Have just finished the most incredible novel–all the more fascinating and poignant for having been discovered by the daughter of the writer many years after her mother had been killed in a concentration camp.
The author of this remarkable book, Irene Nemirovsky, was Catholic with a Jewish background, living in France after fleeing Russia during the Revolution. She’d written and published several novels to great acclaim when WW2 and the German occupation of France sparked her final novel–Suite Francaise. As the war and then the occupation happened around her, she wrote the first two books of a proposed five book series.
Those first two sections only in this century became Suite Francaise. Nemirovsky never wrote the other sections; she’d been arrested and sentenced to death in the camps. Her children survived, and one of her daughters put her mother’s manuscript into a suitcase for safekeeping until after the war.
Nemirovsky’s daughters couldn’t, at first, bring themselves to read their mother’s last writings. They had no idea that it was a fully realized novel, an accurate and heartbreaking portrait of France under the occupation. Finally, they decided to bequeath the manuscript pages to a historical society, but decided to type them up first. Which is when it became clear what those pages were.
Thus, the book was finally published, decades after it had been written. Also in the text, extensive notes on future imagined sections of what Nemirovsky conceived as a multi-book effort. Fascinating, scary, and sad. Even more horrifying are the letters also included. These complete the actual picture of what Nemirovsky hoped to fictionalize (the third of the four imagined works was to be called “Captivity”) as correspondence flies between the writer and her publisher.
In the letters, Nemirovsky tries to be brave in the face of increasing calls to purge all Jews from France, but the few lines she does write about her worsening situation are filled with terrors and insights about the rigid rules against Jews that seem impossibly nightmarish. And yet they are all too real. Included as well: Nemirovsky’s final letters to her family, after she has been arrested.
This is a story, the novel and its appendices, that broke my heart like no other has done in a very long time. What struck me the most about Nemirovsky’s fictionalized account is how very generous and kind she is about the German soldiers who occupy the French countryside. She saw their humanity, as, finally, Hitler did not see hers.