Was Irène Némirovsky, the author of the much praised novel Suite Française an anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew? That’s the charge that has been leveled by some critics ever since the 2007 publication here in England of her 1929 novel David Golder, her most popular and acclaimed novel of the day. Her harshly drawn tale of a rich Jewish businessman includes a description of his nose, “enormous and hooked, the nose of an old Jewish moneylender” and supposedly tribal traits like Golder’s “obsessive Jewish fear of death.”
The debate has become more interesting, and more nuanced with the release of 10 stories never before published in English, Dimanche and Other Stories (Persephone Books), and the English release of a new biography, The Life of Irène Némirovsky (Chatto & Windus), by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt. In this new biography, the authors work hard to argue that it was Nemirovsky’s remarkably harsh childhood—an unloving mother, a father whose fortunes swung wildly from poverty to wealth through pogroms in Odessa and the Russian Revolution--rather than self-loathing or prejudice that shaped her fictional characters.
By now English-speaking readers are probably familiar with the story of how Némirovsky, a Russian-born Jew, was arrested in France and sent to Auschwitz, where she died, before finishing Suite Française, a novel about Parisians fleeing the German army. The manuscript, written in her tiny handwriting, was discovered 50 years later by her daughter, who carried it with her for years unopened in a suitcase, believing it was merely a notebook—not a novel—of her mother’s. It was published first in France in 2004 and then in English in 2006.
The English edition of the novel was made even more poignant by an appendix that includes desperate letters from her husband Michel Epstein to French and German officials pleading for his wife’s liberation. (He himself was arrested less than three months after his wife in 1942 and was among those gassed at Auschwitz). And the marketing of the book was closely tied to the story of Némirovsky’s tragic end as a Jew at the hand of the Nazis. Since her other works had not yet been translated into English, most American and English readers were unaware of her unflattering portraits of Jewish characters.
In fact, they were even more in the dark than French readers on this score. What readers of the English translation of Suite Française did not see were two pages from the original preface to the French edition in which Myriam Anissimov, a French Jewish novelist and biographer of Primo Levi, discusses Némirovsky’s antipathy toward Jews. The passage, which was deleted from the English translation, includes sentences like this “What self-hatred she reveals in her writing! She has taken on board the idea that Jews belong to a different less worthy ‘Jewish race’ and that their exterior signs are easily recognizable … frizzy hair, hooked noses, moist palms, swarthy complexions … puny bodies ...” And Anissimov quotes from Némirovsky's novel Les Chiens et Les Loups (The Dogs and the Wolves), which had not yet been translated into English, to back up this charge.
There are no Jewish characters in Suite Française. So some British critics were shocked by the way Némirovsky portrays her protagonist David Golder, a Jew born into poverty on the Black Sea who becomes fabulously wealthy by speculating in oil and gold.
Writing in the Evening Standard, Norman Lebrecht said David Golder “clings to the subconscious like spit to a prisoner’s cheek, an affront to human decency.” Anita Brookner in The Spectator described David Golder as a “surprisingly harsh novel.”
Némirovsky converted to Catholicism and baptized her children (whether in an attempt to attain French citizenship and rescue her family or because of a genuine change in faith is unclear), and she published stories in some openly anti-Semitic journals. But, as the biography makes clear, most of these periodicals became increasingly anti-Semitic after she had begun her association with them, and she was often desperate for the money they provided to support her family. As her daughter, Denise Epstein, pointed out in an interview in 2008, the literary sections of anti-Semitic Gringoire, and other “vile” periodicals where Némirovsky published several of her stories, often bore little relationship to the political pages. Even as Gringoire published anti-Semitic tirades, its literary section continued to carry literary works by such prominent Jews as Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig.
Still, the assertion of Némirovsky’s husband, in a pleading letter to the German ambassador, that his wife had “no sympathy whatsoever” for Judaism struck some readers as proof of her anti-Semitism.
Yet anyone who has read Suite Française, with its portrait of well-heeled Parisians fleeing a soon-to-be occupied Paris, will not be surprised by the mostly unsympathetic portrait she paints of people of privilege in her other works of fiction. In Némirovsky’s world vision, human character, when tested by crisis, often turns out to be deeply flawed.
