Elisabeth Gille was only five years old when the authorities took her mother away.
It was July of 1942, the height of the German occupation of France. Her mother, Irène Némirovsky, was once the darling of the Parisian literati, but once the Germans arrived her fortunes fell. Her novels were no longer publishable, due to Nazi race law, and her literary friends abandoned her, hoping to gain the good graces of the occupiers. She fled with her family to the small village of Issy-l’Évêque, but in the end it did no good — she was specifically targeted by the Gestapo as a “degenerate artist of deluded Jewish hegemony,” a “stateless person of Jewish descent.” The writing was on the wall.
“I am going on a journey now,” she told her daughters. A long journey, as it turned out, although not the longest of her peripatetic life. As a girl she had come west from Russia with her parents, running from the Bolsheviks. Now the Gestapo took her east again — across Germany, into Poland, and finally to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where she was killed in the gas chambers.
She left behind the unfinished manuscript of Suite Française, a novel which detailed the downfall of Paris and the French countryside under the occupation. The book languished for decades in her unpublished papers, mistaken for a diary.
Her daughters survived the war. The eldest, Denise, became an archivist; Elisabeth Gille, the younger sister, had a long and productive career as an editor and a translator. Then, in 1991, when Elisabeth Gille was in her fifties, she wrote an odd sort of book: a fictional memoir about her mother, a book which could easily seem to the casual reader as if it were written by Irène Némirovsky herself.
Not that Gille was trying to put one over on anybody. In French the book was called La Mirador – Dreams Reves, which translates loosely to Dream Memories. It had Gille’s name on the cover, and hers was the book’s first voice:
The child is born in a beautiful Parisian apartment. One imagines her cradle surrounded by bright-eyed fairies: her mother, the famous writer, her sister… the servants, the nurse, the governess… her father, wearing a light-colored suit, with a tender expression on his face and a champagne flute in his hand.
This is the familiar territory of memoir. “The child” is Gille herself; “the famous writer” is her mother, Irène Némirovsky. Consider the phrase “one imagines”; how many times have we read a memoir in which someone imagines childhood events which they themselves could not possibly have witnessed? Everyone runs up against some version of this when recollecting their own past: the point in which memory gives way to sense-images, sense-images to imaginings.
But Gille is only warming up. Soon her real narrative begins, and in a much different mode:
“I have always found the fragrance of linden blossoms aggressive, though it is in fact quite tender, at least in literature, inebriating the senses in the mild air of late-summer nights. Heady to the point of causing queasiness, it is the fragrance of village squares where young folk walk around and around in the evening air beneath the heavy-lidded gaze of old men perched on benches, fingers knotted over their canes … The fragrance of the promenade in Charleville at sundown or of Turgenev’s parks, where slender young women from the last century cling to their lovers’ arms. And a fragrance which has always brought on my worst migraines and driven my heart to gallop and thrash uncontrollably.”
Consider the sudden and somewhat shocking assumption of “I.” We are no longer in familiar territory. Is this an unpublished memoir? one wonders. Another of Némirovsky’s (highly autobiographical) novels? Or is it a journal entry, found in a drawer after years of neglect?
In fact, The Mirador is a combination of all these things. Throughout this fabulously hybrid text, Gille gives herself license to use whatever mode strikes her fancy, as long as it helps explicate the mother she never knew. She writes her mother’s memoirs for her, imagining her history. She discusses her mother’s novels in her mother’s own voice. She even quotes Némirovsky’s letters and journals, letting these quotes merge with the larger narrative so that the reader can no longer tell which text is Gille’s and which is her mother’s.
This is, to put it mildly, an audacious project. No matter how liberal we consider ourselves about the slippery line between memoir and autobiographical fiction – even if we are more Exley than Oprah on the matter – there is still something that seems suspicious about the enterprise of full-on fictional memoir. Is this allowable? Can one simply jump in and narrate the course of another person’s life?
Perhaps – if you do it right.
