Némirovsky was born Irina Lvivna Nemirovska (Ukrainian: Іри́на Львівна Неми́ровська) in 1903 in Kiev, Ukraine, then in the Russian Empire, the daughter of banker Léon (Lev) Némirovsky. Her volatile and unhappy relationship with her mother became the heart of many of her novels.
Her family fled the Russian Empire at the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, spending a year in Finland in 1918 and then settling in Paris, where Némirovsky attended the Sorbonne and began writing when she was 18 years old.
In 1926, Némirovsky married Michel Epstein, a banker, and had two daughters: Denise, born in 1929; and Élisabeth, in 1937.
In 1929, she published David Golder, the story of a Jewish banker unable to please his troubled daughter, which was an immediate success, and was adapted to the big screen by Julien Duvivier in 1930, with Harry Baur as David Golder. In 1930 her novel Le Bal, the story of a mistreated daughter and the revenge of a teenager, became a play and a movie.
The David Golder manuscript was sent by post to the Grasset publisher with a Poste restante address and signed Epstein. H. Muller, a reader for Grasset immediately tried to find the author but couldn't get hold of him/her. Grasset put an ad in the newspapers hoping to find the author, but the author was busy: she was having her first child, Denise. When Némirovsky finally showed up as the author of David Golder, the unverified story is that the publisher was surprised that such a young woman was able to write such a powerful book.
Although she was widely recognized as a major author – even by some anti-Semitic writers like Robert Brasillach – French citizenship was denied to the Némirovskys in 1938.
Némirovsky was of Ukrainian-Jewish origin, but was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in 1939 and wrote in Candide and Gringoire, two magazines with ultra-nationalist tendencies. After the war started, Gringoire was the only magazine that continued to publish her work, thus "guarantee[ing] Némirovsky's family some desperately needed income."
By 1940, Némirovsky's husband was unable to continue working at the bank – and Némirovsky's books could no longer be published – because of their Jewish ancestry. Upon the Nazis' approach to Paris, they fled with their two daughters to the village of Issy-l'Evêque (the Némirovskys initially sent them to live with their nanny's family in Burgundy while staying on in Paris themselves; they had already lost their Russian home and refused to lose their home in France), where Némirovsky was required to wear the Yellow star.
On 13 July 1942, Némirovsky (then 39) was arrested as a "stateless person of Jewish descent" by policemen employed by Vichy France. As she was being taken away, she told her daughters, "I am going on a journey now." She was brought to a convoy assembly camp at Pithiviers and on 17 July 1942, together with 928 other Jewish deportees, transported to German concentration camp Auschwitz. Upon her arrival there two days later, her forearm was marked with an identification number. She died a month later of typhus. On 6 November 1942 her husband, Michel Epstein, was sent to Auschwitz and immediately sent to the gas chambers.
Némirovsky is now best known as the author of the unfinished Suite Française (Denoël, France, 2004, ISBN 2-207-25645-6; translation by Sandra Smith, Knopf, 2006, ISBN 1-4000-4473-1), two novellas portraying life in France between 4 June 1940 and 1 July 1941, the period during which the Nazis occupied Paris. These works are considered remarkable because they were written during the actual period itself, and yet are the product of considered reflection, rather than just a journal of events, as might be expected considering the personal turmoil experienced by the author at the time.
Némirovsky's older daughter, Denise, kept the notebook containing the manuscript for Suite Française for fifty years without reading it, thinking it was a journal or diary of her mother's, which would be too painful to read. In the late 1990s, however, she made arrangements to donate her mother's papers to a French archive and decided to examine the notebook first. Upon discovering what it contained, she instead had it published in France, where it became a bestseller in 2004. It has since been translated into 38 languages and as of 2008 has sold 2.5 million copies.
The original manuscript has been given to the Institut mémoires de l'édition contemporaine (IMEC), and the novel has won the Prix Renaudot – the first time the prize has been awarded posthumously.
Némirovsky's surviving notes sketch a general outline of a story arc that was intended to include the two existing novellas, as well as three more to take place later during the war and at its end. She wrote that the rest of the work was "in limbo, and what limbo! It's really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens."
