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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

Irène Némirovsky

Jonathan Weiss

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To purchase Irène Némirovsky

Title: Irène Némirovsky
Author: Jonathan Weiss
Genre: Biography
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 178 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Irène Némirovsky - US
Irène Némirovsky - UK
Irène Némirovsky - Canada
Irène Némirovsky - Canada (French)
Irène Némirovsky - France
  • Her Life and Works
  • French title: Irène Némirovsky
  • Translated by Dace Weiss

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Our Assessment:

B : useful but limited

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Republic . 30/1/2008 Ruth Franklin
San Francisco Chronicle . 24/9/2006 Jason Warshof
TLS . 5/1/2007 Natasha Lehrer

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)mmensely clarifying" - Ruth Franklin, The New Republic

  • "(A) brief but intensely thought-provoking biography" - Jason Warshof, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Weiss is hampered by the fact that very little primary material exists to throw light on a large part of Nemirovsky's life; she left behind no diaries, few photographs and little correspondence about her early life in Kiev or her years in Paris before the Second World War. Weiss gets round this by using her early novels to construct a portrait of the milieu into which she was born and to throw light on her life and her writing. (...) Jonathan Weiss's imaginative exploration of the complexities and ambiguities of this enigmatic writer are a commendable attempt to return to Irene Nemirovsky some of the dignity that such reductive portraits have denied her." - Natasha Lehrer, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jonathan Weiss' Irène Némirovsky filled a void when it appeared, first in French in 2005, and then in English in 2007. The phenomenal success of Suite Française -- the previously unpublished Némirovsky novel -- and the author's tragic fate (she died at Auschwitz more than six decades before this final publishing triumph) led to renewed -- or entirely new -- interest in the author. While never entirely forgotten in France she was certainly no longer a household name before Suite Française surfaced, and in the English-speaking world -- despite earlier translations of several of her books -- she was almost entirely unknown.
       Interest was also fanned by the circumstances around her and her books, especially the supposedly anti-Semitic cast of many of her works as well as the company she kept (and publications she published in). Her Jewish identity and tragic fate also stood in contrast to the unfinished Suite Française, which, despite being set during the German occupation of France in World War II, has no Jewish characters and barely a hint of what awaited Némirovsky. And while the American publisher of Suite Française tried to market her in a specific way -- editing the parts that may have made her appear unseemly from Myriam Anissimov's preface to the French edition of the book -- her history was too well-known for that to be kept out of the discussion, with some commentators jumping on it with a vengeance.
       In particular, it's the portrayal of Jews in her (previously) most popular work, David Golder -- which was one of her books translated into English before World War II -- that was found to be disturbing. With that title long out of print in English (and most of the others never available), Weiss' approach -- focussed on Némirovsky's works -- is -- or at least was -- a useful one. (With the publication of the Everyman's omnibus edition of David Golder - The Ball - Snow in Autumn - The Courilof Affair readers now have far easier access to considerably more -- though still far from all -- of her work.)
       Even as he sums up: "Irène Némirovsky was an author in search of an identity", his focus is largely on her Jewish identity. Her background -- Russian born (in 1903) but raised in a wealthy family where French was commonly used, forced to flee first to Finland and then Paris -- explains her readily becoming a French writer, and while there's continued interest in -- and some literary treatment of -- Russian and immigrant themes, she fits in tidily into a specific (upper class, right-wing) French scene.
       But other aspects of her identity are not adequately or convincingly treated -- including her late conversion to Catholicism (or, for that matter, her taking so long before trying to get French citizenship). Weiss argues -- or at least states -- about her August 1939 (!) conversion:

     Rather than a public act, intended to protect the family by giving it a Catholic identity (which would have convinced neither the Germans nor the Vichy French), Irène's conversion appears to have risen from a strictly personal spirituality, one that is foreshadowed in her writings of the period, which show a marked sensibility towards a Christian ideal of abnegation and suffering.
       It's a plausible hypothesis, but there's little evidence on offer, and for such a bold claim -- and significant act -- Weiss should have made a lot more of it.
       There's very little about specifically her family life in any case, with little sense of her relationship with her husband or children. Worse, there's very little about her relationship with her parents, and especially her mother. Weiss mentions several of her books in which there's a young girl "with an implacable hatred for her mother" (including The Ball) -- and that there are obviously autobiographical elements here. But the best Weiss can do is to suggest:
It is quite probable that Irène herself had a stormy relationship with her own mother, even though she reveals little about herself in her family letters.
       Given the mother-daughter relationships portrayed in Némirovsky's fiction, it's hard to imagine that anything is as significant regarding her own 'identity' as her relationship with her mother. But aside from an anecdote about a dispute over some furs, Weiss gives (or finds) no hints of the tensions and consequences -- perhaps the greatest failing in this study.
       Among the other open issues is the question of money: Némirovsky seems to have been raking it in (earning more than her banker-husband, Weiss notes), but Weiss also frequently describes her almost desperately seeking out more opportunities and yet -- especially as the German noose tightened -- of the family being in financial straits (of sorts). It's unclear what lavish lifestyle they spend their money on; indeed, there's little sense of her lifestyle at all.
       For better or worse Weiss focusses on Némirovsky's work, and insofar as much of it was (and quite a bit still is) inaccessible to English-reading audiences this is fairly useful, giving a good overview of her oeuvre. Here, too, the focus is on the anti-Semitic question, and specifically on David Golder -- though given that this early work was her greatest success this seems appropriate.
       Weiss takes a fairly neutral stance regarding the Jewish question -- though tending to give Némirovsky the benefit of the doubt, and working hard to place it in the context of the times (which apparently is some sort of excuse). But her own words -- not even only in the book itself, but in her defense -- certainly feel like nails in the coffin, as for example hilariously:
Irène attempted to justify herself by raising two points: first, as a Jew herself she couldn't be charged with anti-Semitism; second, she was merely giving a faithful portrait of characters she knew from her own life: "that is the way I saw them."
       It's unfortunate that Weiss does not follow through here: Némirovsky's books are filled with unsympathetic and often almost unbelievably unpleasant figures, and it may very well be that that is really the way she saw them and the world -- one thinks not only of the Jewish characters but all those moms from hell. The question is: why did she see people like this ? What kind of warped (?) perception did she have of the world around her ? And why ?
       Perhaps the most disturbing of her comments about David Golder Weiss quotes are those from 1939, a decade after her novel was first published:
"How could I write such a thing ? If I were to write David Golder now, I would do it quite differently ... The climate is quite changed !
       It's the last sentence that is so disturbing, suggesting not regret but rather that Némirovsky would simply pander differently now.
       Weiss' Irène Némirovsky is a good, basic introduction to the author, but only adequate as such. Her work is fairly well covered, but there's far too little about her life, and far too little insight (or even just plain speculation) about the influence of her life on her work. For now it will have to do, but look forward to much more thorough biographies to come (such as the translation of La Vie d'Irène Némirovsky by Olivier Philipponat and Patrick Lienhardt).

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Irène Némirovsky: Reviews: Irène Némirovsky: Books by Irene Nemirovsky under review: Books about Irène Némirovsky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jonathan Weiss teaches at Colby College.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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