Fresco of Human Nature

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"Suite Francaise" ("French Suite") by Irene Nemirovsky, Denoel Publishing, 434 pages

PARIS (early November) - The air was permeated by rumors and guesses about who would win this year's prestigious literary prizes. The names of candidates, likely and less likely, were bandied about. But this year, there was one candidate who overshadowed all the others, mainly because she died 62 years ago. On November 8, for the first time in history, the Renaudot - second in importance only to Prix Goncourt - was awarded to a book that came out this fall but was written in 1942. The author, Irene Nemirovsky, perished in Auschwitz that year at the age of 39. Nemirovsky's life story is no less intriguing than her book, the pinnacle of a literary career cut short. "French Suite" is her literary legacy, as well as one of the most truthful and accurate portrayals of the early years of Nazi occupation in France.

Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1903 to a family of Jewish bankers. She grew up in St. Petersburg in the lap of luxury. When the Bolsheviks took over and her banker father was branded an enemy of the revolution, the family sought refuge in Finland and then Sweden. In 1919, Nemirovsky and her parents moved to France. After months of horror, wandering and fear, 16-year-old Irene wanted nothing more than to forget everything and enjoy the good life. Once her father reestablished himself financially, she rushed to make up for the lost time, vacationing in fashionable resorts, attending parties and sipping champagne.

This continued until her marriage to Michel Epstein and the birth of her two daughters, Elisabeth and Denise. From an early age, Nemirovsky published short stories and novels - "Un Enfant Prodige," "Jezebel," "Les Chiens et Les Loups," "Le Bal." But her real recognition as a writer came in 1929, with the publication of "David Golder." This novel, the story of a Ukrainian Jewish banker, enjoyed immediate success and was even turned into a film. Nemirovsky became the belle of French literary society, admired by Jean Cocteau and Joseph Kessel, and even anti-Semitic writers like Paul Morand, Robert Brasillach and Drieu de la Rochelle. She was dubbed the Francoise Sagan of the years between World War I and II, not only because of her talent, but because of her bon vivant lifestyle and the popularity of her books.

The winds of war and a decade of rising anti-Semitism convinced Nemirovsky, who had never become a French citizen, to convert to Christianity together with her daughters. But the certificate of baptism she received in February 1939 did not keep Nemirovsky and her husband from being classified as Jews and alien citizens according to the new race laws passed in 1941. In 1941-1942, she was denied the right to publish under her own name, and her husband lost his job as a banker. The Epstein-Nemirovsky family found a safe haven in the village of Issy-L'Eveque, where Irene continued to write her novels, which she published in Paris under various pseudonyms.

On July 31, 1942, before she completed her life's work, the novel she hoped would become the "War and Peace" of modern times, Irene Nemirovsky was arrested by the French police and taken to the Pithiviers detention camp. A few days later, she was deported to Auschwitz- Birkenau where she died in the gas chambers on August 17. Her husband, Michel, was deported a month later and also died in Auschwitz.

Their daughters, Elisabeth and Denise, survived with the help of their French nanny, who found various hideouts for them during the war. The manuscript of "French Suite," stashed in a suitcase along with family photographs and baptism certificates, never left their sides as they moved from place to place. When they grew up, they tried to read it, but the memories of their mother's final days were just too painful, and the manuscript went back into the drawer.

About a year ago, Denise Epstein gave the old notebook to a friend, Myriam Anissimov, who has written biographies of Primo Levi and Romain Gary. Right away, Anissimov saw that she was looking at a masterpiece and took it to Denoel. This manuscript in tiny script on cheap paper turned out to be not only as important a documentary source as Anne Frank's diary, but a brilliant fresco of human nature, calling to mind Balzac's "The Human Comedy" in its complexity, profound insights and elegant prose.

Tiny script, cheap paper

The first part of the book, "Tempete en Juin" ("Tempest in June") tells the story of the flight from the Nazis, or what is known in French history as "la debacle." As several families cross paths, in the midst of the chaos and panic of the "exodus from Paris" with its blurring of social classes and impossible dilemmas, the true face of humanity is revealed.

