Olivier Philipponnat

Synergie Program. In collaboration with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York (Book Office)

The Speaker

Born in 1967 in Épernay, in the Marne department, Olivier Philipponnat is the author of Roger Stéphane, enquête sur l'aventurier (with Patrick Lienhardt, Grasset, 2004), a  highly-praised biography of the founder of L'Observateur and pioneer of cultural television.

La Vie d'Irène Némirovsky (Grasset/Denoël, 2007), the first comprehensive biography of the author of Suite française (Denoël, 2004 ; Knopf, 2006), is based on letters, archives, and drafts as well as previously unseen texts. The book received Le Point's 2008 prize for biography, and it is scheduled to be published in the United States by Knopf in fall 2008.

He also composed the prefaces to two previously unpublished novels by Némirovsky, Le Maître des âmes (The Master of Spirits, Denoël, 2005) and Chaleur du sang (Denoël, 2007 ; Fire in the Blood, Knopf, 2007), as well as a new edition of Mouches d'automne (Snow in Autumn), along with three previously unknown texts (Grasset, Cahiers rouges, to be published in 2009).

Formerly a music critic at Compact and Cinefonia and now a literary critic for parutions.com and the Magazine des livres, Philipponnat is also the co-author of the Dictionnaire superflu de la musique (Le Castor astral, 2004 ; November 2008 reissue).


Irène Némirovsky, a Russian Jew in Paris
Némirovsky writes Russian in French, observed the poet and Académie française-member Henri de Régnier. This opinion was shared by a number of her peers, struck by the Judeo-Russian context of her first novels. Coming from the pen of an exiled woman who was not principally a writer of fiction, the topic of immigrants and people without a nation was not surprising. Not more surprising than the cynical picture painted of the wheelers and dealers in David Golder (1929), which caused a longstanding misunderstanding about the supposed anti-Semitism of its author. Irène Némirovsky continued to defend herself, without admitting that this book, like the others, was a satire of her own "family circle."
However, Irène Némirovsky barely wrote in Russian and never in Yiddish. Given that she was raised by a French governess and having lived in France during World War I, we have found only a handful of poems in Russian, which point to her daydreamy childhood. She perfected her knowledge of Russian literature as a student at the Sorbonne. In drafts of her novels, certain Russian words, often taken from Tolstoy or Turgenev, filled in where her French vocabulary was missing or her memory failed. We can also see her open enjoyment of Soviet literature and Chekhov, whose biography she wrote. 
In this way, since her childhood, Russian was the language of a fantasy country that existed only in her nostalgia – the source of the melancholic tone in her "Russian novels": Les Mouches d'automne (1931), L'Affaire Courilof (1933), and Le Vin de solitude (1935). And let's not forget that Némirovsky imagined Suite française as her War and Peace? Likewise, from L'Enfant génial (1926) to Les Chiens et les Loups (1940), the Judeo-Russian world, altered by memory, has wonderful accents: to read into them a report on the Jewish world would be a gross error.
With the Le Pion sur l'échiquier (1934), or even more so La Proie (1938) and Deux (1939), Irène Némirovsky endeavored to abandon the Russian vein in order to rival the Mauriacs, Chardonnes or Maurois.
This lecture will study the "Judeo-Russian flavor" of Irène Némirovsky's novels, from those about personal energy such as La Proie and Les Échelles du Levant, where the heroes are pushed by their own ambition and tenacity, according to her, to the emigrants and social climbers, for which the model was her father, Léon Némirovsky.
As such, his daughter's novels can be read as the symbolic mise en scène of his own ambition: to become a French writer, freed from all bonds, but still connected to his Judeo-Russian roots. A tall order in the xenophobic France in the years of crisis.

Origins and meaning of Suite Française
Suite française is a unique case. The few great novels from the Occupation (Mon village à l'heure allemande, by Jean-Louis Bory, Drôle de jeu, by Roger Vailland, Forêts de la nuit de Jean-Louis Curtis, etc.) were written after the fact, while Irène Némirovsky wrote her War and Peace "on the burning lava," starting November 1940 – that is, after the first anti-Jewish laws that were passed in October had jeopardized her and her husband's return to Paris. Dramatic circumstances, but the novelist had never had the time necessary for a roman-fleuve (stream-of-consciousness novel).
Starting in 1940, she saw what novelistic elements she could draw from the deportment of French Jews, to which she had only been a witness in Issy-l'Évêque (renamed Bussy): an open-air social investigation, where the true natures of people from all levels of society were on display. Far from feeling implicated in that tragedy, she dreamed of extracting a literary aspect from the event: "Wouldn't that be entertaining!" But it was only in March 1941, upon discovering in Le Figaro a few pages that the deportations had inspired Colette to write, that she was really pleased: "If that's all she could get out of June, I'm not worried."
She had several models at her disposition: Zola's La Débâcle, the title she would have liked to use herself, but above all The Rains Came, by American author Louis Bromfield (1937), a "painting of eternal India" under the flood – whence the tentative titles for her masterpiece: Panique and Tempête. She had known what her subject would be since the Russian Revolution in 1917:  the revenge of animal nature on humanity, already discussed in Les Fumées du vin and Naissance d'une révolution (1938). It is "the moment when man has not yet shed human habits and pity, when he is not yet possessed by a demon, but when the demon is already approaching him and troubling his soul."
This is the profound sense abounding in Suite française, whose title calls to mind Johann-Sebastian Bach and refers to the musical composition of Bruno von Falk, the story of a lost soldier trampled on by the "people on the march."  "In short: the struggle between individual destiny and communal fate." It is what Falk calls the "beehive mentality," reflecting Irène Némirovsky's distaste for any sort of membership, including French, for which she had only "hate and contempt" beginning in March 1942. It is Némirovsky's pride that resounds at the end of Dolce, a wild refusal to "follow the herd" and to meld her own destiny into that of France.
This lecture will be based primarily on the unpublished work diary that Irène Némirovsky kept in Issy-l'Évêque from July 1940 to March 1942, where we discover day after day the birth and progression of Suite française as well as previously unseen drafts of Captivité, which was to be the third volume of her masterpiece. It will also be a presentation of Irène Némirovsky's last novel genre: the family saga, which includes two posthumous novels Les Biens de ce monde and Les Feux de l'automne, written in 1940-1941.  

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