Irène Némirovsky’s The Wine of Solitude is her most autobiographical novel. Introspective and poignant, it’s the story of a would-be writer named Hélène who blossoms in spite of her mother’s neglect. In this exclusive essay, editor Lexy Bloom offers an insider’s look at how Némirovsky has become a household name.
Over the past six years, I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege of overseeing the Vintage and Everyman’s Library publications of Irène Némirovsky’s work. Americans—like most readers around the world—were first introduced to Némirovsky’s writing in 2006, with the publication of her magnum opus, the international bestseller Suite Française. Against all odds—Suite Française was a work in translation by a deceased writer few had ever heard of—Némirovsky became a household name. Readers and critics alike were bowled over by this story of the second world war as we had not read about it before—a book written during the German occupation of France, a story so immediate that it felt, as you read it, that you were experiencing firsthand the exodus from Paris, or the occupation of a small provincial town.
Némirovsky’s own story also captivated readers. A Russian-born Jew, she immigrated to France during the Russian Revolution. She loved everything about France—its culture, its writers, its freedoms. She married there, settled there with her husband and children, and believed that her love and association with France would protect her. Alas, that was not the case; in 1942, she was sent to Pithiviers and then to Auschwitz, where she died. Her husband, Michel Epstein, was sent on a later transport but perished in Auschwitz as well. Her two daughters, Elisabeth and Denise, were hidden by their governess and later in a convent, and managed to survive. As most readers now know, it was the bravery of these two little girls that allowed for us, nearly sixty years later, to read Suite Française; they kept its manuscript, written in tiny handwriting in a leather-bound journal, hidden in their suitcase. Only decades later could they bring themselves to read it; not until 2004 was it published in France. What we read today is the first two parts of what was intended to be a five-part novel.
During her lifetime, Némirovsky supported her family with her writing; in order to do so, she published prolifically—novels, stories, essays. So when we set out to create a publishing program for her work in the United States, we had no shortage of books from which to choose—eighteen, in fact, in addition to other work that had not been published in book form. Consistent throughout Némirovsky’s work was an obsession with manners, or the lack thereof; a fascination with class conflicts; an eagle-eyed view on the relationships between mothers and daughters, between lovers, between the wealthy and the poor. Few writers can match Némirovsky when it comes to razor-sharp observations that immediately set the tone for a scene, like this one here, from Suite Française:
“The soldiers smiled at her. She felt torn between the desire to smile back at them, because they were young, and the fear of getting a bad reputation, because they were the enemy—so she frowned, and tightly pursed her lips, without, however, quite managing to erase the two dimples on her cheeks which showed her secret pleasure.”
Such precision! So much is conveyed in these two sentences—fear, anger, desire, lust, vanity.
To date, Vintage and Everyman’s Library have published nine novels and one collection of stories by Irène Némirovsky, with one more novel still to come next year. It seems fitting to look back over this publishing process as we promote our most recent novel, The Wine of Solitude, the most autobiographical of Némirovsky’s work. Present here is a fictional evocation of the difficult relationship Némirovsky had with her narcissistic mother (who, after Némirovsky and her husband were killed, refused to see her grandchildren); and her frustration with her father; whom she adored, but whose single-mindedness was often lamented in characters she based on him in her writing.
If you are coming to Némirovsky’s fiction for the first time, The Wine of Solitude, which moves from the Ukraine to Paris, is a remarkable introduction. And if you, like so many others, are already fascinated by Némirovsky’s master storytelling and stunningly keen powers of observation, here is an equally captivating exploration into the childhood that formed this most unusual writer.