If the proof of any literary idea is in the execution – or, as Joan Didion writes, “the writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream” – then Gille’s book succeeds admirably. Her version of Némirovsky is curt, cynical, with just enough seductive lyricism to make her believable as a writer of fiction. She sulks and pouts her way through a pampered Russian girlhood, tries her best to fathom the 1917 Revolution, and then throws herself bodily into the Paris literati without so much as a hesitation.
“Bernard Grasset,” she writes of her first Parisian publisher, “was expecting a middle-aged man, perhaps a retired banker. Instead, standing before him he saw a petite, young, shy, and curiously dressed woman, peering at him nearsightedly.”
In fact, Gille’s version of her mother is so believable that when I write to you about Gille’s descriptions of people and places I am tempted to ascribe them to Némirovsky herself, as in this lovely description of an emigre ship bound from Finland to France:
“The ship, by one of those odd coincidences of which the period was so fond, was carrying theatrical sets, and during the entire ten-day crossing in turbulent waters, we had to continually push back the bundled-up stage curtains and backdrops that were constantly falling on us … Neither my father nor I suffered from seasickness and we were proud to be the only clients at the bar. I did my best to get closer to Andre by drowning my sorrows in drink, despite my father’s weak protests. The tiny bar had an upright piano on which the bartender, a Polish student, banged out Chopin pieces to pay his passage, struggling to be heard over the noise of the storm.”
The ship of Europe, a beleaguered stage set on stormy waters — it takes a writer, it seems, to fake another writer’s memoir.
Not that Gille’s version of her mother is perfect; as a child she sometimes behaves like a spoiled, self-hating brat, and as an adult she is deeply conflicted about her own Jewish identity. But it is a testament to Gille’s skill as a writer that the mother she creates is palpable and bristling. By the time the war comes, and the world begins to close in around her, you begin to feel for the woman, to understand her complexities and sympathize with her shortcomings. Most of all, you want to listen to her.
Which is just another way of saying that you want to listen to Gille — to listen to her dream. Ethical issues aside, The Mirador is an argument for fictional memoir as a fabulously flexible genre. (Perhaps it already is a genre — consider Stephen Elliot and Eric Martin’s hilarious and ruthless Donald.) The fictional nature of her enterprise allows Gille great latitude in painting scenes which are fundamentally novelistic, such as a scene in which frightened White Russians pass the time in the basement of a hotel requisitioned by the Red Army:
“After a night spent sleeping on the green felt of the billiard tables or cushions and overcoats on the floor, a few energetic souls attempted to establish a semblance of order. Young society ladies tore the fabric off of chairs and made armbands, offering their services to an amiable doctor who was nursing several dowagers suffering from fainting spells. A prince took it upon himself to remove all the lapdogs to a nearby room because their barking had becoming intolerable.”
Delightful, ironic description of the sort one would find in the best satirical French novelists.
Unburdened by absolute fact, Gille’s book is free to fulfill a myriad of fascinating functions. It is, in turn, a memoir (albeit a fictional one); an autobiographical novel (of someone other than the author); a history lesson; and an investigation into the literary process, as when the character of Némirovsky leafs feverishly through French industrial magazines and British books on the oil trade to provide adequate characterization for her creations. Each of these modes — with the possible exception of the literary investigations, which can sometimes seem a bit strained — is fundamentally successful; its remarkable how well The Mirador works as a whole, how it holds together.
The Mirador is so successful, in fact, that one gets to the end of the book before remembering that twinge of suspicion from the first page. Now that we have a handle on what Gille is doing — juggling memoir and fiction, criticism and text — we have to ask ourselves a stark question: what right does Gille have presenting this story, as if she could write her mother for the world?
Keep in in mind that when this book was first published Némirovsky had more or less faded from the literary world — it would take another 15 years for Suite Française to rehabilitate her international reputation — and some French readers would have approached the book as their first acquaintance with her work. Such readers could have easily mistaken Gille’s Némirovsky for the genuine article.
To put it harshly: is this art, or is this theft?
Perhaps we can split the difference and say it is both. But I would argue that it is the sort of theft all of us engage in every day, whenever we read a novel: we take the work of a writer and we re-envision it in our own image. Many of us go a step further and re-envision it on personal terms. We imagine where the author was when he wrote it, what he was reading, what he ate for breakfast. Imagine the grubby hands of countless grad students poring over the dirty letters sent between James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, scurrying back and forth between their correspondence and the final chapter of Ulysses, trying to understand the relationship between Joyce’s literary production and his sex life.
