A rare talent

January 22, 2009 at 2:00 am 5 comments

There are some new features on the ThinkingShift blog. The first is a cluster map, which shows how many readers this blog has and which countries they’re located in. I uploaded the map on December 30 last year, so there’s not a great number of readers.

This is certainly not the world’s leading blog and since I don’t get a heap of comments (I often think I’m talking to myself!), I thought I’d upload the map and see what happened. Huge surprise to me was the number of US readers, leaving most other countries in the dust. I was delighted to see readers from India, Germany, France, Indonesia and the Netherlands high on the list – countries I would never have thought had readers of the ThinkingShift blog. I don’t do too well in Australia though!

The other features are Top Posts, which shows you the ten most active posts on the blog and the ThinkingShift Book Club. The TS book club will highlight the book I’m currently reading. Once I get my act together, I’ll add my own review of the book – mmm….sounding a bit like Oprah and her bookclub here.

And speaking of books, let me get to today’s post. I spend most of time reading science-related books or works on history. After a few months though I think I need a break and I seek out a gripping novel. But those that are on the bestseller lists can leave me disappointed. I end up rereading my very favourite author, Lawrence Durrell. I have scoured second-hand bookshops for all his works. I nearly have them all. If you’ve never read The Alexandria Quartet, get it from Amazon now. Poetry masquerading as prose if you ask me.

So I never thought I would find a writer to equal Durrell. Lord knows where on earth I was in 2006 because I totally missed the rediscovery of a rare talent: Irène Némirovsky. Probably you have all read her unfinished work, Suite Française, and thinking I’m about 3 years behind the times! I actually bought it in early 2007 but shoved it to the bottom of my book pile, why I don’t know. When I bought the book, I had no idea of the story behind the author. Let me briefly tell you, although you can get a run down on Wikipedia:

  • born in 1903, she was a White Russian who fled the Bolshevik Revolution, settled in France and lived there for 20 years or so.
  • in 1929 she published David Golder and found immediate literary success.
  • French citizenship was denied to Némirovsky and her husband in 1938 leaving her with the status of a “stateless person”.
  • although Jewish, she converted to Catholicism in 1939.
  • as the Nazis approached Paris, Némirovsky and her family fled to a French village. Because of her Jewish ancestry (grandparents were Jewish) her novels could not be published.
  • on July 13, 1943 Némirovsky was arrested by the French police under German regulations as being a “stateless person of Jewish descent”.
  • despite furious pleas from her husband, publishers and key society figures, Némirovsky was gassed just weeks after her arrest. She was 39 years old. Michel Epstein, Némirovsky’s banker husband, met a similar fate weeks later leaving behind two young daughters.
  • the eldest daughter kept her mother’s manuscript of Suite Française for 50 years without reading it, thinking it was a personal journal. In the late 1990s, she was going to donate the manuscript and decided to open it, discovering Suite Française. It was immediately published and has since sold millions of copies.

I didn’t know these facts until after I had finished Suite Française, a masterpiece that consists of two novellas called Storm in June and Dolce and depict life in France between 1940 and 1941 under German occupation. Suite Française is not a diary of events nor does it portray German soldiers as brutal occupiers. This is what I guess surprised me. Suite Française is a very considered reflection of human emotions during war time and offers a glimpse into the formalities and manners of the time. I simply can’t do justice if I attempt to describe her work – it is like she was inspired by symphonies of music and nature. The masterful stroke I think is describing in some depth the serenity of nature in springtime – young birds carolling, colourful flowers boldly unfolding their petals to the brilliance of the sun – whilst the maelstrom of the German advance unfolds and the characters in the first novella frantically flee Paris.

And there are such amazing characters: the Michauds, an old couple who adhere to values of decency and integrity at a time when the world was violently transforming and shedding such values. The Pericand family who have power and riches and wield both to survive the darkness.

Némirovsky had plans for a 1,000 page novel so many of the characters in the two novellas would have reappeared in this larger work. The personal letters and notes published in Suite Française show that she had no sense of how long the war might last or how events might unfold. And she may have needed to confront some of her characters, who very clearly collaborated with the Germans, in the pages she was never able to write.

