A sensation and a mystery of the literary world during Germany's occupation of France. Who was Irène Némirovsky and what were her thoughts on race, especially Judaism? Was it a true recantation Judaism and adoption of Catholicism or was it a clever ploy to protect her family. Made no difference for she died at Auschwitz.
"Assessing Jewish Identity of Author Killed by Nazis"
April 26th, 2010
The New York Times
April 26th, 2010
The New York Times
The first novel of Irène Némirovsky’s that most people read was the last one she wrote. Némirovsky, the Russian Jewish author, died at Auschwitz in 1942 at 39 after completing two parts of a five-part novel titled “Suite Française.” Secreted away in a trunk carried by Némirovsky’s daughters, Denise and Elizabeth, as they escaped from German-occupied France, the manuscript was not published for more than 60 years. It received stunning reviews that simultaneously announced the discovery and loss of an enormous talent.
Némirovsky’s personal story contains plenty of drama, including the desperate, heart-rending attempts by her husband, Michel Epstein, to save her. He too died at Auschwitz. But along with the belated publication came charges from a handful of critics that Némirovsky, killed because she was a Jew, was herself an anti-Semite who courted extreme right-wing friends and wrote ugly caricatured portraits of Jews.
Next month a new biography, “The Life of Irène Némirovsky: Author of Suite Française,” and a collection of her short stories are being published for the first time in English in the United States, giving Americans another opportunity to assess Némirovsky’s life and work.
The biographers, Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, who are French and have already received enthusiastic reviews in France and Britain, had access to a trove of untapped letters, journals, archives and personal remembrances that fill in gaps about Némirovsky’s life. They even unearthed an unknown short story and said they believe there is more unpublished work yet to come, including a radio play discovered just weeks ago.
As for the most incendiary charges, they unequivocally reject them. “The one word I refuse to hear is ‘anti-Semitism,’ ” Mr. Philipponnat said, speaking in English by phone from Paris.
What motivated Némirovsky, Mr. Philipponnat and Mr. Lienhardt argue, were deep and complex feelings about her Russian-Jewish bourgeois background, shtetl Jews and, in particular, an overwhelming loathing for her mother, Anna. Vain and snobbish, Anna Némirovsky had numerous affairs and saw her daughter as an albatross, obstructing her seductions and attempts to conceal her real age. “It seems clear that this child had not been wanted,” they write.
More shocking was Denise Némirovsky’s tale, reported in The Sunday Times of London in 2007, that when she and her sister showed up at her grandmother’s door after the war, she refused to open it, shouting “If you’re orphans, go to the orphanage.”
Charges of anti-Semitism first surfaced in 1929 after Némirovsky’s novel “David Golder” was published. Némirovsky, who said she was repeatedly playing out the relationship with her mother in her fiction, based the characters loosely on her family. She was 26 at time — the same age as Philip Roth when he wrote “Goodbye, Columbus,” a book that also earned its author the label of a “self-hating Jew.”
David Golder is a greedy and crude Jewish banker with a long hooked nose and a grasping wife. The novel, tagged as both a “masterpiece” and anti-Semitic, aroused fierce sentiments from people on the left and right, from Jews and non-Jews in France, which Némirovsky, who wrote in French, considered her true spiritual home since settling there in 1919. Némirovsky rejected the accusations. When a reporter from a Zionist newspaper showed up at her home, she said: “I’m accused of anti-Semitism? Come now, that’s absurd! For I’m Jewish myself and say so to anyone prepared to listen!”
But Jewish enemies were making use of her characters, the reporter persisted.
“Nevertheless, that’s the way I saw them,” she replied.
To Mr. Philipponnat and Mr. Lienhardt critics then and now have given the book a myopic reading. Calling it a depiction of a social milieu, they ask, “Had ‘David Golder’ been written in 2009 by Bernard Madoff’s daughter, who would dream of accusing her of anti-Semitic views?”
