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Irène Némirovsky

From Women in European History

A Critical Biography by Taylor Thompson, Spring 2010

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Irène Némirovsky


Critical Biography


Irène Némirovsky was a French writer during the early 20th century until her death at Auschwitz in 1942. Her concept of identity played a significant role in her life, in terms of her struggle with her Jewish lineage, in light of her conversion to Catholicism, and her Russian origins, despite her strong identification since her youth with French culture. Némirovsky wrote many works during the period of the early 1920s until the early 1940s which focused primarily on fictional accounts of stories of family life and personal relationships and while simultaneously addressing personal family issues, as well as larger issues of social effects of the war in terms of identity, gender, politics, and nationalism. She has also received staunch criticism of her work as being Anti-Semitic in nature, despite her Jewish origins, which calls attention to the concept of identity during Némirovsky’s lifetime as well as how it is treated during the war (for it was purely her hereditary connection to Judaism that resulted in her arrest and subsequent death at Auschwitz). Némirovsky's life as a European woman and writer is historically significant because it brings to light the idea of identity as a fluid concept. Furthermore, her life story shows how personal identity is affected by, and may come into direct conflict with, larger social and political movements aimed at shaping, changing, or completely reconstructing a specific concept of identity for a certain group of people, whether it be based on nationality, religion, political affiliation or otherwise.

Origins and Early Life

Irène Némirovsky was born on February 24, 1903 in Kiev, Russia to Leon Némirovsky and Fanny (Margoulis) Némirovsky. Little is known about her childhood prior to her and family’s flight to France in 1917, at the beginning of the Russian Revolution. [1] Daughter of a banker and an emotionally distant and bourgeois mother, Irène and her family lived a rather privileged life despite their Jewish heritage. Through beneficial social ties the family gained certain social privileges including the right to move into the cosmopolitan city of St. Petersburg, which had a limited Jewish presence as well as the luxury of travelling abroad for family vacations. [2] Amid the blatant discrimination against and persecution of Jews in Russia, the Némirovsky’s lived a life distanced from the persecution and hardship that befell many Jews in Russia during the years of her youth. These advantageous social connections elevated the Némirovsky family’s social status from that of the Jewish commercial classes to one closer to that of Orthodox Christian high society. [3]

There is no concrete evidence that Irène’s parents were practicing Jews, and yet her family’s social status, in combination with her own personal desire to assimilate with the Russian culture and society were not sufficient to keep the family in Russia at the onset of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Any Jews, practicing or not, were under suspicion, and as such, Irène's made made the decision to flee the country for their safety. The family sought refuge, initially to Finland for a year then and then finally moved to France. Yet, well before the final immigration Irène had been embedded in the French culture since the early years of her youth. [4] She had visited France annually and immersed herself in the culture and language.[5] Accordingly, her migration experience to Paris was not like that of any other Jews who fled other European countries to escape persecution. In Paris, Irène felt like she was was returning to a second home. [6] Irène strongly identified with French culture beginning well before her adolescence and continuing from there. The French culture had become an integral part of her Her first attempts at significant literary works were undertaken in French, yet the stark contrast between the culture she identified with and her culture of origin did not reveal themselves to her until much later in her life.

Literary Career and Family Life

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Irène Némirovsky with her husband Michel Epstein and their two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth

Némirovsky's early career and family life developed very rapidly during her mid-twenties to early-thirties. It was during this period that she establish a family of her own, as well as publishing some of her most controversial literary work. Following her graduation from the Sorbonne with a degree in Comparative Literature at the age of 24, Irène would not go on to complete her first major literary work until three years later. [7] In the interim, however, she met Michel Epstein, her future husband and member of the Board of the Committee of Russian Banks with her father. [8] Michel and Irène married in July of 1926 and had their first child, Denise, in November of 1929, but wouldn’t have their second child, Elisabeth, until March of 1937. [9] Two years later after the birth of her second child, Irène published her breakthrough work, David Golder. [10] The novel recounts the story of an aging banker who is on a ship from Bolshevik Russia to Constantinople and well on his way to a solitary death. [11] It is markedly known as one of Némirovsky’s pieces written in a decidedly anti-Semitic, and as some would argue “self-hating” tone. [12]