For me, the most memorable passage of Suite Française is the scene where the Parisian housewife Madame Pericand, stopping with her family in a small town crowded with other refugees on their flight from Paris, congratulates herself on her generosity in sharing food with another mother—though only after she has carefully checked to make sure this woman comes from the same bourgeois class as herself. In that spirit of momentary generosity, Mme Pericand lectures her children, saying they, too, should also share their lollipops with the family’s less fortunate children, as they have been taught in their catechism. But later that day, when Mme Pericand discovers there is no more food in the shops, she suddenly leaps on her children as they share their candies, grabbing them away and scolding them. “Christian charity, the compassion of centuries of civilization, fell from her like useless ornaments, revealing her bare soul,” Némirovsky writes.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Némirovsky turns a similarly pitiless gaze on members of her own tribe. In this new biography, the authors argue that she wrote simply of what she knew—a class of rich Jewish speculators. The biographers spring to her defense: “Had David Golder been written in 2009 by Bernard Madoff’s daughter, who would dream of accusing her of anti Semitic views?” they ask.
Her unsympathetic portrait of vain self-absorbed Jewish mothers, they argue, was the legacy of an extremely unhappy childhood. Irène’s mother, who took lovers throughout her marriage, viewed her daughter, and later her granddaughters, as unpleasant reminders that her own beauty and youth had vanished. Shockingly, she told her young granddaughters after they appeared at her door after the war, “If you’re orphans, go to the orphanage,” Denise Epstein remembered in a Sunday Times account in 2007.
Writing of the total absence of love from her mother in her growing up, Irène said “You do not forgive your childhood.”
How accurate are the charges of anti-Semitism? In a recent interview with the New York Times, biographer Philipponat insisted, “The one word I refuse to hear is ‘anti-Semitism.’”
Yet this may be a case of a biographer who doth protest too much. Reading Dimanche and Other Stories, Jewish stereotypes of the time leap off the page. There is nothing so dated as a racial stereotype that was prevalent a few decades ago but has now withered from cultural parlance. It appears that Némirovsky simply absorbed many of them as everyday truths that fit in with her portrayals of her characters.
I was struck, for example, by the 1930s stereotype, foreign to us now, of outlandishly large Jewish ears, which appears in her 1935 story “Brotherhood.” It reminded me that this trait also crops up in Farewell to Leicester Square, a novel written by the British Jewish novelist Betty Miller about an English Jew trying to make it in the British upper middle classes. In “Brotherhood,” an assimilated well-to-do French Jew meets an impoverished Eastern European Jewish immigrant on a train platform, bearing the same last name, Rabinovitch. The poor Jew both disgusts him and reminds him of long-buried similarities. The immigrant’s grandson has “big ears,” curved like French horns, Némirovsky writes. The story’s final scene has the assimilated Jew, significantly named Christian, “surreptitiously” covering his ears as he is met at the train station by the aristocratic Frenchman into whose family his son is about to marry.
In “Brotherhood,” Christian describes “my nose, my mouth the only specifically Jewish traits I’ve kept” and lips parched by “a thousand year-old thirst … an affliction passed on from one generation to the next.” Repelled by his poorer double, Christian tries to dismiss any resemblance with the poor Jew, who attempts to engage him in Yiddish. But as his train moves on he finds himself “swaying forwards and backwards … in a slow strange rhythm … which has soothed earlier generations of rabbis over the Holy Book, moneychangers over their gold coins, tailors over their workbenches.” The idea that all these traditional Jewish occupations are somehow embedded racially in the praying rocking movement known as davening fits in with the belief Némirovsky still seemed to hold at the time that Jews were a race sharing physical and behavioral characteristics.
Persephone Books has arranged these stories in chronological order of publication from 1934 to 1941 with an informative afterword placing each story in the context of Némirovsky’s life. The first stories are about the French bourgeoisie. Published between 1934 and 1937, they were part of the author’s attempt to reach a wider French audience by diverging from the Jewish and Russian characters around which her stories revolved early in her career. The later stories reflect an increasing consciousness of her abridged rights as a Jew living in Vichy France and her growing fearfulness of her ultimate fate.
As with her other work, It is hard to find a sympathetic character in any of these stories. In the title story, “Dimanche” (Sunday) a bourgeois mother with an unfaithful husband realizes her youthful daughter is in love. Her sole reaction—jealousy-- is one that would have been typical of Irène’s self-absorbed mother Fanny. In “Those Happy Shores,” a properly raised young woman of the bourgeoisie congratulates herself for making momentary conversation with a poor French prostitute, then disdainfully ignores her when accompanied later on by her friends.
