Not many of us can name a day when our lives change forever, but for Denise Epstein there’s an exact date. It remains a vivid and painful memory, etched on her mind like a tattoo. “For me life finished on July 13th 1942,” she tells me over a cup of Fortnum & Mason tea in her modest flat in Toulouse. “Since then I have been surviving day to day.”
On that day in July, Denise’s mother, the writer Irène Némirovsky, was arrested in the small Burgundy village of Issy-L’Evêque where the family had fled after the fall of Paris for being a “stateless person of Jewish descent”. She was interned at the French concentration camp Pithiviers and then transported to Auschwitz where she died a month later, aged just 39.
Denise, now aged 77, is an extremely petite woman who moves like someone twenty years younger. Elegantly dressed in a cream polo-neck jumper, black skirt and cardigan, she is extremely warm and welcoming when I visit her, taking my hand in both hers and leading me into her sitting room. Her face is lined and animated, her voice deep and gravely. When she lights up the first of many Benson & Hedges cigarettes she asks me again and again if I mind. I do, but of course I don’t tell say so. At least she has a good excuse for smoking.
On the day her mother was arrested, Denise recalls that a neighbour ran over to warn the family that the police were coming. The neighbour took Denise, then aged 13 and her younger sister Elizabeth, aged 5, into her house to hide them.
“When she realised they had just come for my mother she let us go back to say goodbye,” Denise tells me. “My mother told us she was going on a journey; there were no tears, no drama. It wasn’t until I saw the effect it had on my father that I realised the situation was really very serious.” One effect was that he lost his temper with the maid because she laid the table for the evening meal and didn’t lay a place for her mother. “From that day on we always laid a place for her, just as if she’d just gone for a walk and would come back at any moment.”
Denise’s story would be just another sad tale told by an old lady in a small flat in Toulouse, if it were not for something her mother left behind. Three months after her mother’s disappearance, her father was also taken away. Before he left, as he was convinced at the time, “to join his wife” he told Denise to look after her mother’s notebooks and her sister. When the time came for Denise to flee from the French police who were keen to limit the amount of Jewish orphans left in France, she had the choice of her sister, a leather suitcase containing the notebooks, and her favourite doll.
“As I had only two hands, I took my sister and the suitcase. I often wonder what happened to that doll,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been searching for it ever since.”
The manuscripts inside the suitcase contained the text of Suite Française, the French publishing sensation of 2004 which is taking the Anglo-Saxon world by storm. It tells in vivid prose the story of the early days of the Second World War and the reaction of the French to the German invasion.
Denise only looked at the manuscripts for the first time during the 1970s. “At first I didn’t touch it because I thought my mother would come back and that it belonged to her,” she says. “But after I saw the state of people returning from the camps I lost all hope and realised she would never return. Then for so many years it was just too painful to open at all.”
Finally a writer friend of Denise’s, on hearing that the notebooks contained the first two parts of a five-part novel, implored her to send it to her publisher. The day he got it he phoned her and asked her to come to Paris. Since then the phone hasn’t stopped ringing. The book has become an international bestseller in over 25 countries. Denise has been flown all over the world to meet editors, publishers and a public who are mad about her story and her mother’s prose.
Denise remembers her mother as a woman who read to her constantly, who was affectionate, caring and hard-working. “She worked all the time; that was her passion, I was born into books.”
Another work of Némirovsky’s will be published in France on March 1st. It is called Chaleur du Sang and is one of a number of papers including a selection of short stories Irène sent to a close friend for safe-keeping before her death. “It’s a lovely book,” says Denise. “No war and no Jews, which is a good start.”
As in Suite Française, the setting and characters in Chaleur du Sang are based on the village of Issey-L’Evêque. “I have never named anyone publicly,” says Denise. “And of course a lot of them are dead. But the ones who aren’t know who they are; every person in it is based on someone we knew. Reading Suite Française was like reading a book about the life I once had.” Only one of the ‘characters’ has got in touch with her. “He’s thrilled to be immortalised,” says Denise. “But I’m not telling you who it is.”
The only characters who have a real surname in Nemirovsky’s books are the Michauds. Cécile Michaud was the name of Denise’s nanny who became a close friend of Irène’s. On hearing that Hitler had been elected in 1933, Nemirovsky told Michaud: “We’re all going to die.” Denise is still shocked at how much her mother seemed to understand. “I was so angry with my mother when I saw how lucid her prose was, it was so obvious to me that she knew she was going to die and she just abandoned us,” she says.
So why didn’t they flee France when they had the chance? Denise says she doesn’t know. One theory is that having already fled Russia as a teenager her mother didn’t have the stomach to start again. Another is that they felt protected by those around them. Irène by then was a celebrated and famous novelist in France. The only step she took to try to save herself and her two girls was to convert to Catholicism. This did help the girls; a Catholic lady who had worked for Denise’s grandmother looked after them once their parents had been taken away. After the war Denise and Elizabeth went to their grandmother’s apartment in Paris. “If you’re orphans, go to the orphanage,” she shouted through the closed door. Years later the girls called their grandmother pretending to be journalists. “She told Elizabeth she had never heard of Irène Némirovsky,” says Denise. “The fact is my mother and her mother had a very bad relationship and in almost all of my mother’s books there is a portrayal of a terrible mother figure.”
From the walls of her one-bedroom flat a photograph of her mother looks down at her daughter, smiling a gentle and mysterious smile, almost Mona-Lisa like. The walls are lined with bookshelves carrying mainly works by Némirovsky translated into everything from Swedish to Chinese. But there are also books by Oscar Wilde, Primo Levi and Tolstoy.
Now that she is internationally famous, Denise is invited to every major event in Toulouse, such as Bastille Day, but she never goes. “How long will it take them to understand that I will never go to anything involving French flags flying and men in uniform?”
Not a day goes by when she doesn’t think about the moment her mother was taken away. In fact she can hardly talk about her mother without tears welling up in her eyes. Another great sadness is that her sister Elizabeth died in 1996, before the success of Suite Française. She and her sister had a very difficult relationship to begin with.
“Elizabeth pulled down a concrete wall on her past and wouldn’t talk about it. I felt guilty because I had memories of a happy childhood and she had none. In the end it wasn’t until she started to write about our mother that we talked about it all and became true sisters.”
Publishers have been begging Denise to write her own story but she says all she wants to do now is to take a break and catch up with her reading. “I feel with Suite Française I have brought my mother back to life to a certain extent, but it has also been difficult because my own life and my memories of her have almost become public property. Now I want some time alone with them.”
As I leave I ask Denise where her name comes from. “I don’t know why my mother chose it, I really don’t like it,” she says. “There are so many beautiful Russian Jewish names. But she never called me Denise.”
“What did she call you?” I ask.
Tears well up in her eyes. “If you don’t mind, I won’t tell you. I want to keep something between her and me.”