Elisabeth Gille’s imagined memoir of her mother, Russian-Ukrainian novelist Irene Nemirovsky, has been translated from its original French by Marina Harss. Of Gille’s curious mixture of fact and fiction, The Nation comments that she is ‘not interested in defending her mother’s reputation. Instead, she sets out to live in her mother’s head.’
Gille was only five years old when her mother was arrested by the Gestapo for being Jewish. Nemirovsky had spent over half of her life in France after moving around Europe a lot with her parents, trying to escape the fallout from the Russian revolution. Gille, understandably, ‘grew up remembering next to nothing’ about her mother, who was ‘a figure, a name, Irene Nemirovsky, a once popular novelist, a Russian emigre from an immensely rich family, a Jew who didn’t consider herself one and who even contributed to collaborationist periodicals, and a woman who died in Auschwitz because she was a Jew. To her daughter she was a tragic enigma and a stranger.’ Both of Gille’s parents were killed in Auschwitz; she and her sister Denise only survived because they were taken into hiding.
In her acknowledgment at the start of the book, Gille writes that her work ‘was imagined on the basis of other books’ – namely those which her mother wrote. She goes on to say that all of the letters and citations which have been included throughout The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter are authentic, and have been taken from unpublished notes. Gille has attempted, throughout, to capture her mother’s own writing style, and consequently the entire book is written from the imagined perspective of Nemirovsky. The volume, published in English by NYRB, also includes an interview with Gille, and an afterword written by Rene de Ceccatty.
The Mirador has been split into two sections – November 1929 and June 1942. The first part takes place in Kiev and St Petersburg. Here, during Nemirovsky’s childhood, there were ‘pogroms and riots, parties and excursions, then revolution’. At this point, Gille writes: ‘For me, if Finland is winter and St. Petersburg, with its yellow mists shrouding the shores of the Neva is autumn, then Kiev is summer. We were not yet rich when we lived there, just well-to-do.’ The family eventually settled in Paris, the place where Nemirovsky felt most content. In these imaginings, particularly of Nemirovsky’s early life, her own mother appears to be a floating figure, flitting around to give orders, and giving much of her attention to clothes and ‘the season’, rather than to Irene.
The imagined memories of Nemirovsky are interspersed with brief snapshots of the author’s life when she was small. In May 1920, for example, she ‘pulls at her mother’s sleeve; her mother is standing in the middle of the courtyard, reading. The young woman shifts the book, pushes back her glasses, and smiles. Her tender, myopic gaze caresses the child distractedly. The child wrinkles her brow, releases the sleeve, and moves away.’
Gille’s echoing of her mother’s prose style has been lovingly handled, and feels relatively authentic throughout. I had to keep reminding myself that I was essentially reading a work of fiction. Like her mother’s, Gille’s writing is poetic and layered, filled with gorgeous and striking imagery. Every sentence is in some way evocative, and her sentences are beautifully crafted. A real sense of place and time have been deftly assembled. When on a cruise down the River Dnieper, undertaken when Nemirovsky was quite young, for instance, Gille composes the following: ‘In the immensity of the Russian sky, the moon looked green, touched by the dying rays of the setting sun and crisscrossed by spectral clouds that slid over its white surface, leaving behind a trail of dark shadows. The silver domes of the church of Saint Andrew, which we had just passed, still glimmered faintly among the trees. The immense branches of the forest, which descended to the very edge of the river, draped the shoreline in darkness, but the middle of the current was dappled with metallic-coloured spots as far as the eye could see.’ The historical and social contexts have been well set out too, and unfolds alongside Nemirovsky’s own life.
The Mirador was not quite what I was expecting, and it is certainly unlike the majority of memoirs and biographies which I have read to date. It was unusual, and I enjoyed the way in which Gille has approached her work. There are some problems with the narrative, however. It tends to jump around in place and time with no warning, and can be a little jarring in consequence. The Mirador does, however, really come together. It is both mesmerising and memorable, and I very much admire what Gille set out to do here. The Mirador is vivid and sometimes quite surprising, and highlights a highly tumultuous period of history, and its effects upon one rather remarkable woman.