Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 into a wealthy banking family and immigrated to France during the Russian Revolution. After attending the Sorbonne in Paris, she began to write and swiftly achieved success with David Golder, which was followed by more than a dozen other books. Throughout her lifetime she published widely in French newspapers and literary journals. She died in Auschwitz in 1942. More than sixty years later, Suite Française was published posthumously for the first time in 2006.
An Excerpt from the INTRODUCTION
by Claire Messud
‘‘Each of us has his weaknesses. Human nature is incomprehensible,’’ muses the mysterious Léon M., narrator of Irène Némirovsky’s novel, The Courilof Affair. ‘‘One cannot even say with certainty whether a man is good or evil, stupid or intelligent. There does not exist a good man who has not at some time in his life committed a cruel act, nor an evil man who has not done good. . . .’’ The complicated, often murky ironies of human interaction are the stuff of Némirovsky’s fictions: no matter what her subject–and her range was considerable–her work is unified in its unsparing examination of the desires and feelings that lie behind the most apparently clear-cut scenarios.
In The Courilof Affair, Léon M., in his retirement in Nice, pens his memories of his revolutionary days in Russia in the early years of the century and, in particular, of his assignment to assassinate the Tsar’s Minister of Education, Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, known as ‘‘the Killer Whale,’’ in (incidentally, the year of the author’s birth). In preparation for the attack, Léon takes on the identity of Marcel Legrand, a Swiss doctor, and becomes the personal physician to Courilof. Over the course of their time together, he is moved by a growing understanding not simply of Courilof, but of human frailty. Compassion and revolutionary terrorism are not easily compatible, and his new knowledge threatens Léon’s mission. As he recalls of Courilof and his politically problematic French wife (and former mistress), Margot, ‘‘It remains impossible for me to explain, even to myself, how I could . . . understand these two people. . . . For the first time, I saw human beings: unhappy people, with ambitions, faults, foolishness.’’
This capacity genuinely and fully to see human beings, to acknowledge the tender humanity of their flaws, is one of the supreme gifts of fiction, both for the writer and for the reader. Nobody knew this better than Irène Némirovsky, whose novels are fiercely preoccupied with the unveiling of her characters’ foibles but who, through that unveiling, provides her readers with a bracing, unnerving, and often moving vision of ourselves as we really are. This is nowhere more true than in her unfinished masterpiece, Suite Française, the relatively recent discovery and publication of which have brought Némirovsky to the attention of a new generation of readers. Set in France under German occupation and written, extraordinarily, under the circumstances it describes, Suite Française moves between chilling satire of the petty selfishness of the bourgeoisie and a poignant evocation of the realities of village life under occupation–realities much like those of Léon M., in which to recognize the enemy’s humanity is to compromise, or disable, a warrior’s hatred. In reading that novel–or, more properly, those two novellas, since the remaining three segments that would have completed the masterpiece were never written–this reader, for one, gained an understanding of what it meant to live in France during the Second World War that I had not had before, steeped though I was in books and films on the subject.
Consistently through her work, Némirovsky's vision is neither easy nor comfortable; nor was her own life untainted by the moral complexities she captured so keenly in fiction. In its broadest outlines, of course, the tragic story of Irène Némirovsky's life is by now widely known: she was a refugee from the Russian Revolution who made France her home; she enjoyed literary acclaim and considerable privilege there during the '20s and '30s; and she mistakenly thought that privilege would protect her from the Nazis, an error that cost her her life. She was taken by the Germans in 1942 and died in Auschwitz of typhus not long after her arrival there. Her husband, Michel, left her final manuscript in the care of her two small daughters, who managed to salvage it in spite of their own tribulations during the war. They kept her notebook without reading it, for decades, and only in the 1990s did her older, surviving daughter, Denise Epstein, realize that these pages constituted not a diary but the fragments of a novel. It was published in France in 2004 and subsequently translated into English. The book has been an international best seller.