Elisabeth Gille was five years old when her mother was taken away to be killed – they barely knew each other. To know her mother was to know the texts she left behind, the same way all of us imagine our authors. The difference with Gille is that she went a step further and narrated the picture she saw. She closed the circle; she used the tools of fiction to bring the dead writer to life.
So if Gille is only doing what everybody else is doing – except more skillfully, in a more writerly fashion — then why do we react so strongly to what she has done? What is it about this book that is both powerful and a little disturbing?
Maybe it’s because Gille’s book skillfully conceals its own hybrid nature. It is doing many things under the guise of one specific thing: it seems, at first glance, to be a memoir, and we all know how much Americans in particular cling to the supposed veracity of their memoirs. The Mirador can even be mistaken as a Holocaust memoir, if the reader isn’t careful. There are several snares here for the woeful misreader.
The Mirador is an extremely crafty book. So crafty, in fact, that much of its complexity — its intertextuality, even — is only revealed upon reading its acknowledgements.
“This book was imagined on the basis of other books,” Gille writes. (What book isn’t? — so the reader might wonder.) “Firstly, those of my mother, Irène Némirovsky … Also Sholem Asch’s trilogy, especially Petersburg and Moscow. The scenes I describe at the Hotel Metropol are inspired by the latter.”
Gille is speaking here of the vivid hotel scene mentioned earlier in this essay: the princes, the fainting ladies, the incorrigible lapdog. Here we have a fictional memoir, stealing from a novel to provide a sense of the real — hybridity at is finest.
Fiction begets life begets fiction — perhaps the best argument for accepting The Mirador on its own terms is that it’s less about Irène Némirovsky than it is about literature itself: its endurance, its continual spur to the imagination. When Gille writes about her mother, she is writing about her mother’s literary tradition, one that parallels her mother’s own movement from Russia to France — a tradition that encompasses Alexander Blok and Alexander Pushkin, Musset and Molière , all of whom are referenced or quoted in The Mirador.
Her mother is a book made up of other books, and Gille is reading her.
Consider the beautiful final scene, in which Némirovsky remembers a trip she took with her father to Yalta, where he told her a story about Chekhov:
“My father and I walked along the shore for a long time. He told me that when Chekhov began to notice the symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his beloved brother Nikolai, he traveled around the world and then, after a terrible attack of hemotypsis, went to live in Crimea. Vera Komissarzhevskaya came to see him … In the twilight, the sandy-bearded, sickly Chekhov, wearing a pince-nez, and the lady with the enormous tragic eyes had paced up and down this beach just as we were doing, surrounded by the fragrance of roses and the ethereal melody of the waves. At his request, she recited Nina’s final monologue from The Seagull, which had been created for her.”
Time seems to collapse, and we are aware — if we have read the book correctly — of several layers of imagination. Gille imagines Némirovsky, Némirovsky imagines her father, her father imagines Chekhov. By imagining her mother and setting the cycle in motion, Gille is bringing us into a larger conversation, not just with her mother’s ghost, but with the inexhaustible world of writing.
It is fitting, then, that the book ends with the quote from the end of The Seagull:
“It was nice in the old days, Kostya! Do you remember? How clear, warm, joyous and pure life was, what feelings we had – feelings like tender exquisite flowers… Do you remember? ‘Men, lions, eagles, and partridges, horned deer, geese, spiders, silent fish that dwell in the water, star-fishes, all living things, all living things, have completed their cycle of sorrow, are extinct… For thousands of years the earth has borne no living creature on its surface, and this poor moon lights its lamp in vain. On the meadow the cranes no longer waken with a cry and there is no sound of the May beetles in the linden trees.”
A mournful speech, but not without hope. Note those linden trees: the same ones we found in The Mirador’s opening pages. Here we thought that Gille was talking about her mother in those early lines, when she was really talking about the ever-expanding library of literature: a library from which everyone is permitted to steal.