The portraits of two well-to-do porcelain collectors, in “Monsieur Rose” and “The Onlooker,” show “the limits of sympathy” of the detached bourgeoisie as they are threatened by the oncoming war, in the words of the publisher. Both protagonists became the models for characters in Suite Française, which Némirovsky began to write in November 1940. The “Onlooker” seems almost like a revenge fantasy for Némirovsky. A rich art collector leaves Paris, throwing pitying glances behind him, just as the non-aggression pact between Russia and Germany is announced in 1939, threatening war in France as a near-certainty. Safely ensconced on a neutral ship headed for America, this cosmopolitan citizen of a South American country wonders idly what it would be like to be trapped in a war, but is mainly “disappointed to think he won’t see Cannes this year.” Suddenly his neutral ship is unexpectedly attacked by submarine torpedoes, breaking in on his comfortable, self-satisfied existence. He finds himself in a lifeboat with Jewish children, who were headed for an orphanage in Uruguay. It appears unlikely he’ll survive. His reaction is typically narcissistic—indignation that he should be in danger, then a slow realization of the fate approaching
“Now it was his turn… This was no longer about a … Central European Jew or those poor charming Frenchman but about him …” And in a prescient sentence about the travelers on the supposedly neutral ship, she writes, “They did not understand that it was this passivity, this silent acquiescence, that would, when the time came, also deliver them up to a strong merciless hand.”
The biographers make the case that Némirovsky’s portrayal of Jewish characters evolved in sophistication beyond the cruder stereotypes she presented early in her career. Early on, they cite the “grotesque caricatures that cannot fail to make one wince” in her first novel, Le Malentendu (The Misunderstood), begun in 1924 but not published in book form until 1930. In the novel, Jews possess characteristics like “an almost unseemly nose and filthy grey beard.” Her biographers argue that these clichés borrowed from French literature were “stylistic accessories… one of the ingredients of French wit that she envied.” And copied as a young French emigre. By the time of David Golder, the biographers found evidence she was attempting to tone down her Jewish stereotypes. In her hand-written French manuscript, she struck out a reference on the first page to the “pale and nimble Jewish hands” of Golder’s business partner.
Nevertheless David Golder played into the hands both of anti-Semites and those who thought it a realistic portrayal. Golder’s wife Gloria covets jewelry “like a barbarian idol,” while his materialistic daughter Joyce cares only for “old Dad’s wallet.”
“Only a Jewess could write such a terrible and such a perceptive indictment of the Jewish passion for wealth,” one French writer commented at the time.
The Jewish press was distressed by the portrayals in David Golder. “But did you know that our enemies are making use of your characters?” asked Nina Gourfinkel, who interviewed Némirovsky for L’Univers Israélite. At the time, Némirovsky responded to these criticisms that she had simply written about these people “the way I saw them.”
Her biographers argue that she was portraying a social milieu more than a race. And that both Golder and his wife were modeled closely on her own parents. Like Némirovsky’s parents, the fictional David and Gloria are driven not by a craving for gold but “by the threatening memory of their poverty,” Philipponnat and Lienhard argue. In much the same way, they recount, Irène’s mother developed an irrational miserliness. She economized on butter and sugar, and developed an obsession with bodily cleanliness after living through the anti-Semitic pogroms that impoverished the Jewish quarters of Odessa and reduced them to squalid slums.
In response to questions about how her mother could have adopted such negative racial stereotypes of Jews, Denise Epstein had this to say in a 2008 interview for a volume (Woman of Letters, 2008) accompanying an exhibition about her mother at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. “I think she wanted to immerse herself in the French bourgeoisie because she admired it and she thought people were happier if they led a balanced, calm, sensible life …” After escaping impoverished Jewish ghettos, anti-Semitic pogroms and the Russian revolution, the placid life of the Parisian bourgeoisie did indeed feel like heaven, the biography indicates. So her notebook reveals her bitter disillusionment with the French-- a progression from the “sincere and slightly mocking tenderness” with which she told herself she portrayed her French characters in 1940 “hatred and scorn” by 1942 --when she made this note for Captivity, the projected third section of Suite Française that she was unable to finish before she was sent to the camps. “For the French, freedom was like an old wife whose charms had faded. She has just died: they are inconsolable.”
The sense that Jews are continually escaping to places they can never really call home is expressed most tragically in “Brotherhood.”. The assimilated Frenchman Christian finds himself waking in the middle of the night with an inexplicable fear that “everything would be taken away from him,” reminiscent of the fears Némirovsky herself held of arrest, and of the increasing difficulty in earning a living from her writing as editors refused to publish works by a Jewish writer. (Many of her last pieces were published under a pseudonym.)
