve been haunted by the book. I’m waiting for the books of Irene Nemirovslcy still out of print to to be reedited in the near future thanks to the success of Suite francaise. I know she is not tender with Jews in these novels, and many thought she fed the anti-Semites with her self-hating descriptions of Jews in which all the sterotypes parade in print: hooked noses and frizzy hair, sallow complexions, money-hungry cheaters. Nevertheless, she is the writer who couldn’t escape her fate. She certainly died a Jew.

English speaking readers will have the chance to appreciate the Suite francaise late in 2006, when it will be published by Alfred A. Knopf with the excellent and well-informed preface of Myriam Anissimov. 

 Born in Newark, New Jersey, Susie Morgenstern, met her French husband at Hebrew University and followed him to Nice, where, she reports, she is celebrating her 60th birthday and 60th children’s book.  She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Nice.