By Susan Rubin Suleiman (Guest Contributor)
Fall is the season for the big literary prizes in France. On a November afternoon in 2004, Denise Epstein-Dauplé had just turned on the radio in her kitchen when she heard the announcement: the Renaudot Prize, one of the top fiction prizes, had been awarded to Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky. Denise, who would be turning 75 the next day, sat down, feeling dizzy. Irène Némirovsky was her mother, whom she had last seen more than sixty years earlier. Arrested by French police in July 1942, in the village where the family had taken refuge at the outbreak of World War II, Irène was deported to Auschwitz, where she died a month later. She was 39 years old. Her husband, deported a few a few months after her, shared the same fate.
And now this prize. No such prize had ever been awarded to a dead author, let alone for a book written half a century before. Suite Française, a novel about wartime France, was the book Némirovsky had been working on when she was arrested. Unfinished, it had never been published, but the manuscript had survived in a suitcase of papers and photographs, the only inheritance her daughters could claim of her. Denise and her sister Elisabeth had known about the manuscript for a long time, and had thought of publishing it. But Elisabeth, who was making a career as a translator and editor in Paris, worried that the novel was unfinished, not quite good enough.
A posthumous publication
It was not until many years later, after Elisabeth had died, that Denise returned to the manuscript and showed it to an editor, who published it immediately. And Denise, who had lived very modestly and in obscurity all her life, became a celebrity in the last decade of her life, invited the world over to speak about her mother. I had the privilege of interviewing Denise several times before her death in 2013, at age 83. She would still choke up on occasion when speaking about her parents—they had disappeared from her life when she was twelve years old. Whenever she spoke about Némirovsky, whether in public or in private, she usually referred to her as “Maman.”
If Suite Française brought Némirovsky back from the dead, a first resuscitation had already been achieved a dozen years earlier, when her younger daughter, Elisabeth Gille, published a book about her (The Mirador). Elisabeth was only five years old when her parents were deported and had very few memories of them, but she had a professional as well as personal interest in her mother’s life and career. The Mirador garnered many positive reviews, and Elisabeth was invited to speak on radio and television about the “once well known writer Irène Némirovsky.” In these interviews, she always referred to her mother by name, not as “Maman.” But one did not have to dig very far to realize that her involvement with Némirovsky was more than that of a biographer.
It was through Elisabeth Gille that I first became acquainted with Irène Némirovsky. I read her book and was intrigued. But when I borrowed Némirovsky’s early novel David Golder from Harvard’s Widener Library (most of her books had long been out of print), I found it disappointing. The writing was good, I thought, but conventional, and the story it told was conventional too. Truth to tell, I did not even finish the book.
But that was before Suite Française. I read that novel soon after it appeared and felt deeply moved by it. As a professor of French literature with a longstanding interest in Vichy France, I was astounded by how sharp and accurate Némirovsky’s understanding was of the first year of German occupation, and by her ironic yet often sympathetic view of the French people whose lives she observed. Just as I was telling myself that I had perhaps been too hasty in my dismissal of her earlier work, Némirovsky’s French publishers started reissuing all her novels. I read them, and somewhat to my surprise, became a fan. I wanted to explore further the troubled life and legacy of this writer, as well as the postwar lives of the daughters who brought her back to life. The result is my book, The Némirovsky Question.
Interested in more posts on French literature? Bounce on over to Looking for the Stranger, A Brief History of French Literature Awards, From the Past, With Love, and The Birth of the French Fairy Tale.
Susan Rubin Suleiman’s new book, The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in 20th-Century France, was published last November by Yale University Press. It has been widely reviewed, in the New York Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Sunday Times of London among other publications.