During an air-raid attack, the Pericands, a bourgeois family of devout Catholics with an army of servants, run around saving their silver bric-a-brac but forget their old, senile grandfather. The younger son dreams of joining the brigades to defend France; his brother is an idealistic priest abandoned by God who is murdered by a gang of problem youths he is trying to save. Gabriel Corte, a writer and aesthete full of disdain for the unwashed masses thronging the roads, is repulsed and afraid of them, but forced to share his fate and even his crust of bread with them.

The refugees from Paris will stoop to anything for a piece of bread, a roof over their heads, a bed, even the chance to sleep on a chair in a hallway. We meet righteous people like Louise, a simple farmer's wife and mother of four, pregnant by a husband who has disappeared somewhere on the front. And we meet people like the Michauds, petty clerks, fearful for their soldier son, who behave ethically as long as they belong to the society of "good Frenchmen," as Marshal Petain put it, but turn into despicable, conniving creatures, who will betray, lie and even kill to get more than someone else. These are heady days for the prostitutes and the thieves, and for striking it rich on the black market. These are days when the lowly side of human nature comes to the fore.

"Dolce," the second part of the book, chronicles the arrival of the first German soldiers to the little village of Bussy and the relationship between the conquered and the conquerors. With rare talent, Nemirovsky describes how the "metal monsters" become curious mortals, a bit lost in a foreign country, who try to win over the inhabitants with candy and good manners, along with frequent reminders of who is boss. This standing as conquerors allows them to manipulate the French villagers, who are quite willing to inform on their neighbors in return for a kilo of sugar.

The story of the tender relationship that develops between a German officer and Lucile, an unhappy young woman who lives with her domineering mother-in-law and doesn't really miss her husband, a prisoner in Germany, is a very human tale in the reality of war. Nothing like it has been written since "Le silence de la mer" ("The Silence of the Sea") by Vercors, a classic of French literature that portrays a similar relationship.

Between the lines

In this sweeping fresco, however, something appears to be missing. Nemirovsky writes about everyone - about the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie, about farmers, about Protestants and Catholics, about artists, about prostitutes and thieves. Yet there is not a single word about any Jewish problem. This becomes all the more bewildering when one brings into the equation the fact that Nemirovsky wrote this book while she was in hiding with her family for being a Jew.

There is an explanation for this if we read between the lines, especially in the appendixes of the book. In her writing, Nemirovsky has never disguised her dislike of the Jewish race. The Jews in her earlier books fit in with the anti-Semitic stereotypes that filled the Nazi press of the time: They are manipulative, exploiting and money-grubbing, with all the repulsive physical characteristics attributed to Jews.

These characterizations were even used as an "alibi" by her husband, Michel Epstein, in his letters to Otto Abetz, Hitler's ambassador to France, after Irene was arrested: "In none of her books ... will you find one word against Germany. Although my wife is Jewish, she describes the Jews without affection ... To me it seems unjust and illogical that the Germans have arrested a woman who, despite her Jewish origins, has never shown any love for Judaism or the Bolsheviks - and this can be proven in her books."

In a letter to Nemirovsky's publisher, Andre Sabatier, Epstein quotes several lines from one of her books to demonstrate her antipathy for the Jews: "The protagonist is a repulsive, unscrupulous doctor of Levantine origin. I do not recall if my wife stated that he was Jewish, but I think she did."

These desperate and naive appeals to Ambassador Abetz, Nemirovsky's publisher and others were of no avail. Epstein was arrested soon after. And Irene, despite her desire, sincere or feigned, to dissociate herself from her origins, despite her self-hatred and her baptism certificate from the Church of St. Mary in Paris, paid the full price for her Jewishness. She left behind a beautiful and remarkably insightful book that we can only hope will soon find a Hebrew publisher.

Gaby Levin is the director of the Yahel Foundation in memory of Leon Recanati.