When Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian Jew who wrote in French, perished in Auschwitz in 1942, she was already a well-known and controversial novelist in her adopted homeland of France. But her notoriety waned in the coming decades, before being launched to spectacular heights with the posthumous publication of Suite Française, in France in 2004 and in the U.S. in 2006. The discovery of that manuscript, which contained two masterful novellas about the war then raging around the author, has made Nemirovsky’s work and thorny life story an industry unto itself, with new editions and critical appraisals appearing each year.
In their recent Nemirovsky biography, the Frenchmen Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt center the tale of the author’s life on her alleged anti-Semitism. The biographers continually plead, with an unaccountably personal zeal, that the secular, upper class Nemirovsky was not anti-Semitic. Their arguments are not persuasive.
Philipponnat and Lienhardt admit that Nemirovsky once published an anti-Semitic satire in a newspaper, but they muster a raft of excuses: the author was young (only 18); most French newspapers were anti-Semitic at the time; the author acted as a “mimic.” But later in her career, Nemirovsky often endowed her Jewish characters with features straight out of anti-Semitic cartoons, such as “hooked noses” and an overriding lust for money. She may not have been a committed Jew-hater — she claimed to be “proud” of her heritage — but the evidence offered here confirms that she waded in the shallow end of that fetid pool.
Philipponnat and Lienhardt’s treatment is further undermined by a failure to assume a proper authorial distance from its subject. In the sections chronicling Nemirovsky’s youth in Ukraine and Russia, with some travels in France, the authors refer to the future novelist by the affectionate diminutive “Irotchka.” To fill in gaps of Nemirovsky’s childhood, they use passages from her fiction to describe her impressions of scenery and people in her life, including her parents. This sloppy tactic reaches its nadir early on, in the biography’s prologue, when Philipponnat and Lienhardt write what Nemirovsky “thinks” as she’s dying in Auschwitz, cribbing lines from her novel The Dogs and the Wolves. It’s a shocking liberty for the authors to take and one that’s completely unnecessary. Nemirovsky’s life story stands on its own as complicated, richly detailed (she coped with the violence of the 1917 Russian Revolution by reading Wilde and collecting shell casings when the shooting stopped), and tragic. Sadly, this biography, while showing signs of thorough research and movingly written in its description of the war years, fails to comprehend that a great writer can still be an unpleasant person.