Thursday, March 16, 2017

Writing until the End by Jody Casella

This picture shows a segment of a manuscript.

It was the draft of what was meant to be a novel in five parts, an ambitious project about how ordinary people live during times of war. It was modeled on  Tolstoy's War and Peace. The author was a thirty-nine year old woman named Irene Nemirovsky. She'd grown up in Russia, the daughter of wealthy Jewish parents. During the Russian Revolution, her family lost everything and fled to Paris.

Nemirovsky went to school at the Sorbonne. She became a bestselling French novelist in her 20's. Two of her novels were made into films. She married and had two little girls and kept writing novels and short stories. During the 1930's, because she and her husband didn't consider themselves religious or political, and because they were wealthy and thought of themselves as French, and anyway, Irene Nemirovsky was famous!-- they ignored the rising anti-Semitism in Europe.

When France fell to the Germans at the beginning of World War II, they moved from Paris to the countryside, and here, Nemirovsky worked feverishly on her next novel.

She kept a diary while she worked, recording her ideas for the project, which was becoming more and more complex. The diary is filled with pages of character sketches, plot points, ideas about structure and possibly using a musical score as a framework for telling the story.

She'd nearly completed two of the five sections by April, 1942, writing in her diary:

"I must create something great and stop wondering if there is any point."

And in June: 

"Never forget that the war will be over and that the entire historical side will fade away. Try to create as much as possible: things, debates... that will interest people in 1952 or 2052. Reread Tolstoy. Inimitable descriptions but not historical. Insist on that."

And later in the summer:

"Starting to worry about the shape this novel will have when finished!"

She wrote her last entry on July 11, 1942. It was, characteristically, a list of things she needed to work on in her manuscript, descriptions of scenes she planned to write, a note about what was at the core of the novel she envisioned:

To sum up: struggle between personal destiny and collective destiny... which all in all would correspond to my deepest convictions. What lives on:

1. Our humble day-to-day lives
2. Art
3. God

Two days later, she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she died within a few weeks.

Her husband was arrested and gassed shortly after and their daughters went into hiding with their nanny. The older daughter, who was eleven at the time of her mother's capture and murder, put the manuscript in a suitcase and kept it with her for the remainder of the war, and thinking it was her mother's journal and would be too painful to read, did not open the suitcase for five-five years.

In the late 1990's, she found in the suitcase, in addition to her mother's notes and journals, a manuscript, the first two segments of a novel. The book was published in France as Suite Francaise in 2004 and eventually translated into 38 languages.

I read this book last week in the comfort of my living room. Each night after I finished my day's writing, I curled up on my recliner and fell into a story about refugees escaping a war zone. Families loading their precious belongings into their cars. A middle aged couple searching for their soldier son. A wealthy man irked that he has to pack up his art. A little girl worried over her pet cat. A man stealing a can of petrol from a sleeping couple. A priest killed by his orphaned charges. A woman hiding a wanted man from soldiers.

I came to the end and read the copies of Irene Nemirovsky's notes. Her diary entries. The lists of story plans. The obsession over a manuscript that I know will never be finished.

I don't know why we do what we do-- why some of us hurt each other, why some of us save each other, why some of us attempt to record it all.

We will never finish, any of us, everything we planned to do. Still, if we are lucky, we keep going, right up to the very end.


  1. In Truth & Beauty, Ann Patchett notes that she was terrified of dying while writing her first novel, because she said nobody finishes unpublished novels and gets them out into the world. I think we all have that fear.
    And of course, it is intensified when the wolf is actually at the door.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    1. It's hard to imagine writing under this kind of pressure. But then the process itself, at times like this, is what saves you-- or at least saves you until the end.

  2. Thank you for writing about Irene Nemirovsky, Jody, and for keeping her writing and memory alive. I'm going to read Suite Francaise. Unfortunately her work is still very relevant to recent events.

  3. Devastating. I'll have to keep this woman's story in mind when I'm feeling too tired or too frightened or too anything to keep working.

    1. I have the same thought. Must write, NOW, while we have the time.

  4. Amazing post, particularly in light of today's world.

  5. What a beautiful and poignant post. So glad you shared it.