The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter

New York Review Books  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.

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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?

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