I cannot begin to tell you how affected I have been by Suite Française. I immediately rushed out and bought all her other novels I could find (David Golder, Fire in the Blood, The Courilof Affair) and started to find out about her life. There have been accusations that she was anti-Semitic but I did not gain a sense of that in Suite Française. Perhaps there is an overly romantic portrayal of German officers but if you were a person of Jewish ancestry caught like a fly in the tightening web of German occupation – well, who knows how any of us would act until we are in a situation.

I have been thinking about the Nazi period a fair bit since. In my 20s, I was obsessed with Nazi Germany (no, I’m not a neo-Nazi, I just could not believe humans could deliberately gas other humans and wanted to find out why). I am wondering (and I hope I’m very wrong) if there is revisionism of the Nazi period going on now.  I first thought this when I saw glimpses of Tom Cruise’s new film, Valkyrie, about Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators who set out to knock off the evil that was Hitler. Then I read this article, which points out that von Stauffenberg and colleagues were not heroes but soldiers who wanted to prevent the catastrophe of defeat and foreign occupation of Germany. The tragic fate of the Jews never entered their minds.

And then I stumbled onto other articles asking whether new films like Valkryie and The Reader are offering sympathetic portrayals of Nazis in touch with their softer, feminine side. Apparently, in these films it’s hard to find a nasty Nazi.

The most disturbing thing I’ve heard in quite some time though is this – Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza has caused protests and skirmishes between those who support Israel and those who support the Hamas fighters. However, you feel about the Gaza situation we should not tolerate the following. There was a recent angry protest rally in Florida and one woman, a pro-Palestinian supporter, shouted “go back to the oven” meaning very clearly that she wished for Jewish activists at the protest to suffer the same fate as Jews during the Holocaust. You can watch this shameful taunt here:

Along with the GFHF and whispers of a Great Depression, are we now going to have to suffer the rise of anti-Semitisim again? Apparently, even Harvard University is reporting anti-Semitic sentiment is on the increase. Did this world learn nothing from the atrocities of the Holocaust?


Entry filed under: Books. Tags: , , , , .

The English language according to Dubya Igor’s predictions

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michael Haag  |  January 22, 2009 at 4:23 am

    Regarding your reference to Lawrence Durrell, you might be interested in Alexandria: City of Memory, and Vintage Alexandria. See

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  January 22, 2009 at 6:06 am

    ooooh…I have never seen a photo of Eve Durrell, so great to find that on your blog Michael! I must read your book on Alexandria – okay ANOTHER Amazon order 🙂

  • 3. Michael Haag  |  January 22, 2009 at 6:23 am

    Thanks in turn for your piece on Irene Nemirovsky. I have ordered Suite Francaise for a start.

  • 4. Hannah  |  January 22, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    I recently read your post about Irène Némirovsky and wanted to let you know about an exciting new exhibition about her life, work, and legacy that opened on September 24, 2008 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage —A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française, which will run through the middle of March, will include powerful rare artifacts — the actual handwritten manuscript for Suite Française, the valise in which it was found, and many personal papers and family photos. The majority of these documents and artifacts have never been outside of France. For fans of her work, this exhibition is an opportunity to really “get to know” Irene. And for those who can’t visit, there will be a special website that will live on the Museum’s site http://www.mjhnyc.org.

    The Museum will host several public programs over the course of the exhibition’s run that will put Némirovsky’s work and life into historical and literary context. Book clubs and groups are invited to the Museum for tours and discussions in the exhibition’s adjacent Salon (by appointment). It is the Museum’s hope that the exhibit will engage visitors and promote dialogue about this extraordinary writer and the complex time in which she lived and died. To book a group tour, please contact Chris Lopez at 646.437.4304 or clopez@mjhnyc.org. Please visit our website at http://www.mjhnyc.org for up-to-date information about upcoming public programs or to join our e-bulletin list.

    Thanks for sharing this info with your readers. If you need any more, please do not hesitate to contact me at hfurst@mjhnyc.org

  • 5. thinkingshift  |  January 22, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    Hi Hannah

    Thx for the extensive info on this exhibition. I live in Australia, so alas won’t be able to see the artefacts, but will check out the website. My US readers might be interested in the exhibition of such a wonderful writer.

    I would certainly love to be able to see the manuscript for Suite Française – such an amazing story that the eldest daughter never looked at it for over 50 years and then discovered the manuscript. Thank goodness the world can now enjoy Némirovsky’s work.


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