Némirovsky’s second novel Le Bal (1929) was Irène’s way of discussing her relationship with her mother, Fanny. In it, she ridicules her mother’s desire of vanity and social climbing. Irène and her mother had a distant relationship, with an unresolved hostility on Irène’s part, as a result of these negative characteristics in combination with her mother’s distance during childhood. The sentiment of estrangement only increased with her father’s passing in 1932, due to a pulmonary embolism. L[13] [14] Irène certainly had a stronger relationship with her father, whom in her novels she rarely, if ever, posits such scathing criticisms as she does towards her mother. The influence of her relationship with both of her parents is evident when one analyzes the specific types of domestic and familial relationships she portrays in her novel. Némirovsky’s futher literary efforts continued to be subject to influence upon her life by social, familial and policitcal issues, but her final work before her death at Auschwitz, at the age of 39 on August 17, 1942, focus primarily on dealing with the social effects of the Nazi occupation of France from June 1940 – July 1941. [15] Némirovsky addressed the larger and very real social affects of the Nazi's gain of power in France during this point in the war through a fictional medium. Nevertheless, this approach allows Némirovsky paint an extremely poignant and visceral picture of the emotions, reactions, and means coping experienced by everyday civilians of all social classes in occupied France, perhaps even more so than a historical account could.

Suite Francaise

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A copy of the original manuscript of Suite Francaise, written in 1940/41, which was not discovered and published until 2006

In the midst of constant and increasing danger of deportation, Némirovsky composed Suite Française in the two years before she was finally arrested due to her Jewish lineage (despite her family’s conversion to Catholicism) and sent to Auschwitz. It has wavered in its reception by critics as Némirovsky’s “chef-d’oeuve inconnu” (unknown masterpiece) and a documentary of the events of the tragic time period that does not properly “function” as a novel, in the sense that it is merely a compilation of short narratives or vignettes detailing the experiences of several different families and individuals from Paris and their reactions and opinions on the war.[9] Despite the criticisms, it holds power as an open portal to the social, emotional, and psychological effects the occupation and World War II had on citizens and immigrants of France. Originally intended to be a part of a suite of five novels, Némirovsky was only able to complete the first two before her death, Tempête en Juin (Storm in June) and Dolce (Sweet). The very recent discovery of the manuscript by her daughter Denise in 1998 and it’s publishing in 2006 has left it subject to a good deal of criticism of how it can shape our picture of World War II; however, it was been relatively well received by critics. [16] The first volume, Tempête en Juin, was written in the summer of 1941 and the timeline of the story spans from the summer of 1940 in Paris to the winter in a small village that same year. [17] In it, she portrays the experiences of several different characters, all of decidedly differing social and economic backgrounds and their attempts to escape the city, find refuge in the country, and their relationship to the French troops fighting to fend off the Germans leading their forceful attack on the city. Rather than portraying France as a country compliant and accepting of its defeat, Némirovsky highlights the significant difference in experiences and opinion regarding the war, which varied depending upon one’s social status. Némirovsky’s portrayal highlights the less trying and more profitable experience of the rich at the expense of the plight of the poor. [18] The second installment of the suite, Dolce, narrows her focus to the experience of only a few characters living in a small village. On this smaller scale Némirovsky highlights the reaction and period of accommodation French citizens underwent during the German occupation. [19] An underlying theme of the novel is respect for all human life, despite national, political, social or economic conflict.[20] In the found manuscripts there were also notes for the third novel to follow Tempête en Juin and Dolce, entitled, Captivité (Captivity). It was a decidedly more explicitly political effort, aimed, at attacking the Vichy regime. [21]

(For more information on accounts of daily life during wartime, see Olivia Cockett, Elena Skrjabina, and Charlotte von Mahlsdorf)

Identity and World War II

Writings and Personal Experiences During the Occupation

During this tense period in France, Irène continued to publish many short stories prior to beginning Suite Française. In these works, Némirovsky’s faith in the strength of character of the French at the time, their “courage and sacrifice in a time of adversity” and their “goodness and generosity” shone through, a belief in which is put to the test by the time she writes Suite Française.[22] The content of her short stories during this time period focused on the occurrences of daily life, without mention of the war or the occupation. However, war and the inevitability of its destruction and pain filled Némirovsky’s own life; the threat of persecution due to her and her husband’s classification as “stateless Jews” was always looming overhead.[10] It was for precisely this reason - statelessness and Jewish heritage - that Némirovsky was arrested in 1942 despite her and husband’s efforts to become naturalized citizens of France and her assertions of being a non-practicing Jew.[10] Any social and literary connections that the two had which could have potentially helped them out of this dire situation proved yielding in light of the wave of Anti-Semitism that befell the nation at this time.[10] At the age of 39, Némirovsky was taken away and sent to her death at Auschwitz, in August 1942.[10]

National, Religious, and Gender Identity

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Irène Némirovsky, ca. the 1930s.

