It was a regular afternoon at the bookshop. As I was browsing through the classics, among all these big names, one I could not recognise showed up. It was a quite small book and seemed freshly published. Oh, was I wrong! Irène Némirovsky‘s writings are at least 70 years old and have spent decades in the dust, hidden from the rest of the world. ”Suite Française” comprises two novellas set in France 1940 and 1941, but more importantly, it is an account of life in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Born in a Jewish family in 1903, she fled the Russian Empire in the days of the Russia Revolution and settled in Finland for a short period, before moving permanently to Paris. The return of Irène’s works in the shelves was certainly overdue, and it is not like she was an unpublished writer! Between 1923 and 1940 a dozen of her novels were published in French, but it literally took years to see these translated in other languages. For instance, “Le Malentendu“, her debut novel was translated into Italian only in 2010. These are the years of her discovery and some have compared her writing style to that of Marcel Proust.
It all happened in 2004, when ”Suite Française” was published in France (the novel itself is a two-part piece which is unfinished). Irène’s daughter had been afraid of reading what was thought to be a diary for years, casting the manuscript away in order not to wake painful memories (Irène was arrested and deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where she ultimately died of typhus). But when she finally realised new, unseen and never before read material could finally be published after all these years, she took the chance. ”Suite Française” turned into a bestselling book many decades after being written. Something which encouraged publishers and translators to take Irène Némirovsky’s works into consideration. Moreover, in 2007 another manuscript, “Chaleur du sang“, was found and published, making Irène Némirovsky’s posthumous publishing experience a rare and intriguing tale of discovery for any interested researcher and reader.
But along these long lost materials came the controversy surrounding her portrayal of Jews. The supposed antisemitism which seems to be implied in her writing has spurred a debate on whether she was using it as a narrative tool, as a way to explore the topic or actually supporting the Nazi at the time. It feels sensible for us readers to read the novels at the centre of this controversy, before coming up with an accurate analysis and a personal point of view. However, it seems that generally readers often agree that these critical claims are solely an interpretation of what can be found in the author’s writings.