The Mirador: Dreamed Mem­o­ries of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter

Elis­a­beth Gille

By – November 7, 2011

In The Mirador: Dreamed Mem­o­ries of Irène Némirovsky by Her Daugh­ter, which was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in France in 1992, Élis­a­beth Gille com­bines fact and fic­tion to explore the effects of the Sec­ond World War on her and her mother’s lives. As the sub­ti­tle implies, the book is writ­ten as a biog­ra­phy of Némirovsky in which Gille assumes her mother’s voice. In it, Gille explores Némirovsky’s child­hood in Rus­sia, her family’s flight to France dur­ing the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion, her lit­er­ary edu­ca­tion at the Sor­bonne, her life with Michel Epstein, as well as lit­er­ary suc­cess and her expe­ri­ences in the town of Issy‑l’Évêque, where she wrote Suite Française. At the con­clu­sion of each chap­ter, Gille also includes a short sec­tion that is writ­ten in the third per­son in which she describes episodes in her own life between May 1940 and Octo­ber 1991. Here, Gille reflects upon her expe­ri­ences of the war and its after­math, her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and the process of com­ing to terms with her child­hood mem­o­ries and the com­plex­i­ties of her mother’s past. Notably, The Mirador was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished four years before Gille’s death and twelve years before the pub­li­ca­tion of Suite Française. For this rea­son, amidst the pletho­ra of recent bio­graph­i­cal and crit­i­cal mate­r­i­al that has been released about Némirovsky, it is a tes­ta­ment to the last­ing effect of the writ­ing that both Némirovsky and Gille left behind.

Discussion Questions

pro­vid­ed by New York Review Books

1. The French word mirador” lit­er­al­ly means a watch­tow­er. Hav­ing read the book, what sig­nif­i­cance do you think this title takes on? 

2. Gille begins her mother’s sto­ry with the birth of her daugh­ter; she imag­ines Némirovsky think­ing of her own moth­er dur­ing this time, mak­ing a sin­gle, small mater­nal ges­ture [p. 12]. Why does Gille start the sto­ry this way? 

3. How would you char­ac­ter­ize Irène as a child? Did you find her to be a believ­able child? Why or why not? What about a like­able one? 

4. Through­out the book, start­ing on page 25, Gille takes lit­tle breaks from the mem­o­ries she imag­ines for her moth­er in order to inter­ject with small moments from her own per­son­al his­to­ry. Why? Why are they writ­ten in a removed reg­is­ter — third-per­son accounts of the child” — while the rest of the book is writ­ten in an inti­mate first per­son? In what ways do Gille’s child­hood and her mother’s align? In what ways do they diverge?

5. Dis­cuss Irène’s doll inci­dent [p. 50]. Why is she so offend­ed by this gift from her par­ents? That my grand­fa­ther, with whom I had spent so many hearty hours among men,’ in places for­bid­den to chil­dren and espe­cial­ly to lit­tle girls, and, even worse, that my father, whom I con­stant­ly sought to impress with my pre­co­cious obser­va­tions, could have been so blind, was tru­ly intol­er­a­ble,” she laments. Why does she feel more com­fort­able with men, and in male spaces? 

6. How are Irène’s par­ents depict­ed in the nov­el? Giv­en Irène’s high esteem for her intel­lec­tu­al father, and dis­dain for her mother’s shal­low­ness, does it seem sur­pris­ing these two peo­ple could have a hap­py mar­riage? Do you think Gille’s own com­pli­cat­ed feel­ings about her grand­moth­er — who refused to accept her and her sis­ter as grand­daugh­ters even after they sur­vived the Holo­caust — play into her char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the woman? Did you feel any sym­pa­thy towards her? 

7. Chap­ter 6 begins with a strik­ing state­ment — Because of the Bol­she­viks, I nev­er cel­e­brat­ed my fif­teenth birth­day” — and through­out the book, Gille focus­es on how the quo­tid­i­an details of her mother’s life were affect­ed by the his­toric events through which she lived. Does the char­ac­ter of Irène, as imag­ined by Gille, have the self-aware­ness to real­ize that her con­cerns about, for exam­ple, her fif­teenth birth­day, might seem pet­ty when sit­u­at­ed in the grand scope of his­to­ry? Does Gille? 

8. Why does Gille choose to write her mother’s mem­oirs in two parts — the first set in Novem­ber 1929 and the sec­ond in June 1942? What is she able to accom­plish using this divi­sion that she wouldn’t have if she had writ­ten the book straight through? At the out­set of Part II, Irène con­fess­es to mak­ing the mis­take of reread­ing the rub­bish I wrote at the age of twen­ty-six” [p. 147]. Why this dis­dain for her ear­li­er words? Is it warranted? 

9. Class plays an impor­tant role in the nov­el; Irène grows up in very lux­u­ri­ous sur­round­ings. The Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion is per­son­al to her, since the rise of the Bol­she­viks could mean the dis­man­tling of her fam­i­ly for­tune. She isn’t afraid of the Nazis until it’s too late, in part because she so strong­ly iden­ti­fies as a mem­ber of Parisian soci­ety. Is Irène blind­ed by her own social class? How might the book be dif­fer­ent if she had grown up mid­dle-class, or a peasant? 

10. Irène’s uneasy rela­tion­ship with her Jew­ish her­itage is estab­lished ear­ly on: In short, the Jews of the low­er dis­trict scared me and made me uncom­fort­able,” she writes [p. 30]. Lat­er, she express­es sym­pa­thy for the Gestapo sol­diers in her neigh­bor­hood: I feel sor­ry for these young men” [p. 180]. Why doesn’t Irène iden­ti­fy with her her­itage? Would things have been eas­i­er for Irène and her chil­dren if she had felt more Jew­ish? Might she have tak­en mea­sures to pro­tect her fam­i­ly against the Nazis? 

11. In Feb­ru­ary 1939… I decid­ed to be bap­tized,” explains Irène [p. 204]. Did you read this deci­sion as a cow­ard­ly one (renounc­ing her fam­i­ly her­itage), a brave one (attempt­ing to pro­tect her fam­i­ly), or some com­bi­na­tion of both? Why doesn’t she do it ear­li­er? Would it have mattered? 

12. Gille writes in her acknowl­edge­ments: This book was imag­ined on the basis of oth­er books. First­ly, those of my moth­er, Irène Némirovsky… I add that though this book has been dreamed,’ the let­ters and all cita­tions by Irène Némirovsky come from unpub­lished notes, and are authen­tic. A few of her phras­es have also slipped, like marks of love, into my writ­ing” [p. 221 – 3]. After study­ing her mother’s books, pho­tographs, and notes, Gille wrote The Mirador; how close do you think the events and emo­tions it describes actu­al­ly come to the real­i­ty of Irène’s life? Do you think Gille is fair in her depic­tion of her mother?