In June of 1942 she noted in her personal notebook “other anxieties such as the threat of concentration camps and the Statut des Juifs, etc.” Most poignant was the letter she sent to Julie Dumot, a former associate of her father's, asking her to take charge of her two small daughters if anything should happen to their mother and father. “When the money is used up, start by selling the fur coats that you will find in our suitcases… There is also some silverware. Sell it after the furs and before the jewelry. Finally in the very last extreme, there will be the manuscript of a novel,which I may not have time to finish and which is called Tempête en juin.” (This “Storm in June” would become Part I of Suite Française.)
In “Brotherhood” there’s a sense of a tortured history that has made the Jews what they are. But even more, there’s a destiny that’s part of their “flesh and blood”—a favorite phrase for Némirovsky. The poor Jew describes the historic oppression: “Never, never can we settle! No sooner have we achieved by the sweat of our brows a bit of stale bread, four walls … than there’s a war, a revolution, a pogrom, or something else, and its goodbye! ‘Pack your bags, clear off.’”
By contrast, for Christian Rabinovitch, the product of several generations of Jews supposedly at home in France, his worry is “his race”—the immovable obstacle he sees to his son being happy if he goes ahead with his plan to marry a French aristocrat’s daughter. In the story, his racial heritage produces a palpable physical, even genetic feeling of illness. What makes him feel ill, he thinks, is “Centuries of misery, sickness, and oppression … millions of poor, feeble, tired bones have gone toward creating mine.”
If Némirovsky had second thoughts about the way she drew her Jewish characters, they were also marked by the ambivalence of a woman who took pride in her past writings. In an interview in 1935, six years after David Golder’s publication, Némirovsky said, “Had there been Hitler, I would have greatly softened David Golder. And yet,” she added, in a comment that showed her attachment to the character she had created, “I would have been wrong, it would have been a weakness unworthy of a real writer.” In this interview, she defended even the positive aspects of her portrayal in racial terms: “[I]t’s something I’m proud of, I’ve depicted genuinely racial virtues: courage, tenacity, pride—yes indeed in its better sense—in a word, ‘guts.’” By early 1938, after attending a production of the play David Golder based on her novel, she commented, “How could I have written something like that? … The climate has changed a great deal.”
In another early novella Le Bal, (The Ball) about a family of German-Jewish nouveau riche Jews, a young girl takes revenge on her grasping, social-climbing mother. Destroying the invitations to a party intended to cement her parents’ social status, the daughter succeeds in producing the ultimate humiliation for her mother—a deserted, lavishly catered ball at which none of the exalted guests appear.
After reading the English translation (Vintage, 2007), I tend to agree with the Jewish journalist of the time, Nina Gourfinkel, who could find in Le Bal “not a jot of kindliness, no pity” from an author with a “dispassionately cruel talent.”
With Suite Française, Némirovsky demonstrated her maturing talent as a novelist. As readers, we experience the flight from Paris practically contemporaneously with events, though once again there are almost no sympathetic characters. (The exceptions include a modest couple the Michauds, bank employees abandoned by their bosses in the flight from Paris. Their circumstances were similar to that of Némirovsky’s husband Michel Epstein, a bank employee who also lost his job. Her notes indicate that she wanted the Michauds to represent “intelligence, common sense and honor.”)
It appears that Némirovsky herself realized that lack of compassion in her writing was a weakness, one she might have corrected had she lived long enough to complete her projected masterpiece Suite Française. In her notes to the contemplated third section, “Captivity,” she advised herself to display the human qualities arising from the “panic of war … first of all cowardice,” a human flaw frequently portrayed in her fiction, including this new collection of stories. Then she added, almost as a reprimand to herself, “But let’s be charitable.”
In these notes, Némirovsky frequently cites Tolstoy as the paragon of great novel-writing. Part of Tolstoy’s greatness lay in his ability to make even the most unlikable characters sympathetic (think of Karenin in Anna Karenina after his wife has left him). Némirovsky was starting to recognize that quality in Tolstoy as one that she herself needed to cultivate as a writer, her notebook indicates. “What’s needed here is serenity,” she told herself, a quality she explicitly attributed to Tolstoy but found difficult for herself “when there’s so little of it in your heart.” Tolstoy, the man, had the advantage of distance from the violence of his subject, she seemed to say: “He didn’t give a damn. Yes, but, as for me, I’m working on burning hot lava… sculpting what is happening at this very moment.”