In a January 2006 interview with the BBC, her daughter, Denise, said, "For me, the greatest joy is knowing that the book is being read. It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life. It shows that the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her. It is not vengeance, but it is a victory."
Several reviewers and commentators have raised questions regarding Némirovsky's conversion to Catholicism, her generally negative depiction of Jews in her writing and her use of ultra-nationalist publications to provide for her family. A criticism of her work by Ruth Franklin was published in The New Republic and stated that:
Némirovsky was the very definition of a self-hating Jew. Does that sound too strong? Well, here is a Jewish writer who owed her success in France entre deux guerres in no small measure to her ability to pander to the forces of reaction, to the fascist right. Némirovsky's stories of corrupt Jews – some of them even have hooked noses, no less! – appeared in right-wing periodicals and won her the friendship of her editors, many of whom held positions of power in extreme-right political circles. When the racial laws in 1940 and 1941 cut off her ability to publish, she turned to those connections to seek special favors for herself, and even went so far as to write a personal plea to Marshal Pétain.
Myriam Anissimov's introduction to the French edition of Suite Française describes Némirovsky as a "self-hating Jew," due to the fact that Némirovsky's own situation as a Jew in France is not at all seen in the work. The paragraph was omitted from the English edition.
A long article in The Jewish Quarterly argued that there had been an "abdication of critical responsibility in exchange for the more sensational copy to be had from Némirovsky’s biography" by most reviewers in the British press.
In 2007 another novel by Némirovsky was published, after a complete manuscript was found in her archives by two French biographers. Chaleur du sang – translated to English by Sandra Smith as Fire in the Blood – is a tale of country folk in a Burgundy village, based on Issy-l'Évêque where Némirovsky and her family found temporary refuge whilst hiding from the Nazis.
Works published during the author's lifeL'Enfant génial (Éditions Fayard, 1927), was renamed by the publisher L'enfant prodige in 1992 with the approval of Némirovsky's daughters, because the French term génial had become a teenager word like awesome and sounded funny.
David Golder (Éditions Grasset, 1929) (translation by Sylvia Stuart published 1930; new translation by Sandra Smith published 2007)
Le Bal (Éditions Grasset, 1930)
Le malentendu (Éditions Fayard, 1930)
Les Mouches d'automne (Éditions Grasset, 1931)
L'Affaire Courilof (Éditions Grasset, 1933)
Le Pion sur l'échiquier (Éditions Albin Michel, 1934)
Films parlés (Éditions Nouvelle Revue Française, 1934)
Le Vin de solitude (Éditions Albin Michel, 1935) (republished as "The Wine of Solitude" 2012, Vintage Books)
Jézabel (Éditions Albin Michel, 1936) [translation by Barre Dunbar published in the U.S. as A Modern Jezebel by Henry Holt & Co., 1937; new translation by Sandra Smith published 2012, Vintage Books)
La Proie (Éditions Albin Michel, 1938)
Deux (Éditions Albin Michel, 1939)
Le maître des âmes (Revue Gringoire, 1939, published as weekly episodes)
Les Chiens et les loups (Éditions Albin Michel, 1940)
La Vie de Tchekhov (Éditions Albin Michel, 1946)
Les Biens de ce monde (Éditions Albin Michel, 1947) (English translation published in 2011 by Vintage, translated as All Our Worldly Goods)
Les Feux de l'automne (Éditions Albin Michel, 1957)
Dimanche (short stories) (Éditions Stock, 2000) (English translation published in 2010 by Persephone Books)
Destinées et autres nouvelles (Éditions Sables, 2004)
Suite française (Éditions Denoël, 2004) Winner of the Renaudot prize 2004. English translation by Sandra Smith published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus, 2004, and in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Le maître des âmes (Éditions Denoël, 2005)
Chaleur du sang (Éditions Denoël, 2007), English translation by Sandra Smith Fire in the Blood (Chatto & Windus, 2007, ISBN 9780701181833)
Le Bal (2009) – composed by Oscar Strasnoy, adapted by Matthew Jocelyn, premiered in 2010 at the Hamburg Opera House, Germany.
A biography of Némirovsky was published in 2006. The book, Irene Nemirovsky: Her Life And Works was written by Jonathan Weiss.