Today is Holocaust Memorial Day here in the UK, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
When I posted on here recently about my Irene Nemirovsky reading, Hannah kindly left a comment alerting everyone to the Irene Nemirovsky exhibition currently on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
Sadly, a flight to the Big Apple not really on my January agenda but inquiries about an exhibition catalogue proved positive, Warren in the museum shop and I discussed postage and he managed it as cheaply and quickly as possible and so I ordered one there and then. Sometimes I'm just really thankful that I bother to do these things and usually purchases like this will be on impulse. Given the flimsy pound situation I do think twice these days, but once I knew of this book I had to have it ('twas ever thus) and so I was delighted when not what we might call a catalogue (floppy softback ) but a very smartly bound hardback book with fabric binding arrived from the US, Woman of Letters Irene Nemirovsky and Suite Francaise.
Poor Jim the Postie, more excited squealing from me on the doorstep in my pyjamas.
Having done this the direct way I can now tell you rather sheepishly that Woman of Letters seems to be readily available on Amazon UK (and silly me for not checking that) but you can all benefit from that discovery if you want to, and that will make me feel better about my impulsive extravagance, but in any case hopefully I've helped the cause and I am more than very delighted to have this book on my shelves. A wealth of writing and photographs bring to life the young Irene born in Kiev on February 11th 1903, who wrote her first poems in Russian in 1918
'Born among so many different people
Now I know I am a stranger here
And I could have had another destiny
The destiny to which I devote all my dreams.'
As you know I've had a battle royal with both the hype and what to me felt like the incongruous image of the new suitcase on the cover of Suite Francaise, I'd love to have read this French edition (which I bought and then realised was in French), but I have managed the UK edition at last, read the book over several weeks because there was no rushing this, and was predictably completely swept up and along by both parts.
Storm in June, the exodus from Paris after the Nazi Occupation, the threads of people's lives running alongside each other, in Irene's own words on April 24th 1942,
'Suite Francaise will be the struggle between individual and community destiny.'
People experiencing the same event from so many differing perspectives, occasionally and unknowingly glancing off each other and the honest but fictional observations that Irene Nemirovsky wanted to pin down and record for posterity.
'Now don't forget what is good in War and Peace e.g.,it's in the middle of all these incredible upheavals that people carry on with their lives more or less normally and in the end, only think about surviving, loving, eating etc.'
Then Dolce and the tiny threads that weave in from Storm in June as the trials, deceits and courage of a life of Occupation begin in earnest. Alongside it's impossible to ignore the grand vision that Irene had of the whole, and much of her planning for the next books makes clear that Captivity and the following two volumes, tentatively called Battles and Peace, would have been utterly magnificent in their scope and vision.
To finish Suite Francaise is to end on a note of inevitable loss, a sort of thwarted sense of anticipation for what we don't have to look forward to. Irene's writing so good that I think I could intuitively sense where she might go next, which lives she would follow, and I absolutely wanted to go there too.
I was delighted to hear Denise Epstein (Irene's daughter) talking about her mother here and then to read her thoughts on this whole 'suitcase' metaphor in a telling and informative interview in Woman of Letters, because it is one that had worried her when it was suggested that the case be put on display at this exhibition. To look at the case and know its contents, to know that a little girl had obeyed her father's final instruction and had then never let this suitcase carrying her mother's notebooks, written in South Seas Blue ink (might this be the one?) out of her sight, heavy as it must have been.
Can an object ever have carried a greater actual and metaphorical emotional burden?
Would the sight of the suitcase, the only object that Irene Nemirovsky left behind as she was transported to Auschwitz
' attract unhealthy attention once elevated to a museum artefact'.
Even museum directors have blogs these days and here David Marwell mentions the day the exhibits arrived in New York, the first time they had ever left France. Museum of Jewish Heritage presents a cogent and reasoned explanation of why they have put on this exhibition (and put it on it would seem in the face of some very unpleasant criticism of both Irene herself and the family which quite shocked me,) considering Irene Nemirovsky's story to be undisputably a Holocaust one, whilst admitting,
'Nemirovsky's sense of herself as a Jew and the way she behaved under exceptional circumstances may have had ambiguous elements, but there was no ambiguity in the way she was perceived by her enemies or in the nature of her ultimate fate.'
Reading Suite Francaise, post-hype, I have achieved the respect that I knew was waiting in the wings to happen for me, both for Irene Nemirovksy's life and her writing. Denise Epstein is right when she states in her interview that
'I have the impression that each country has interpreted Suite Francaise according to its own real-life experiences.'
If anyone feels compelled to pass critical judgement on Irene herself, and her perceived loyalty or not to her Jewish heritage, it would be useful to read the Chronology of the Life of Irene Nemirovsky by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Leinhardt included in this book before you do.
I did and with a growing sense of Irene's fear and dis-ease, bordering on panic and barely suppressed terror and then had to ask myself with complete honesty, what exactly would I have done in that terrifying situation and with two small daughters to protect?
You will all have to decide for yourselves, and as for Irene?
'But as for me, I'm working on burning hot lava. Right or wrong I believe that this is what must distinguish the art of our time from the rest, we are sculpting what is happening at this very moment, we are working on burning issues.'