Friday, January 7, 2011

The Sad Truth about a Gifted Writer

Back in the summer of 2007, just a week or so before we moved to France, I was on vacation, sitting by the pool reading a copy of Irène Némirovsky's now famous novel, Suite Française.   Written in 1942,  the book had only recently been published, having languished for years as a dusty manuscript in a suitcase owned by the author's daugher Denise Epstein.  Having lost both her parents in the Holocaust, saved herself only after being hidden from the Nazis by her governess, Ms. Epstein held onto that suitcase for many years without realizing that it contained a fully realized novel about the darkest years of her family's life.

So I'm sitting there by the pool, and the guy next to me says, "You know.  That story about the manuscript being found.  I heard it's not really true.  Just a publicity stunt."  Had he been a Holocaust denier, I would have jumped down his throat right then.  But not knowing the details (or having yet read the book's afterword), I simply shrugged and turned back to my book.

So let me tell you this.  That guy -- dead wrong.  The story -- all of it from the family's escape from Russia when Irène was a teen, her rise to fame as an author in France during the 1920s, her conversion from Judaism to Catholicism in the 1930s, her fruitless attempts to become a naturalized French citizen, her husband's desperate attempts to locate her after her arrest, their subsequent deaths in Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis, and their daughters' remarkable survival --- is true.  And if you want to know the details, get yourself to the Mémorial de la Shoah in the Marais between now and March 8 for the free exhibition:  Irène Némirovsky: Il me semble parfois que je suis étrangère.  The exhibit includes photos, letters, press clippings, videos, as well as the suitcase which Denise Epstein guarded all those years.  It's a tragic story on many levels -- personal and societal -- but well worth your time.   And if you're not in Paris, and you haven't yet read any of her works, get thee to a bookstore or a library.  In addition to Suite Française,  I can also recommend Le Bal, a slim volume set in turn of the century Paris.  The novel that was most famous in her lifetime and also made into a major motion picture, David Golder, is next on my list.

8 comments:

Genie -- Paris and Beyond said...

Anne, this is a book that I have shared with friends and asked them to read without the privilege of a summary as it is so powerful. I read her "Dimanche and other Short Stories" and the biography that was published May, 2010 (in English). Thanks for info on the exhibit. Oh, and I am going to order Le Bal, merci.

Genie

Maureen said...

Anne: I loved this book and for people (like me sometimes...) who are tempted not to read the appendix--you MUST. It pulls the whole story together.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the information about the exhibition, as I will be in Paris next week (ahh, les soldes!)
I am an avid reader and admirer of her.
Being German and having lived for 6 years in Paris myself I follow your blog regularly. Congratulations and thank you.
Happy New Year to you.

Maria S. said...

Living in L.A., there is no chance I'll get to the exhibit, but I, too, was captivated and haunted by Suite Francaise and Nemirosky's story. It's hard to convey to people the tragic power of the whole experience of reading the novel and then finding out what happened to the author. Her portrait of occupied France is so sad and yet so different (blindly optimistic?) from those written by people who knew how the story (of the Holocaust and WW2) ended.
I was absolutely slayed by the story of her daughter's showing at at that Parisian hotel after the war. Hoping to find their dead parents. . .

Starman said...

ôu should have pointed out to that guy that things one hears aren't always factual.

Pat'sAdditon said...

I just finished this book last week. It is a must read. Sorry I won't be in Paris for the exhibit. Do you think it will come to Washington?

Shelli and Gene said...

I've been meaning to get to the exhibit before we leave for the rest of the winter. Thanks for reminding me, Anne.

Très bonne année!

Sasho said...

Don't get me wrong, I really love France and I'm friends with a number of French folks. But the thing that makes my attraction to France probematic is that it is one of the European countries that has yet to acknowledge its own contribution to the Holocaust. Ce n'est pas ma faute, I only signed the paper to move the *foreign* Jews. How was I to know...? Do you think the exhibition that you mention is a step toward acknowledgment?

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