Irène Némirovsky 25 years old, 1928

In 2005, I was for­tu­nate enough to be select­ed to trans­late Irène Némirovsky’s mas­ter­piece, Suite Française into Eng­lish, which was pub­lished world­wide in 2006. Fol­low­ing its suc­cess, I also trans­lat­ed eleven of her oth­er nov­els, writ­ten between 1929 and 1942 before she was deport­ed and mur­dered at Auschwitz.

Over the ten years I worked on Némirovsky’s books, I learned a great deal about her life — the his­to­ry of the times in which she wrote, her per­spec­tive on liv­ing in Rus­sia as the daugh­ter of a wealthy banker, and then her time in France as a state­less Jew.” I was also extreme­ly for­tu­nate to have become close to her one sur­viv­ing daugh­ter, Denise Epstein. I trav­elled with Denise, serv­ing as her inter­preter at inter­views and many oth­er events from 2006 until her death in 2013. To many, Némirovsky was a great writer whose life had been trag­i­cal­ly cut short, but to Denise, Irène was sim­ply her moth­er. Denise gave me insight into their life as a fam­i­ly that I could not have come to under­stand otherwise.

Many bio­graph­i­cal ele­ments appear in Némirovsky’s works and The Prodi­gal Child is no excep­tion. Némirovsky wrote it in 1923, when she was only twen­ty years old, but it was not pub­lished until 1927. While it is clear­ly an ear­ly work that exper­i­ments with insert­ing clas­si­cal ele­ments into the nar­ra­tive, it is fas­ci­nat­ing to see how she man­ages to inter­twine ref­er­ences to so many dif­fer­ent genres.

The sto­ry has an alle­gor­i­cal and bib­li­cal style, and also works as a type of fable. The sym­bol­ism is obvi­ous (and meant to be). The title reminds us of the bib­li­cal sto­ry of The Prodi­gal Son.” The pro­tag­o­nist is named Ismaël Baruch. Ismaël is the French name for Ish­mael, the first son of Abra­ham and his hand­maid­en Hagar, who were cast out when Sarah gave birth to Isaac; they wan­dered through the desert and Ish­mael is cred­it­ed with being a prophet — if not the founder — of Islam, while Abra­ham and Isaac car­ried on the line of Judaism.

The protagonist’s last name, Baruch, is the Hebrew word for Blessed,” and most Hebrew prayers begin with Baruch atah Adon­ai” (Blessed are you our God).

So the nov­el begins with a para­dox: the pro­tag­o­nist is both blessed and cast out, and this theme con­tin­ues through­out the work.

At the start of the sto­ry, Némirovsky describes the abject pover­ty of the poor Jews liv­ing in a large port town on the Black Sea at the turn of the twen­ti­eth century:

[The] fam­i­ly grew larg­er every year, for chil­dren mul­ti­plied like insects in the Jew­ish quar­ter. They grew up in the streets. They begged, argued, swore at passers-by, rolled around half-naked in the mud, ate veg­etable peel­ings, stole, threw rocks at dogs, fought, filled the street with an ungod­ly clam­or that nev­er ceased. The Baruchs had four­teen of them. As soon as they were old enough, they left for the port, where they did all sorts of odd jobs: they helped the long­shore­men and porters, sold water­mel­ons they’d stolen, begged for alms, and pros­pered like the rats that scur­ried around the old boats along the coast.

Once in the clutch­es of the town or the sea, such chil­dren rarely returned home; many of them left on the large ships loaded with cere­al and grains, head­ed for Europe.

At the begin­ning of this sto­ry, Ismaël is the only child left.

Ismaël’s bless­ing” is his gift for com­pos­ing poet­ry and songs, which also reminds us of the Orpheus legend:

His inspi­ra­tion is com­plete­ly nat­ur­al, instinc­tive, and the nov­el thus deals with the con­cepts of cre­ativ­i­ty and inspi­ra­tion as well: Ish­mael con­tin­ued singing, and his heart grew lighter, lighter with­in his chest, like a bird about to take flight. And a strange clar­i­ty filled his mind, the kind of clar­i­ty that exhil­a­ra­tion or delir­i­um some­times brings.… Nev­er did the boy think about the words in advance: they came to life in him like mys­te­ri­ous birds to whom he only need­ed to give a lit­tle nudge, and the music that accom­pa­nied those words came just as naturally.

In many of Némirovsky’s works, she draws on the music and fables from her Jew­ish back­ground, and her pro­tag­o­nist here does the same.

Ismaël earns mon­ey by going to bars where he com­pos­es and per­forms impromp­tu poems and songs. One evening, a noble­man hears him and is entranced. He intro­duces him to his lover, who Ismaël calls the Princess. She takes him to live with her, pay­ing his fam­i­ly (who are delight­ed) and pro­vid­ing him with wealth and atten­tion. He is a young ado­les­cent and falls in love with her, which brings in the fairy-tale ele­ment. But unlike tra­di­tion­al fairy tales with hap­py end­ings, things begin to go wrong.

Ismaël has lost his gift. He reads the great Russ­ian authors and finds him­self extreme­ly lack­ing com­pared to them. After many long months, the Princess sum­mons him, and his father comes to bring him to her. His father remarks that he has cut off his peyos, the tra­di­tion­al long curls that obser­vant Jew­ish boys always have — anoth­er sym­bol­ic ref­er­ence to Sam­son and Delilah.

I don’t want to give away the whole sto­ry, but I will say that it is def­i­nite­ly worth reading!

San­dra Smith was born and raised in New York City. As an under­grad­u­ate, she spent one year study­ing at the Sor­bonne and fell in love with Paris. Imme­di­ate­ly after fin­ish­ing her BA, she was accept­ed to do a Mas­ter’s Degree at New York Uni­ver­si­ty, in con­junc­tion with the Sor­bonne, and so lived in Paris for anoth­er year. After com­plet­ing her MA, she moved to Cam­bridge, where she began super­vis­ing in 20th Cen­tu­ry French Lit­er­a­ture, Mod­ern French Dra­ma and Trans­la­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty. Soon after­wards, she was accept­ed to study for a PhD at Clare Col­lege, research­ing the Sur­re­al­ist The­atre in France between the two World Wars. San­dra Smith taught French Lit­er­a­ture and Lan­guage at Robin­son Col­lege, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge for many years and has been a guest lec­tur­er and pro­fes­sor at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, Har­vard and Sarah Lawrence College.