The issue of identity played a major role in Némirovsky’s life, which was reflected in her literature. Given the blatant and widespread persecution of Jews throughout Europe during World War II, national identity was a prominent issue in Némirovsky's life. Her unique childhood, Ukrainian origins, frequent immersion in French culture, flight of her homeland during her adolescence and final settlement in France left Irène with a more fluid definition of identity than most at the time. For her, it was her immersion in, assimilation with, and love of French culture that formed her sense of identity as a French writer. However, this presented a stark contrast with the prevailing and domineering views of Nazi Germany which spread rapidly through Europe with their military assaults that viewed identity as a factor derived from birth and nation of origin.(for more information on the Jewish Question and World War II, see Némirovsky - Additional Background Information) This divergence proved for Némirovsky a major social issue, which she addressed through much of her writing (primarily prior to Suite Francaise, which interestingly enough does not focus on the issue of Jewish identity in its narrative of the war.) In terms of formation of a gender identity, Irène subtly addresses the issue of gender roles and social conception in her literary works as well. Specifically, the differing roles of women are seen in the many female characters whose lives she portrays in ’Tempête en Juin’’ and how the issue of gender identity is affected by war. Though no young women are depicted on the front lines or longing to take up arms and join their fight for their country, the role women play in keeping society and families together is just as significant as that of the men during the war. By showing the daily occurrences of familial and individual life and how they are greatly affected by the occupation. Women adapting men's roles in the home and in society, their opinions about the war and it's necessity during this time, and differences of gender expectation between distinct social classes are depicted in the novel.

Critisicisms of Anti-Semitism

In light of the relatively recent discovery of Némirovsky’s last manuscript, a critical eye has been placed upon her earlier works for evidence of Anti-Semintism on her part despite her origins. She is accused of it most decidedly in her first major work, ‘’David Golder’’ (1929). It has been deemed a literary work of a “self-hating Jew” who “did no favours to her own people.”[11] However, Némirovsky later confessed that had she known Hitler’s rise was on the horizon, the tone and the manner in which she addressed the topic of Jews would certainly not have been as harsh.[11] Némirovsky recognized, ridiculed and satirized her “Jewishness” at the same time. However, the degree to which is interpreted as “self-hatred” on her part, in an attempt to distance herself for her Jewish origins, or “self-criticism” which is seen as a fundamental element of Judaism is up for debate.[11] It is of note to add the fact that there are no Jews depicted in ‘’Suite Française.’’ It may hint towards the fact that despite the manner in which she chose to deal with “Jewishness” and Anti-Semitism she never truly identified as a Jew, given her familY'S exceptional social status within Russia and later flight to France. In spending half her of her childhood and the entirety of her adult life living in France, Némirovsky primarily identified with the French culture, and the effects of that in combination with her Russian and Jew origins are explored throughout her literary works.

(For further information about Némirovsky’s anti-Semitic criticisms see an article from the New York Times, another article from The Guardian, and Irène Némirovsky's Wikipedia page)

Annotated Bibliography

Némirovsky -Annotated Bibliography


  1. "Weiss, Jonathan M. Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 2007, pp. 7.
  2. Ibid., 8-9.
  3. Ibid., 9.
  4. Ibid., 15.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 24.
  7. Corpet, Olivier, Garrett White, Irène Némirovsky, and Irène Némirovsky. Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française. New York: Five Ties, 2008, 68.
  8. Ibid., 68-69.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Ibid., 72, 75, 86.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Raphael, Frederic. "Stench of Carrion." The Times Literary Supplement [London, UK] 30 Apr. 2010, 3.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Ibid.,4.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Weiss, Jonathan M. Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 2007, 9.
  14. Corpet, Olivier, Garrett White, Irène Némirovsky, and Irène Némirovsky. Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française. New York: Five Ties, 2008, 80.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 110.
  17. Weiss, Jonathan M. Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 2007, 133,135.
  18. Ibid.,134.
  19. Ibid.,136.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.,138.
  22. Ibid.,128.

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