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  • Irène Némirovsky and the Story of History
  • Nathan Bracher (bio)

I’m going to be talking about Irène Némirovsky and what I call “the story of history.” Few writers were more impacted by the upheavals of the 20th century than was Irène Némirovsky. From her birth in Kiev in February 1903 to her death at Auschwitz in August 1942, the story of Irène Némirovsky’s life and career as a writer was indelibly marked by history. It is therefore hardly surprising that we should find that history one way or another lodged at the heart of her writing. Olivier Philipponnat’s biography of Némirovsky tells us in Chapter 3 that : “The year 1917 stormed into Irina’s dream life and cast her out into a convulsive present . . .” Némirovsky herself, cited in the same paragraph, drives the point home:

How has life suddenly stopped being routine? When did politics forsake the newspapers and enter our existence? When has one ever felt so completely that History, “the historic times,” was not solely the privilege of previous generations . . . but could intrude on one’s life to such an extent that it affected your sleep, changed your future, surrounded you on all sides and enveloped you like dark waves?1

These lines actually come from a newspaper article published in the Parisian daily Le Figaro in February 1938.2 In that same article, Némirovsky goes on to recount a series of dramatic scenes of the inchoate Russian Revolution that she herself remembers from the winter of 1917 in St. Petersburg. This personal story of history that we find in this one article is emblematic in several ways. For one thing, Némirovsky powerfully conveys the visible impact of the public event on the lives of individuals, including the women workers, the doorkeeper concierge subjected to a mock execution, and the thirteen year-old she herself was at the time. Némirovsky also effectively captures or frames the dramatic aspect of the action, as she vividly paints a picture in the narrative mode of Ut pictura poesis.

Within this one newspaper article, she encapsulates a considerable amount of action and concentrates a heavy charge of emotion: her text gives us a feel of the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1917 in its [End Page 48] most optimistic moments. Though this article connects it to her youth in revolutionary Russia, this acute sense of history as a force that surrounds, overpowers, upsets, and dominates private life actually corresponds better to Némirovsky’s sensibility of the late 1930s and early 1940s rather than to that of her youth. Némirovsky herself indicates as much to her readers in the last paragraph, where she writes “Only later did I understand.”

Némirovsky’s preoccupations are clearly with human psychology and behavior, not with political, social, or economic history in terms of their structure, function, and evolution. She foregrounds these interests in the last two paragraphs of her text with a series of questions: “Why such cruelty? How can human beings willfully inflict such torture on another human being?” For Némirovsky, the birth of the revolution corresponds not so much to a series of radical restructurings of the socio-economic and political order according to a new ideological template, but rather to an epiphany of the fragile, ambivalent character of humanity that can give way all too easily to barbaric cruelty and violence. That is what she says she has witnessed: the moment when the demonic elements invisible in normal life appear in all their savagery during wars and riots. She places a similar observation near the very end of Suite française, where she states that dramatic historical events such as wars are above all interesting for their capacity to reveal the truth about human beings that remains hidden in everyday life.3

Clearly, it is this drama, this emotion, this texture of lived experience that interests Némirovsky. There is very little in this portrait of St. Petersburg from 1917 that would lend itself to rigorous historical analysis and understanding. Now, that could change if she gave us a dozen or so...