The Life of Irene Nemirovsky: Author of Suite Française

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9780307397621: The Life of Irene Nemirovsky: Author of Suite Française

A major biography of Irène Némirovksy, author of the acclaimed and internationally bestselling Suite Française — with new material never published in English.

Irène Némirovksy's own life was as dramatic as any fiction. And few writers enjoy a posthumous resurgence as astonishing as hers after the international triumph of Suite Française. The authors of this fascinating biography have had access to previously unpublished documents and to surviving family members in Russia, researching there her childhood in the Ukraine, and tracing her odyssey first to St Petersburg, where her father was a successful financier, and then, as the family was forced to flee the Russian Revolution, to Finland, Sweden and finally France in 1919.

Meticulously researched and passionately felt, this is a remarkable, panoramic biography of an exceptional writer, a moving portrait of a woman and of her extraordinary times, and a sweeping saga of a turbulent period of European history, holding up a mirror to the world of publishing, intellectual thought, society and the darker shadow of prejudice between the wars.

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About the Author:

OLIVIER PHILIPPONNAT and PATRICK LIENHARDT are the critically acclaimed authors of a biography of Roger Stephane.

Translator: EUAN CAMERON was an editor at Harvill and is an acclaimed translator. He has translated the text of this biography.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

The Most Beautiful Country in the World

(1903–1911)

But those were legendary times, those distant times when the gardens of the most beautiful city in our Homeland were the preserve of a young, carefree generation.

Then, yes, then the conviction took root in the hearts of this generation that their entire lives would be spent in purity, serenity and calm; the dawns, the sunsets, the Dnieper, the Kreschatik, the sunny summer streets and, in winter, snow that did not bring with it cold weather or a harsh climate, a snow that was thick and gentle . . . And it was the very opposite that happened.

—Mikhail Bulgakov, “The City of Kiev,”

Nakanune (On the Eve) newspaper, 6th July 1923

In Kiev, in about 1910, a florist at the sign of La Flore de Nice was selling hydrangeas and Christmas roses. Was the business prosperous? In the Ukrainian capital, “there were so many lime trees [along the streets] that in springtime, you walked beneath an archway of blossom and on a carpet of flowers.” Once winter was over, hyacinths and dandelions defied the last gusts of snow. In a few days’ time, the lime trees in the old Revny park would take on a fresh pale plumage and the Marinsky park, poised upon the red clay cliffs that crumble down into the river, would be filled with copses of mauve. After that came an explosion of pollens, that covered the Kreschatik, the principal thoroughfare of the city, in a carpet of pale yellow.

There is no writer who has not been struck by the mass of vegetation that every year floods the Pechersk district, perched high in the heart of Kiev. When he went back there in 1923, to find it ravaged by four consecutive years of onslaughts and pillaging, Mikhail Bulgakov, who was born there thirty years earlier, had not forgotten the joyful eruption of spring: “The gardens were white with flowers, the Garden of the Tsars was covered in green, the sun pierced all the windows, setting them ablaze.” And Irène Némirovsky: “How beautiful it is in springtime, in this land! The streets lined with gardens and the air giving off the scent of lime trees, lilacs, sweet moisture rising from the lawns; these trees, in clusters, release their sugary perfume into the night.” So what need was there for a florist from Nice in the city of Kiev, which was so saturated with perfumes that every evening, before the open-air concert in the Kupechesky park, they had first to spray the beds of stocks and tobacco flowers in order to reduce the fragrance and ward off coughing fits?

The Smell of the Plains

It was in this vast botanical garden, traversed by wide avenues, and adorned with bandstands and balconies with striped awnings, that a little girl, given the name Irma for the synagogue, and Irina, after the Tsar’s niece, was born on 11th February 1903. Of the countless bastions of greenery maintained in the heart of the city, this little girl, who became a novelist, listed four: “Nicholas Square, the Botanical Gardens, and, up on the hills, the Tsar’s Garden and the Merchants’ Square.” The second of these, vast and gullied, with its own pond, and criss-crossed with pathways lined with hundred-year-old lime trees, made the strongest impression on her, possibly because it was the closest to Pushkin Street where her parents lived when she was seven years old. “It was a rather isolated, overgrown spot. Some sleepy animals lived in iron cages: an eagle from the Caucasus crawling with vermin, some wolves, a bear panting with thirst.” And there was Nicholas I Square, the centenary park of Lycée No. 1, as well as the verdant terraces perched above the Dnieper, the Dvortsovy and the Kupechesky, which afforded a view over the lower town of Podol. Not forgetting the bridges lined with numbered trees, or those areas of open ground preserved in the heart of the city, as if out of nostalgia for the steppe from which a smell of honey blew in on gusts of wind.

