A brutal struggle for survival

2010-09-01 00:00

HAVING been born into a Jewish family­ in Kiev and living as a stateless person in occupied France, there was a strong chance that Irène Némirovsky would die young. So she did — at Auschwitz in August 1942, not yet 40. This book claims she succumbed to typhus­ (flu in camp language), but there are suggestions that, like her husband, she was gassed. Her two daughters survived. She had previously experienced a pogrom and hazardous flight from revolutionary Russia to Finland­.

With a father who loved making money and a mother who loved only herself, Némirovsky’s solitary childhood was saved by writing­. She is most famous for her unfinished, best-selling S uite Française. This is a novel of depth and insight set in France in 1940 and 1941 under German invasion and occupation, which Némirovsky witnessed. It was an extraordinary achievement, written against a background of traumatic events and a sense of impending personal tragedy. In the care of her elder daughter, the manuscript remained unread for 50 years — she imagined it was a diary too painful to open. Over a third of Némirovsky’s work was published posthumously.

Her life was a sequence of escapes, but ultimately she was unable to evade her identity. Recognised as a significant French writer of the inter-war years, and firmly committed to her adopted country, she was denied citizenship even though she had converted to Roman­ Catholicism. Some of her writing displays a negative attitude to Jews and she was published by right-wing, anti-semitic editors­. Critics have described her as a self-hating Jew. She argued that she was simply reflecting a slice of Jewish life; and Philipponnat and Lienhardt agree, describing her writing as non-ideological.

This book can be read as literary biography. But it will appeal to a wider audience — the story of an unsuccessful struggle for survival in the short, brutal European 20th century.

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