The problem with reading any work by Irène Némirovsky is that you know the end.
Not how the story finishes; what happened to the author. There was no happy
It is impossible to read this collection of Némirovsky’s short
stories, written and published in French between 1934 and 1942, without being
acutely aware of that 1942 date – the year Némirovsky perished in
Némirovsky, widely acclaimed in France during her tragically
short lifetime, burst beyond its borders with the astonishing publication in
2006 of a translation of Suite Française
, penned in 1940 but discovered by her
daughter only 50 years later. Suite Française
is not a Holocaust book.
Némirovsky, who converted to Catholicism, did not see herself as a Jew and has
even drawn fire for perceived anti-Semitic stereotypes in her
Nonetheless, this did not save her or her husband from Hitler’s
I hesitate to describe a book as a “must read” – even among
friends, after all, tastes differ – but Suite Française
is highly recommended
both as a chronicle of the times and for its writing style.Dimanche and
is another reminder of what tremendous literary talent was lost
with Némirovsky’s death.
Chillingly, it seems she was aware of what her
fate would be. Certainly having been born in 1903 into a family of wealthy
bankers who had to flee Russia during the revolution, she knew even before World
War II erupted that life’s fortunes were precarious.
In this collection,
there are characters who foresee disasters and have this sense of
It is particularly evident in “Fraternit´e,” the most Jewish
of these short stories, in which a wealthy, assimilated man with the
none-too-subtle name Christian Rabinovitch, “...would wake in the middle of the
night, shaking, fearing that something was going to happen, had happened, that
everything would be taken away from him, that his life was unstable as scenery
that was about to collapse and reveal he knew not what abyss.”
On his way
to meet the future in-laws of his son, Rabinovitch chances across a wretched
refugee with the same name who insists that they must be related.
meeting irritates the affluent, well connected Frenchman. “I’m much further away
from that Jew than I am from an oriental peddler.
Three or four
generations have elapsed. I’m a different man, not just spiritually, but
physically as well. My nose and mouth don’t matter, they are nothing. Only the
soul matters! “He did not realize it but carried away by his thoughts, he was
swaying forward and backward on the seat in a slow, strange rhythm, in time with
the motion of the train; and so it was that, in moments of fatigue or stress,
his body found itself repeating the rocky moment that had soothed earlier
generations of rabbis bent over the holy book, money changers over their gold
coins, and tailors over their workbenches.”
In “Monsieur Rose,” as in
, the reader witnesses the panicked flight of wartime refugees
who pack their porcelain and stuff their cars with furs and starched linen but
neglect to take along something to eat. They are physically and psychologically
utterly unprepared for what happens when they run out of food, the cars run out
of fuel, and falling bombs indiscriminately mix the blood of the commoners with
that of the social elite.
The stories are all based in a world that is no
more – be it prewar Paris or a bohemian pre-Revolution Ukrainian abode (in “The
Spell”). The themes, however, are universal: family ties and secrets, broken
hearts and midlife crises, shattered dreams and fears. Each is a mini-drama with
The translation reads well, flowing naturally, although it made
me curious to try to read the original. For some reason, the titles of the short
stories have been left in the French with a translation added in parenthesis.
Why bother writing out “The Confidant” next to “La Confidente,” “Mr. Rose” next
to “Monsieur Rose” or “Brotherhood” next to “Fraternit´e”? And with some titles,
it even detracted.
For example, seeing “Le Spectateur” simply translated
as “The Spectator” made me wonder whether “The Onlooker” might not have been
more appropriate. The protagonist (I could never bring myself to write “hero” of
Hugo Grayer) lingers too long in Paris seduced by a false sense of security that
his status and place in the world made him untouchably neutral. “‘It’s all so
beautiful,’ murmured Hugo... ‘For several years I’ve felt particularly drawn to
these threatened cities: Paris, London, Rome.
Every time I leave I have
tears in my eyes, as though I’m saying good-bye to a terminally ill friend.’”
Although very much a social chronicler, Némirovsky’s writing transcends time and
place with images that we can relate to as well today as did her original
readers of yesteryear: “She had a naïve, exaggerated understanding of physical
desire, rather like a child who, given her mother’s jewelry to play with handles
it with exaggerated yet touching respect, not realizing that the pearls she has
been given are fake” (“Those Happy Shores”).
Don’t read Némirovsky
because of how she died; read her works because of how she wrote. And may a
little bit of the writer live on with every reading.