But Irotchka, as her family called her, was asthmatic, a hereditary condition. Her attacks were frequent and violent. A bunch of flowers was enough to affect her. At home there would only ever be a single tulip in a vase or some sweet peas on the balcony. In Paris, she was obliged to import inhalers from Switzerland. And her sensory memories of her native city would be those of a child capable of analysing instinctively “the unique aroma of the air,” an acuity that would make her so receptive to Proustian distillation. Thus the narrator of The Wine of Solitude (Le Vin de Solitude), “a poorly disguised autobiography” written in 1933, recalls that in Kiev “the air misty with dust smelled of dung and roses.”

Despite the rococo cupolas of St. Andrew and the Marie Palace, which the younger Rastrelli had designed in 1762, the profusion of theatres, the trolleybus lines, which were inaugurated in 1892, it was impossible to forget that Kiev was the capital of an immensely vast field of buckwheat and rye. In the evenings, at harvest time, the dust from the straw in the ploughed fields stuck in one’s throat. “A cloudy red light drifted down from the sky; the wind carried the smell of the Ukrainian plains to the city, a mild but bitter scent of smoke and the coolness of the water and rushes that grew along the riverbanks.” The Dnieper, pausing over this landscape, flowed through it in huge meandering bends. The breaking ice drove back the opposite bank far beyond the horizon. From the hilltop where the statue of Prince Vladimir held aloft his cross, studded with light-bulbs, to guide the boatmen, stretched a sea on which the sun never shone. The journalist Bernard Lecache, who in 1926 had come to record the testimonies of Jews who had survived the 1,300 pogroms of the civil war, could not help contemplating for a moment the splendour of Kiev, “full of trees, and undulating, like a woman’s body, as beautiful as a city can be.”

For the little girl who was short of breath, this botanical paradise would for ever be a stifling greenhouse, an olfactory variation on the well-known Russian excess. “The hot summer days, the bells of the ice cream seller, the flowers crushed under foot, crumpled in people’s hands, too many plants, too many flowers; a perfume that was overly sweet, that troubles and lulls the spirit; too much light, a savage glare, the songs of birds in the sky: this was her land.”

The Ukraine. In Kiev, its capital, the Russia of the Tsars was born. Even Andréi Bely, a Muscovite by birth, but a St. Petersburger at heart, for whom other Russian cities were nothing but “a miserable heap of wood,” acknowledged this unreservedly: “The mother of Russian cities is Kiev.” Prince Oleg, at the conclusion of a victorious siege, established the first rus dynasty there in 882. Converted to the Orthodox faith a century later, under the reign of Vladimir, who had all his people baptised through immersion in the Dnieper, Kiev experienced wars and pillaging, but never neglect: a natural waterway from the Baltic to Constantinople, the river had never stopped replenishing the city with men and maintaining commerce there. And thus its status as the cradle of Russia, albeit the ancient and backward Russia, has never been contested.

To See Paris Again

Was this really her cradle? In October, the departure of the ships for their winter dry docks heralded the frosts. The Némirovskys then packed their bags for a distant land. Vichy, Plombières, Vittel, Divonne . . . The spa towns, where their little daughter could be treated for her asthma, offered Irina’s parents, Anna and Leonid, the supreme benefits of the casino. But they themselves preferred one of those communities in Nice among which Paul Bourget had just set his novel Le Piège, and had no qualms about travelling on to the Côte d’Azur, leaving the child in the care of a governess. Irène Némirovsky remembered that when they all returned to Kiev her wheeler-dealer of a father “played and juggled or became engrossed in an old roulette wheel, brought back from Monte Carlo,” a symbol of his gambler’s personality. As for her mother, a photograph of her in a satin dress, with a tight-fitting waist, her arms and her hair strewn with black pearls, and an aigrette on her forehead, suggests the desire for approval that she sought in the palaces and gambling rooms: she wished other people to gaze at her apart from her husband, who sparkled with intelligence and determination rather than lust. A satisfied smile betrays her desires. It is this same portrait that her daughter would describe in 1928: “Little mother, all dressed up for the ball, her shoulders bare, with a naïve, triumphant smile that seemed to say: ‘Just look at me! Aren’t I beautiful? And if you only knew how much pleasure that gives me!’ ” All in all, an “exquisite doll.”

Sometimes these French “winters” lasted four seasons. They began in Paris where Irina, their only child, alighted from the train with her parents and the servants. “From the age of four, up until the war, I went there regularly every year. The first time, I stayed there for a year. I was in the care of a French teacher, and I always spoke French with my mother.” And one cannot help smiling when Henri de Régnier, upon closing The Wine of Solitude (Le Vin de Solitude) in 1935, felt able to say that “Némirovsky writes Russian in French.” For she was a French writer whom fate had caused to be born in Kiev, and her Russian, less innate than bookish, would remain imperfect. For Irène Némirovsky (“a Russian name, very difficult to pronounce”), Russian would always be that uncivilised “wild, sweet language” of the East, where she was born. By comparison with the excitement of Paris, the non-stop theatre of...

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