Nemirovsky's book was published 62 years after she diedImage: AP
Auschwitz Victim's Novel Creates Sensation
October 26, 2004
A lost novel by a once-famous Jewish author who was murdered in Auschwitz is being hailed as the literary event of the year in France, not least because of the extraordinary story that has finally led to its publication.
"Suite Francaise" was written in 1942 as Irene Nemirovsky waited in rural France for what she knew was her imminent arrest and deportation. It is a powerful account of the effect on ordinary people of the military collapse of June 1940, the panicked flight from Paris and the arrival of the German army.
Described by the publishing magazine Livres-Hebdo as the "most important novel of the year," it caused a sensation at the Frankfurt Book Fair earlier this month, where, after fierce bidding, English language rights were snapped up for an undisclosed sum by Random House.
The novel has even been hailed as a French equivalent of Anne Frank's diary because of the rare authenticity with which it treats one of the most painful episodes in the country's modern history.
"It could become one of the key books of France under the occupation," said Olivier Le Naire, literary editor of L'Express magazine. "You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of works of this force that were written not after the war -- but right in the thick of it. From the literary as well as historic point of view, it is big news -- and a masterpiece."
Shot to fame in 1929
Nemirovsky was born in 1903 into a family of rich Russian Jews who were forced to emigrate during the revolution. In Paris she studied at the Sorbonne and in 1929 shot to fame with her novel "David Golder," which was followed over the next decade by more than 15 others.
Multilingual and well-connected -- she counted Jean Cocteau among her acquaintances -- she led a charmed life, marrying Jewish businessman Michel Epstein and having two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth. But with the war all changed.
Abandoned by her friends and boycotted by the publishing industry for being Jewish, she and Epstein fled Paris in 1941 for the village of Issy-l'Eveque in southern Burgundy, where in a leather notebook she began to write out what she hoped would be a five-part epic on the aftermath of defeat.
On July 13, 1942 French police called at her home and arrested her. Deported to Auschwitz she died there the following month. Her husband wrote to the Vichy leader Philippe Petain asking for his help, but in October he too was arrested and later killed at Auschwitz.
Novel discovered decades later
One of Nemirovsky's last acts before her arrest was to entrust a suitcase containing photographs and family papers to her two daughters, who for two years traveled from safe house to safe house to avoid the attention of the French police.
Three decades later Denise finally summoned up the courage to read the hidden notebook and was astonished to discover that it was not -- as she had supposed -- a diary, but the first two parts of the novel. She and her sister, who is now dead, then waited another quarter of a century before finally deciding to publish.
"Suite Francaise" consists of a first section, entitled "June Storm," which recounts the tangled stories of several families forced to flee northern France as the invading Germans approach. The pettiness and cruelty of the population is mercilessly exposed, as suffering rips away the veneer of respectability.
In part two -- "Dolce" -- Nemirovsky examines the compromises and moral confusion that ensue when a village is occupied by German soldiers.
Now aged 74, Denise Epstein says the book is not just a novel. "Above all it is a log-book written by my mother through the dark years. All the people she writes about and takes such pains to create -- we knew them. All the situations -- we lived through them," she said.
"During the 1930s my mother wanted to believe that France would defend the Jews. Afterwards she was for years seen just as a victim and her talent was forgotten. I hope this book will do justice to what she was above all else -- a writer."