Thursday, January 20, 2005

"Suite Française" - the novel that came 62 years too late.

One of the most original and moving stories in the literary world has been the resurging of Irène Némirovsky, a well known writer in France during the thirties with 13 books behind her. She was, however, arrested by the Nazis the 16th of July 1942, as being a Jewess, and perished of typhus in Auschwitz on August 17. During the two years between the invasion and her arrest she wrote an epic novel about life during the occupation. In 2004 one of her daughters found a manuscript in an old suitcase and started to transcribe it with a magnifying glass. Read the amazing story of how Irène Némorovsky became a best-selling writer 62 years after her tragic death.

Irène Némirovsky vas 16 years old when she fled from the Soviet Union in 1919. Her father, Leon, was a wealthy banker and managed to remake his fortune in Paris, France. She married an exiled Russian, learnt excellent French and started to write. Her first novel, “David Golder”, became a success when it came out 1929 and she was considered as a rising star in the French literary circles. Twelve other novels followed suit and as the war began, she was a hailed and established writer.

Immediately she evacuated her two small daughters to Issy-l’Eveque in Central France, which was the home of the nanny of the children. When the Hitler invaded France in June 1942 and the German army advanced to take Paris, she fled to her children, where her husband, Michael Epstein, later joined. They had a hard time during the occupation, since they were Jews and surrounded by humiliating restrictions, among them wearing the yellow star on their clothes.
She started to write an epic novel that should be like Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. The plan was that it should consist of several parts, “Storm in June”, “Dolce”, “Captivity”, “Battle” and “Peace”. When she was arrested the 16th of July 1942, she had completed two of the first parts and had written notes for the third.
Her eldest daughter Dénise Epstein, at the time 13 years old, remember how the parents in some way knew that they sooner or later would be arrested and deported. They tried to shield themselves from the fear by discussing different topics far away from their troubling reality. The parents were very serious about their situation and did not speak much. When the French Gendarmes finally came, Irène was very calm, did not cry and told her to look after Papa and the sister Elizabeth. She said quietly that she was going away for a trip. She surely knew what was waiting for her. Three months later the father was arrested and died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz the 6th of November 1942. The girls managed to get away thanks to a teacher who hid them and later a nanny who under great risks hid them in different locations until the war was over. The whole time they carried a battered suitcase, filled with Irene’s papers and manuscripts. They, however, sensed that it was something important.

After the war, the children went around to different places in Paris, where former prisoners of war and deportees were assembled, among those the Hotel Lutetia and Gare de l’Est. But the parents had vanished. It was only years later they got to know the exact circumstances of their parents death.
The suitcase was still there, the only link to the past. The daughters thought the papers were a kind of a diary and could not bear to read the last thoughts of their mother. Due to the shortage of paper they were written on small scraps of paper, with tiny scripture. Denise Epstein, now 75, said in an interview that in order to survive and get life going, you had to put such a powerful thing in a drawer and forget about it. In 1975 she made an attempt to read something but could not make it. She had no idea that there were two novels among the pieces of paper. When her sister Elizabeth started to write a biography of her mother she used letters and notes from the suitcase It was published 1992 with the title “Le Mirador”. At the same time Denise started to look through they pages that she had not read before. She discovered that it was, in fact, a novel. But it was a painstaking work with magnifying glass. Some pages consisted of three entire chapters.

The novel, that consists of the two parts, “Storm in June” and “Dolce” is not an ordinary World War II book, it is an intimate picture of the occupied France, with its every day pettiness, jealousy, cooperation and resistance. Which is narrated with sympathy and severity.
In the first part, “Storm in June”, Irène follows families and individuals who join the masses of fugitives leaving Paris. She paints a picture of the chaos and panic, when the limousines of the rich families, which she knew so well, pressed through the crowds on foot, dragging their meagre belongings on different kind of carts. Also the fear of attacking German planes and the hopelessness of what the future might bring.
In “Dolce”, most of the fugitives had returned to Paris and life during occupation takes form. Irène depicts life in a small town she calls Bussy, with its aristocratic family, wealthy landowners, shop keepers, peasants and the German soldiers and officers. It is a story of our human qualities during a difficult time, how people show the worst and the best of themselves, a picture of wartime rural France, that many, even now, would not acknowledge. But she tells the story with passion and humour and sometimes even a German officer can be sympathetic.
When Denise Epstein had finished her transcription of her mothers novel, she put one copy in her drawer and sent another to the archives of The Information Institute of Contemporary Publishing. In April last year she met the writer Myriam Anissimov, who just had published a biography of Romain Gary, a French novelist who had known Irène personally. Anissimov persuaded Denise to get the novel of her mother published by Editions Denoël.
The book, “Suite Française”, was an immediate success and got in top of the bestseller lists in France with more than 150 000 copies sold last fall. It got the prestigious Renaudot prize in November that year and has been lauded by the critics. The rights have been sold to 20 countries during the Frankfurt Book Fair and with the American rights to Alfred A. Knopf, which plan to publish it in 2006.
Denise Epstein, (her sister Elizabeth died 1996) is of course delighted that her mother has come to focus again. Especially since the mother was very disappointed that the French literary establishment, had abandoned her when the Nazis came and the Vichy government took power.
Irène wrote: “ Never forget that the war will pass and that the whole historical part will pale. Try to do as many things as possible to interest people in 52 and 2052…” – She has surely got her point 62 years later.
Written by Erik Edelstam
Sources: International Herald Tribune and Newsweek