When Irène Némirovsky’s unfinished novel Suite Française appeared for the first time in English in 2006, critics and readers greeted it as a revelation. They marveled at how the author managed to create a penetrating, irony-tinged tale about the tumultuous events she was simultaneously experiencing in her own life during the German occupation of France in World War II. In the minds of many, the fact that Némirovsky, a Jew, was ultimately arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942, elevated the interrupted novel to the same level of prophetic poignancy as The Diary of Anne Frank.
That impression, New Republic senior editor Ruth Franklin writes, persists only because “very few readers in our day know anything about Irène Némirovsky.” What makes Suite Française so astounding, Franklin asserts, is not that it resided undiscovered in notebooks held by Némirovsky’s daughter for 60 years, but that its publication “posthumously capped the career of a writer who made her name by trafficking in the most sordid anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
Némirovsky was born in Kyiv in 1903 and raised in an enclave of wealthy Russians, mostly by her French governess. The family spoke French at home, and reportedly never practiced Judaism. According to Franklin, Kyiv’s Jews, many of whom lived in a poor neighborhood on the banks of the Dnieper, repulsed Némirovsky; she described their children in a late novel as “swarming vermin.” After World War I, the Némirovskys moved to Paris, where Irène’s anti-Semitic writings were to achieve immense popular success. Her most notable early novel was David Golder (1929)—“an appalling book by any standard,” Franklin writes—in which “all the . . . primary characters are Jewish, and all are despicable.” She went on to publish novels and many short stories in Gringoire, a weekly that, Franklin says, “became notorious during the 1930s for its harsh anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant editorials.”
Némirovsky’s defenders say her novels and stories merely reflect the historical context in which they are set, and she defended herself against contemporary accusations of anti-Semitism by saying of her Jewish characters, “That is the way I saw them.”
To Franklin, two things give the lie to this defense. One is that David Golder is no isolated instance. As a recent biography by Jonathan Weiss makes clear, Franklin reports, “Némirovsky was the very definition of a self-hating Jew.” The second damning bit of evidence is a personal letter Némirovsky wrote in September 1940 to Marshal Henri Pétain, leader of the collaborationist Vichy France government. “I cannot believe, Sir,” she wrote, “that no distinction is made between the undesirable and the honorable foreigners”—clearly placing herself in the latter camp. Her plea for exemption from the mounting anti-Jewish strictures was ignored, and publishers began rejecting her writings. After her arrest in July 1942, her husband, Michel Epstein, argued in a it seems . . . unjust and illogical to me that the Germans would imprison a woman who, though originally Jewish, has no sympathy, and all her books show this, . . . for Judaism.”
Suite Française, Franklin argues, “was not just a chronicle; Némirovsky saw it also as a form of revenge” against the country that had abandoned her. The sympathetic portraits of many of the German characters in the novel clearly reflect the author’s own feelings. But though numerous critics have admired her unflinching depictions of the French, forced by small steps into full collaboration with their conquerors, many readers have also noted, Franklin says, that “there are no Jewish characters in Suite Française.” The ironic detachment Némirovsky employed to such devastating effect against the French may have required too great an effort to encompass her own situation, that of a relentlessly anti-Semitic Jew crushed by cultural prejudices her writings helped perpetuate.
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The Source: "Scandale Française" by Ruth Franklin, in The New Republic, January 30, 2008.
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