As an émigrée born in Kiev (1903), one of the world epicenters of Jew-hatred, Irène Némirovsky may have been a fatalist about the rising tide of Nazism in which she drowned. A successful novelist in her adopted country and language, Némirovsky seems not to have been surprised when the French police came to arrest her at a hotel in Issy-l’Evêque (Saône-et-Loire) in July 1942. Her husband, Michel Epstein, immediately wrote futile letters to the authorities insisting that Irène was a Catholic, having been baptized three years before. But she did not have French citizenship, and one month later she was dead in Birkenau. (Epstein himself was soon to be gassed in Auschwitz.) Over 60 years later we now have her most powerful work, two parts of an unfinished epic rescued by her daughter, Denise Epstein, and recently (2004) published in France. It sheds a rather doleful light on the world perhaps best known to Americans from Marcel Ophuls’s haunting documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity.
Némirovsky’s first language was Russian, and the influence of Tolstoy is pervasive. In Storm in June, the first and the longer of the two sections Némirovsky lived to complete, the narrative shifts back and forth, in the manner of War and Peace, between various groups of Parisians desperately fleeing south before the German armies. There is the wealthy, pious Péricand family, the fashionable novelist Gabriel Corte and his mistress, Florence, the art collector Charles Langelet, the bank director M. Corbin, accompanied by both his wife and mistress, and finally two of his employees, Maurice and Jeanne Michaud. One group conspicuously missing among the refugees is the Jews, whose fate Némirovsky planned to explore in her unwritten third part, Captivity.
As the chaos of war descends (masterfully evoked in scenes of random bombings, colossal traffic jams, panicky flight, frenzied quests for food, shelter and gasoline), a cross-section of French society is put to the ultimate moral testwhich the majority resoundingly fails. The weak are abandoned, friends betrayed, food baskets and petrol cans stolen, houses looted. The Péricands’ eldest son, a priest, is brutally murdered by a group of juvenile delinquents he is trying to shepherd to safety. On returning to the darkened streets of Paris, Charlie Langelet is run over by Corbin’s recklessly speeding girlfriend, Arlette, who views his bloody corpse as just another inconvenience. Madame Péricand is horrified to see her children giving away chocolate and sweets to strangers:
Grabbing the two stunned culprits firmly by the hand, she dragged them away. Christian charity, the compassion of centuries of civilization, fell from her like useless ornaments, revealing her bare, arid soul. She needed to feed and protect her own children. Nothing else mattered any more.
It is, as the French say, sauve-qui-peut, the devil take the hindmost. The only decent souls, it appears, are the humble old Michaudsnamed, not coincidentally, after the nanny of Némirovsky’s daughters, who saved them from deportation.
In the novel’s second part, sardonically entitled Dolce, the armistice has been declaredand it is time for collaboration. The Germans have occupied the village of Bussy. They are not such a bad lot, and the French are adjusting to their new life as a conquered nation. Some of the German officers are coming on to some of the lonely young French women, not all of whom are rebuffing their advances. A despicable aristocrat, the viscountess of Montmort (which sounds quite literally like an estate in hell), as anti-Semitic as she is pro-Pétain, goads the mayor (her husband) into reporting a hapless, hungry poacher, who then shoots the German commandant’s interpreter and takes to his heels, shattering what had been a peaceful, if uneasy, truce. The killing might well have led to ugly reprisals, but before long all the German troops were shipped out to Russia as part of Operation Barbarossa, at which point the novel breaks off.
Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have applauded Némirovsky for the sweep and vigor of her story and for her well-nigh incredible achievement of telling it under such dreadful circumstances. Had she survived, this might have become the supreme fictional treatment of World War II. As it is, Suite Française will remain a tantalizing fragment, a vivid if depressing panorama of a country that had lost a series of battles and was about to lose its soulor something close to thatby sending, or helping the Germans to send, 70,000 Jews to be slaughtered.
Maybe Némirovsky saw it all coming. Her roots lay in Nemirov, a Ukrainian city that suffered unspeakable horrors from the pogroms launched in 1648 by the monstrous Bogdan Chmielnitski (whose monument is still honored today in Kiev), which was the worst Jewish genocide until the Holocaust. In any case, her book is not an indictment of her adopted homeland, but a mournful, lyrical account of its trials and failures. Despite occasionaland more than understandablebursts of indignation, it brilliantly captures in a sort of complex, variegated 20th-century Bayeux tapestry the texture of la France at a crucial momentnot of splendor, but of shame.