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The Life of Irene Nemirovsky: 1903-1942 by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt


Reading about someone's life is exceptionally different than reading that person's books and short stories. I should have stuck with Nemirovsky's own writing and skipped The Life of Irene Nemirovsky: 1903-1942 by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, translated by Euan Cameron (2010 in English).

The English expression "bored to tears" comes to mind as my reaction to the biography. The early focus on Irene's parents dragged on far too long for me, to the point that I skimmed most of the rest of the book, hoping for a change in pacing.

I'm also wondering if Philipponnat and Lienhardt weren't possibly a little star-struck about their subject. Yes, I've gushed about her writing on this blog, but I'd prefer to read a biography that delved a little more deeply into some of the controversies around Nemirovsky. Or at least raised them.

Was she anti-Semitic, suffused with self-hatred, as some critics contend some of her character portrayals indicate? Was she just exorcising her personal issues with her parents in her writing, as others suggest?

Why didn't Nemirovsky and husband Michel Epstein leave France for Switzerland with their young daughters when they had the chance? Is that question more of a post-war one, where we know they would have been safe for the duration of the war in Switzerland, something they couldn't have assumed in 1940 and 1941? Or is Denise Epstein, their oldest daughter, correct in wondering if, having already left Russia, her mother couldn't face the idea of starting over yet again? Or could she just not face leaving her beloved France, a country she apparently loved deeply?

Again, there may not be sufficient evidence for answers when the persons in question, along with their thoughts and feelings, are long dead, but raising the questions and exploring alternative answers might, at least, have made this a more interesting read.

I'll note that some of the phrasing seemed more than a little awkward in this book, which proved a distraction for me, so this biography may be slightly better in the original French.

My overall personal rating of The Life if Irene Nemirovsky: 1903-1942 is a C.

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