In 1935 Némirovsky pointed out how different the political climate was when she wrote the novel. “It is absolutely certain that had there been Hitler, I would have greatly softened ‘David Golder,’ and I would not have written it in the same way,” she said. “And yet I would have been wrong, it would have been a weakness unworthy of a real writer!”
The charges of anti-Semitism that resurfaced in Israel and the United States when “David Golder” was reissued and translated into English, have been polarizing. Jonathan Weiss, the author of a 2005 biography, “Irene Némirovsky: Her Life and Works,” wrote in an e-mail message that because Némirovsky’s critics used quotations from his book, he was inaccurately classified as someone who condemned her attitudes toward Jews, gaining him the enmity of her family. Mr. Weiss, who started his research in the 1990s, did not have access to the cache of personal writings or the family recollections made available to Mr. Philipponnat and Mr. Lienhardt.
The authors, who knew Némirovsky’s work, approached a publisher about writing her biography in 2004, about two months before “Suite Française” first appeared. “When we presented the project, their first reaction was not to publish it because she was totally forgotten,” Mr. Philipponnat said. He and Mr. Lienhardt had previously collaborated on a biography of Roger Stéphane, a founder of the French newspaper L’Observateur. Denise Epstein, Némirovsky’s daughter, liked their treatment of Mr. Stéphane’s Jewishness, Mr. Philipponnat said, and so “decided to give us all the archives as she could and her memories too.”
Némirovsky wrote at least 50 short stories and 15 novels, including “Suite Française.” That book barely mentions Jews. The two parts capture the chaotic escape of French civilians from the German Army in 1940 and present a sympathetic portrait of a billeted German soldier. In the thick of the maelstrom she was describing, Némirovsky wrote, “I’m working on burning lava.”
Some of the 10 stories written between 1934 and 1942 and published in the new collection, “Dimanche and Other Stories,” came from that same molten pit.
In “Monsieur Rose,” written after the invasion, Némirovsky seems to be trying out characters and scenes for the exodus of French civilians depicted in “Suite Française.”
“Fraternité” (“Brotherhood”) will undoubtedly surface in the debate over Némirovsky’s Jewish identity. The protagonist, Christian Rabinovitch, was based on a Jewish journalist, Pierre Loewel, Mr. Philipponnat said, yet there are several autobiographical details as well, like the reference to ancestors in Odessa, the city where Némirovsky’s parents met, and her oft-repeated wish that she had been born in France.
Christian is a prosperous second-generation Frenchman, who notes that his “excessively long and pointed” nose and dry lips seemingly “parched by a thousand-year-old thirst” are “the only specifically Jewish traits I’ve kept.” At a train station he meets a poor, disheveled Jew from Russia with the same last name, possibly a relation from generations back.
After Christian departs from this shtetl doppelgänger, she writes, “Was it possible that he was of the same flesh and blood as that man?”
“Impossible, grotesque! There’s an abyss, a gulf between us!” Christian says, unsuccessfully trying to reassure himself that “he was a rich French bourgeois, pure and simple!”
In hindsight the story, written in 1936 but rejected by her publisher, seems both strangely prescient and unaware.
“Never, never can we settle!” the Jewish Rabinovitch bemoans. As soon as the Jews do, “there’s a war, a revolution, a pogrom or something else and it’s goodbye! ‘Pack your bags, clear off.’ ”
Némirovsky and Epstein, of course, did not clear off after the German invasion — a choice that still angers her daughter Denise. Since 1935 the couple had been trying to gain French citizenship, and in 1939 they converted to Roman Catholicism. Distancing her family from the lower-class Jews of Eastern Europe, Némirovsky considered herself a “respectable” not an “unwanted foreigner,” as she wrote Marshal Pétain, the head of the Vichy government in 1940 — in other words, a “French bourgeois, pure and simple.”
But as Mr. Philipponnat and Mr. Lienhardt write in their final chapter, from the day the gendarmes arrested her, Irène Némirovsky “ceased to be a novelist, a mother, a wife, a Russian, a Frenchwoman: she was just a Jewess.”
Irène Némirovsky [Wikipedia]
Irène Némirovsky [Dedicated website]