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Irène Némirovsky

NÉMIROVSKY, IRÈNE (1903–1942), French author. Born in Kiev to a well-to-do assimilated family, Némirovsky received an aristocratic education, speaking French at an early age. Her early years were marked by tragic experiences during the civil war in Russia (including a pogrom). Her father was a banker and the revolutionaries set a price on his head. The family hid in a Moscow apartment, until they could escape to Finland. They lived a year in Sweden and eventually settled in Paris, where the father gradually rebuilt his fortune. These experiences found their way, at least indirectly, into Némirovsky's novels. When she married and became a mother, she hoped to live in peace and happiness, but the Nazi occupation shattered all. She sought refuge with her family, in rural central France. She was denounced, arrested by the French police in 1942, and deported to Auschwitz, where she died, apparently of typhus.

Her first and best-known novel, David Golder (1930) won wide acclaim. The hero, a Russian Jewish banker, is a ruthless character, ready to sacrifice all in order to strengthen his financial empire. Having destroyed all human relationships, he faces ruin in utter loneliness. His one remaining shred of humanity, manifest in his devotion to an unworthy daughter, gives the elder Golder the strength to rebuild his fortune for her sake and die a grandiose, moving, solitary death.

This was followed by Le Bal (1930), a short novel and literary gem. Les mouches d'automne (1931) and L'Affaire Courilof (1933) illustrate the author's Russian vein. Le vin de solitude (1935) her most overtly autobiographical novel, describes her tragic childhood experiences and painful relations with her mother, a strange woman who rejected her daughter in her obsession to preserve her beauty, youth and glowing womanhood. The mother's obsession also forms the subject of Jezabel (1936).

As Nazi threats loomed Némirovsky wrote a true "Jewish novel," Les chiens et les loups (1939), which opens with a pogrom viewed through the eyes of two ghetto children, Ada and her cousin Ben. The two reach the beautiful and peaceful quarters of their rich cousins, where young Harry lives like a prince, heir to the banking empire of his uncles. As the story unfolds in a French setting, Harry, the wealthy assimilated immigrant, and Ben, the struggling refugee, ever wandering in anguish, realize that they are, in spite of all, identical Jewish brothers with distant roots set in a "peculiar way of loving, of desiring" some unattainable truth set in every Jewish heart. Ada, a painter, expresses the same yearning in the lonely pursuit of artistic creation.

While in hiding Némirovsky wrote Les Feux de l'automne, La Vie de Tchekhov, and Les Biens de ce monde (posthumously published after the war). She used an original narrative technique: the story builds itself, in the absence of any narrator. The events unfold according to their own implacable logic, leaving no place for the creator's narrative design, ideas, or appeals to pity.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.