In Praise Of: Irene Nemirovsky

18th Mar 2013

In Praise Of: Irene Nemirovsky
Irene Nemirovsky was one of the most accomplished, insightful European writers ever published and her writing has been compared to both Sartre and Camus.

She lived her life in perpetual flight from persecution and she was eventually murdered by the Nazis at the age of 39.

Her story is familiar, yet still fascinates and resonates throughout the last century. Russian born Nemirovsky fled Kiev during the Russian Revolution and settled in Paris in 1918.

She married a Jewish banker called Michael Epstein, had two daughters and her first novel, David Golder, was an immediate success.

Then the Nazis invaded France and Irene Nemirovsky was declared a “stateless person of Jewish descent” by the French police.

Despite a recent conversion to Catholicism and the fact she’d written for a number of anti-semitic publications (to deflect anti-Jewish sentiments away from her family), Irene Nemirovsky was arrested.

She was deported to Auschwitz in July 1942 and died there in August 1942.

Nemirovsky’s oldest daughter, Denise, escaped the fate of her parents (Epstein was gassed 3 months later) and in the late 1990s discovered an old notebook of her mother’s.

In it was the unfinished manuscript for Suite Francaise; the novel that was to become Nemirovsky’s greatest work and which went onto win the Prix Renaudot.

Denise described finding the unfinished novel as “not vengeance, but [it is] a victory”. The story of Nemirovsky is enough to interest any reader but once you read her books the scope of her talent and tragedy becomes apparent.

Irene Nemirovsky wrote history before it became history. Persecuted and pursued; she was unflinching in her exploration of moral turmoil and the conflicting forces at work around her.

Ten years after her death Camus explored the morality of terrorism in The Just Assassins and Sartre followed suit with Dirty Hands.

It took a decade for these widely read and respected male writers to make sense of the atrocities which populated the 1920s and 30s. Nemirovsky wrote about with the same level of insight just weeks after they occurred in The Courilof Affair.

The sparse and disturbing the confession of Leon M, The Courilof Affair follows the revolutionary and would-be assassin of the Russian Minister. Living in the ministers house, disguised as a Swiss doctor, M is drawn to the cruelty and incredulity of his victim and is no longer able to complete the assassination.

Reading The Courilof Affair provides the reader with remarkable insight into the human heart and its myriad of contradictions. Irene Nemirovsky wrote with an urgency that spoke to her harried existence and limited time. Her writing propels the reader forward at a steady pace, presenting a broad arrays of observations and characters in spartan prose.

With the reissue of her books by Vintage and the publication of the Jonathan Weiss biography Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works in 2006 Nemirovsky appeared to be on the brink of a rediscovery.

But as she continues to be left off the must-read and the greatest-of lists it looks like she will continue to be overlooked and unappreciated.

Image via Wikimedia Commons