Finding the Suite smell of success

As you read this, Harvey Weinstein is producing a film of the late French writer Irene Nemirovsky’s spectacularly celebrated novel, Suite Francaise, starring Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas and Matthias Schoenaerts. Meanwhile, acclaimed translator Sandra Smith is working on her 11th Nemirovsky title, Fires of Autumn — “a First-World-War Suite Francaise”. More imminently, from next Monday, Radio 4 is broadcasting a dramatised serial version of Nemirovsky’s novel, The Dogs and the Wolves.

This remarkable literary phenomenon, which had its origins in the discovery by Nemirovsky’s daughter Denise Epstein of what she thought was her mother’s diary, is clearly flowering anew in the wake of Denise’s recent death. At her request, a friend at last month’s funeral paid tribute to Nemirovsky by singing My Yiddishe Momme, a gesture replete with irony. Denise herself didn’t know she was Jewish until forced to wear the yellow star during the war. And Nemirovsky was baptised, along with her banker husband Michel Epstein, in 1939. Moreover, many regard her literary output to be deeply antisemitic. One critic, Ruth Franklin, called Nemirovsky “the very definition of a self-hating Jew” in a New Republic piece in 2008.

When Denise’s Toulouse apartment was flooded in the 1970s, she rescued an old suitcase, containing papers belonging to her mother that her father had given her in 1942. Denise never saw either of her parents again — they both died in Auschwitz — and she kept the suitcase locked away until that flood. At that point, she opened it and took out the notebook she believed contained her mother’s personal thoughts in the form of a diary. With the benefit of a magnifying glass, she began to read the tiny, neat handwriting. But it was not a diary. It was the beginning of Suite Francaise, a novel in five parts imitating a musical form. Nemirovsky had got as far as completing the first two novella-length “movements” before her arrest and deportation. These describe the flight of the French from Paris during the war and a romance in a German-occupied village between an exiled Parisian woman and a German soldier. Nemirovksy had wanted the book to be the French War and Peace.

Denise painstakingly transcribed the handwritten story with a view to its discreet, academic preservation. But several years later, a friend persuaded her to show it to Olivier Rubinstein, who was then senior editor of the French publishing house, Editions Denoel. He was enraptured and agreed to her stipulation that, if published, not a word would be changed. Nemirovsky’s parents were wealthy, French-speaking Russian Jews who fled to France during the Russian Revolution in 1917, when Irene was 14. Her father was a banker; her mother virtually disowned her. Their mutual animosity is reflected in the plots of several novels throughout her highly successful career between her 1929 debut, David Golder, and 1940 when Jews were barred from publishing. But none published in her lifetime achieved the posthumous level of success of Suite Francaise in 2004.

Then, Cambridge University-based New Yorker Sandra Smith, who had just translated her first non-academic volume — a fictional work by Camus — heard Rebecca Carter of Chatto & Windus on the radio talking about Suite Francaise’s dramatic gestation and C&W’s acquisition of the UK rights. Smith promptly called Carter offering her services, pointing out that she had certain parallels with Nemirovsky — she was Jewish, and her grandparents had also fled the Russian Empire (because of pogroms). She got the job.

Smith acknowledges that Nemirovksy’s many Jewish characters are portrayed in an unflattering way but refutes the charge that Nemirovsky was antisemitic. “I’ve seen 296 reviews of the English-language versions of the books and only two make the accusation. And one of those — the TLS review of The Dogs and the Wolves — quoted an anti-Jewish tirade by one of the characters, a Catholic banker, as though the sentiments were Nemirovsky’s own. When a radio interviewer in 1930 questioned the decidedly unsympathetic portrayal of the Jewish couple at the heart of David Golder, Nemirovsky replied that she was a proud Jew who ‘just wrote a story about mama and papa’.”

The Dogs and the Wolves, Radio 4 June 10-14 , 10.45am and 7.45pm

Last updated: 1:16pm, June 13 2013