© Denise Epstein
by Robert Allen
Hardly known to the English-speaking world during her lifetime, Irène Némirovsky now presents a dilemma. It is both a social argument and a literary debate, and, despite the lack of interest in her fiction when she was a literary icon in France during the 1930s, now of keen scrutiny to the intelligentsia of the American and British media. This fascination with the Kiev-born daughter of a Jewish banker says more about the state of modern literature in America and Britain than it does about the reasons why Némirovsky has re-emerged as a literary figure from the mid-20th century in the 2000s. Undoubtedly the success of the fragments from Suite Française (French Suite), about the behaviour of the French people during defeat in June 1940 and at the beginning of the Nazi occupation, convinced Random House, her English-language publisher, there was a market for Némirovsky books and rightly so but there were other reasons.
When it appeared in English in the spring of 2006 Suite Française was hailed by the New York Times as ‘the first work of fiction about we now call World War II’ while other critics wondered what would have happened if Némirovsky had not been taken away to Auschwitz, where she lost her life in August 1942, and the novel had been published in the 1940s or 1950s. Certainly the English-speaking world didn’t know and, until 2006, didn’t care. Only two of the 12 books published when she was alive were translated into English when she enjoyed her period of prolificacy in the 1930s and early 1940s. By the 1960s she was virtually unknown, even in France, and usually included, biographer Jonathan Weiss noted, with ‘writers who had achieved a certain celebrity between the world wars but were now read only by scholars intent on their revival’.
Those scholars, and Weiss would be one of them, knew that there was more to Némirovsky than her unfinished Suite Française, even if it is now the book that has made her reputation. Némirovsky was an accomplished writer when she started working on the concept for the structure of Suite Française. It was, according to her notes, to be a five-book series with a cinematic rhythm, the characters connected by the ordinary events in their lives, and brought into an expansive reality that combined description, empathy and tone. Némirovsky’s notes make it clear that this was her hardest fictional project, a thousand pages long, constructed like a symphony in five parts and film-like in its unity.
By 1942 Némirovsky had matured into a literary giant, which readers of the English language editions of The Dogs and the Wolves, Fire in the Blood and All Our Worldly Goods can see for themselves. Three of her last four completed novels, she wrote them between 1939 and 1942 to prepare herself to write a magnum opus. Suite Française, according to Weiss, was no memoir about fallen France by the author, who had lived in Paris from 1919 until she moved to Issy-L'Évêque in Bourgogne in eastern France in 1940. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘one of the works that least reveals the author’s life and thoughts. There are no Jews in the novel, and yet Jews were a subject Némirovsky wrote about frequently. There are no Russians in the novel, indeed, there are none of the immigrants and misfits who populate many of her other novels and short stories.’
Weiss is adamant that, had it been completed as Némirovsky intended, it would have been ‘one of the most important works of literature produced in twentieth-century France’. The fragments of Suite Française were enough to convince 21st-century critics that Némirovsky had influences from Turgenev, Tolstoy, Flaubert and Balzac in her writing. Yet there is nothing in The Dogs and the Wolves or in Suite Française to suggest that Némirovsky had a derivative style. Clearly, from the notes that were published with Suite Française, she consulted the works of other authors and was a student of literary tradition and style.
By the late 1930s Némirovsky was comfortable enough with her writing to keep up a prolific pace. In the four years before her death she produced five novels, including Suite Française, and numerous short stories all handwritten with few corrections. Not only was Némirovsky in command of her writing, she was in absolute control of its content. Her novels were carefully constructed. She was meticulous in the detail of her descriptions of people and place. Aware of the power of cinema, she employed a literary style that allowed her to project her characters and the events in their lives on to a universal canvas that was easy to comprehend. And, in Suite Française, she sought the episodic expression that today makes it difficult for novels to complete with visual media.
This brings us to another reason why Némirovsky’s books are being republished, particularly in English. Despite the critical comments that her writing has resemblances to Russian and French literary classicists, Weiss argued that she knew her own worth as a novelist and, more significantly, had a vision of both the style of her writing and the presentation of her subjects and events. Therefore the readers who bought Suite Française, making it a worldwide best-seller, and have continued to seek out her republished novels are better judges than the critics. Némirovsky was a writer with original ideas and an original style, traits that you do not find easily among English language authors, not least from the large American and British publishers.
With the wave of Commonwealth, post-colonial and subculture writing now washed away, modern English language fiction is a mixture of genre and sub-genre pulp, and largely derivative. Easy reading for tired readers. Novels that require effort do not fill the best-seller charts. Original writers are not courted by agents and editors, who know that the dollar is the bottom line. Anything that is deemed new more often that not is the meaningless meanderings of middle-class dilettantes who have nothing to say or report. New original novelists with a keen sense of literature and literary tradition find their way into the domain of the specialist publisher but not onto the best-selling charts because distribution, marketing and publicity is controlled by those who want to make profit.
This is what makes the story of Irène Némirovsky a dilemma for the literary world, especially English language authors from America and Britain. Literary prize winners of recent decades tell a story. The Nobel prize, for example, has not been won by a contemporary novelist from the USA or England since Toni Morrison in 1993 (at the age of 62) and William Golding in 1983 (at 72). Doris Lessing, who was born to ‘British’ parents in Persia in 1919 and educated in England, was 86 when she was awarded the prize in 2007. Compare this with the recent awards to Herta Müller in 2009 (at 56), Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio in 2008 (at 68), Orhan Pamuk in 2006 (at 54) and Elfriede Jelinek in 2004 (at 58).
Is the English literary world so bad that virtually every author fêted by the English language media is not an English language native? And that bad that it is easier for publishers like Random House to buy up and promote the work of an author who is long dead and once forgotten?
If Némirovsky appeared today with a modern love story set against a background of street violence, racism, social snobbery, anti-Semitism, immigration and deportation she wouldn’t get near the likes of Random House, even if it was her umpteenth novel.
The Dogs and the Wolves did not sell well when it was published in Paris in 1940. We don’t know if the war was the reason for the poor sales, or if the subject of the novel was too close to home. Weiss wrote that Suite Française was a metaphor for France’s current problems and it may be, but surely The Dogs and the Wolves connects, albeit with different cultures and nationalities, with the same issues today?
The dilemma surrounding Némirovsky’s fiction isn’t a hard one to unravel. Students of literature and aspiring writers need to read Némirovsky more than the authors she has been compared to because her literary technique was generations ahead of its time, and that is a clue to her popularity today. She was, said Jean-Pierre Maxence, a novelist with her eyes wide open, ‘posed before the exterior world, her observations penetrate and project beyond it’. She attempted, Weiss wrote, ‘to describe with great precision the observable behaviors of her characters, analyzing them in their social context’. She had, by the time she started to write Suite Française, ‘succeeded in forging for herself a clear identity as a writer of distinction – mature, perspicacious, and pitiless for her characters’.
In the 1930s Némirovsky wrote her fiction like short dramatic scripts designed for visual appreciation. Gringoire, one of the publications that took her short stories, wrote about her 1934 collection Films Parlés (Talking Films). ‘Madame Irène Némirovsky has just published a collection of short stories which are unquestionably linked to cinematographic technique.’
More than any of Némirovsky’s books, The Dogs and the Wolves addresses all of the issues surrounding her life and work, and Weiss drew on it to makes insights into her literary method, her background and her influences.
Némirovsky was removed from her native city for twenty years when she attempted to write The Dogs and the Wolves. It could be argued that she had to distance herself from the elements that make up the beginning of the novel because, being from an upper middle-class family, she had to learn the skills of a writer before she could write the characters and describe the events. Those with more knowledge about the effect of street violence on families and communities might criticise Némirovsky for even attempting to portray the events of a pogrom through middle-class eyes, but here she uses a perspective she can understand, that of the children who only hear the sounds of the violence and have no feeling for its effect, who can retreat into childhood fantasy. This is not merely literary licence, it is a particular perspective and, from the notes Némirovsky left with Suite Française, it concerned her that she got it right.
It is what makes The Dogs and the Wolves work. At each step of the story, Némirovsky manages to select the right perspective to move the narrative to the next level, making it easy for the reader to follow every character’s emotions. Claire Messud said this demonstrated Némirovsky’s ‘ability to evoke scenes, both externally and in their unspoken interiority’. It also allowed her to present ‘reality’s duality, or multiplicity’ and this is evident in The Dogs and the Wolves where survival is all that matters. Messud said she stood, in both her literature and her life, against ‘limitation, singleness and impossibility’.
In The Dogs and the Wolves, Némirovsky is building up to Suite Française. The word ‘clarity’ sums up Némirovsky’s writings, which are often multifaceted and multilayered. Messud put it in the context of Némirovsky’s desire to expand ‘our capacity for compassion’ and by the end of The Dogs and the Wolves that is what the reader should feel, compassion, which Messud said ‘expands our humanity’, for the characters in the novel, no matter what they have done.
The Dogs and the Wolves was never properly appreciated when it was first published and now that it is available in English for the first time it will be interesting to see how critics and readers compare it with Suite Française. The background reality in The Dogs and the Wolves is very different to Suite Française but the emotions are the same. The stories in both books are about survival and, while the characters in The Dogs and the Wolves continue their lives in changed circumstances, the reader does not know what happens to the primary protagonists in Suite Française because Némirovsky died before she could complete it. We know from her notes that she intended to return to their fate in the manner of Tolstoy. ‘What [Tolstoy] did consciously or unconsciously is very important to do in a book like Storm [the first part of Suite Française], even if certain characters are wrapped up, the book itself must give the impression of only being one episode,’ she noted, ‘… which is really what is happening in our times, as in all times of course.’
Messud argued that Némirovsky did not separate her own life from her fiction, while Weiss, in his biography, stated that she was an author in search of an identity and at the end faced the ‘terrible difficulty of living in an adopted culture’. According to Weiss, Némirovsky was desperate to reinvent her origins and through her fiction create a new identity for herself. With only her literary output to rely on, Weiss’s biography is only one perspective, and, while it is well argued, readers interested in Némirovsky will have to wait for the English language translation of the Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt biography to see if these French writers have put a different spin on this wonderful woman, who may yet be seen as the greatest European writer of the 20th century.